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Excerpted from
Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent 
Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live
by Daniel H. Pink

Copyright 2001 by Daniel H. Pink. All rights reserved. 
Reproduced here with permission of the author.

Chapter 7 (con't)

page five of six  | previous page


            Like most business leaders, Norm Stoehr has an inner circle.  What makes Stoehr's inner circle different is that he's franchised it in six cities.  During the 1970s, Stoehr, fifty-nine, made a tidy sum running a construction business, owning restaurants, and developing real estate in Peoria, Illinois.  In 1978, then in his late thirties, he moved to Minneapolis.  "It took me two years to go broke in the restaurant business," he says.  Hoping both to rebuild his finances and to help others avoid some of' entrepreneurship's pitfalls, Stoehr began organizing seminars for fledgling businesspeople to teach them the basics of running a small operation.  As he brought these micropreneurs together, he made a surprising discovery: They initially came to the seminars to listen to him, but they continued coming to subsequent seminars to talk to each other.  And the more meetings they attended, the more their questions and concerns began moving away from the nuts and bolts of hiring and financing, and toward murkier issues like how to balance the demands of being both an entrepreneur and a parent or what to do if your business partner decides he doesn't want to be in business anymore.

            "I discovered that the single, biggest problem inherent in business ownership, entrepreneurship, and free agency is isolation," Stoehr told me one Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis's Calhoun Square.  So he began a company called Inner Circle, which brings together individual entrepreneurs from different industries to talk business strategy.  One morning a month, a dozen of them meet at a hotel for breakfast and a skull session.  Unlike in most F.A.N. Clubs, Inner Circle members pay to join: $5,600 per year.  "How does that grab you for breakfast once a month?" Stoehr chuckles.  Stoehr facilitates each session, which ,usually centers around a particular member discussing her business and seeking advice from the others.  While they're required to "be positive," Stoehr says, they also aim to make the presenter uncomfortable--to ask tough questions, to challenge her assumptions, and to make her clarify what her business is, where it's going, and how she'll get there.  Stoehr, who's now franchised Inner Circles in Baltimore, San Diego, Fargo, and Seattle, says 90 percent of Inner Circle members renew--despite the hefty price tag.  "It's an expensive breakfast, but very inexpensive strategic thinking."

            Inner Circles and its cousins are what I call entreprenetworks. They're more formal than F.A.N. Clubs and usually more expensive.  In some ways, they've become the chambers of commerce of Free Agent Nation.  Entreprenetworks are often less explicitly social than their counterparts, but they operate and succeed by nearly identical values.  "Sometimes you even get business," Stoehr says.  "That's a bad reason to join, but an outcome of the process." He bristles at calling what his members do “networking," since he believes that term has a "tarnished image." So he's redefined networking in the free agent economy: "It's being other-centered--letting go of your own agenda long enough to hook into somebody else's dream."

            Stoehr’s venture is just one variety of entreprenetwork that has emerged to serve free agents.  Some entreprenetworks are more overtly about generating new business and finding sales leads.  Yet what powers even these groups is less unbridled greed than a unique strain of free agent altruism.  Consider Le Tip, one of the largest such "business leads" groups, with 450 chapters and nine thousand members.  Its monthly meetings begin exactly at 7:16 A.m. and end by 8:31 A.m., and each attendee's task is simple: provide two sales leads to other members.  The tips are recorded by a "tipmaster," and members who fail to help others are expelled.  In entreprenetworks, it is better to give than to receive--in part because giving to others encourages them to give to you.  Reciprocity oils the gears of horizontal loyalty.  As one Le Tipper gushes in the firm's promotional video, "Where else in the world can I get over thirty people to represent my company and speak to people in the community about what I do without having to pay them?  All they want in return is for me to do the same for them." Business Network International (BNI), another lead referral organization for self-employed business owners, with more than 24,000 members nationwide, is similar.  BNI's motto is perhaps the most succinct expression of the ethic that animates these groups: "Givers gain."

            An entreprenetwork with a slightly broader mandate is the New York-based Let's Talk Business Network. (One of LTBN's founders, Larry Kesslin--himself a refugee from General Electric and Westinghouse--is quoted at the beginning of this chapter.)  LTBN began as a radio talk show and grew into an entrepreneurial support group with affiliates in Vancouver, Philadelphia, New, Jersey, and Washington, D.C.  LTBN's $1,495 membership fee entitles participants to monthly breakfasts, a library of videos and books, seminars, and a community of like-minded people.  "It would be easy enough for ire to stay in my own little virtual world, doing my own little thing with my business and not meeting other people face-to-face," says Arzeena Hamir, who runs her own Vancouver-based online organic gardening products company.  "LTBN lets me meet other business owners and get the support that's so often missing for online entrepreneurs."

            Entreprenetworks provide micropreneurs with a sales force, a team of strategic advisers, and a few dozen sympathetic ears.  And they succeed by abiding by Stoehr's notion of being other-centered.

            "Let, me tell you where the real value comes in," Stoehr told me, ]emitting forward in his chair.  "Not when somebody's giving you advice. The real 'Ah-ha!' comes about when you're sitting there as part of a group assessing the other person's issue.  It has no resemblance to yours.  And all of a sudden, you get a breakthrough thought.  Because you've emptied your mind of your own garbage to get into somebody else's, ideas can come out.  I see that over and over again.  The real value comes not when you’re working on your own deal, but when you're working on somebody else's." In Free Agent Nation, givers gain.


Page five of six | next page

Copyright 2001 by Daniel H. Pink. All rights reserved. Reproduced here
with permission of the author.


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