The sky's the limit: You don't have to swagger like an Apprentice to succeed in business
Will Dean meets the co-founder of a careers network with a simple twist
What's the attitude you should adopt if you want to succeed in business in 2012? The swaggering arrogance of an Apprentice candidate? The cynical ability to screw your customers for every penny?
Er, not quite says Nadia Finer, co-founder of the women's job network More To Life Than Shoes (MTLTS).
"If you pretend to be really hard-nosed and aggressive, well it doesn't really work if that's not how you are normally. You have to be authentic and true to yourself. Business isn't like Dragons' Den – it isn't really a bunch of blokes judging you."
MTLTS is a network of 400 or so women that is rooted not in forum chat or Twitter advice, but monthly themed meet-ups and other events in which women, ranging from graduates to empty-nesters, meet up to share advice, encourage ideas and lay out goals.
Finer and her business partner Emily Nash's story ought to be on that inspires anyone with early-in-the-year hopes of making a change in their lives – whether male or female. It derived from a quintessential drinks-after-work chat about wanting to make a big career change. From that drink emerged the idea to write a book featuring the stories of women with notable careers or those who've made career swaps or created start-ups – from Martha Lane Fox to Kirsty Wark, Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti and Jo Salter, the UK's first female fighter jet pilot. That book was published last year, but the realisation dawned on them that to succeed in making this kind of move often requires a support group. Hence MTLTS.
"As I was writing the book – I thought: I'm loving this, but I still want to get to know other women who are in the same boat. So I set up More To Life Than Shoes and started my first group where I live in St Albans. The idea was to try and attract women who were thinking of starting a business or changing career and wanted to meet like-minded women. I wanted that support network – which is something you don't always get from family and friends because they're sick of hearing about it."
MTLTS meetings – which cost £5 to attend for the first time (full membership is £7 a month) see women in towns mainly in the south east – though plans for expansion are afoot – link up and talk around a different monthly scheme. February's is pricing. "Women have a bit of trouble valuing themselves in order to charge enough money for things," says Finer. "We tend to undercharge – 'Oh yeah, sure, I'll do it for a fiver'. We're like: 'What are you doing?!'"
She adds: "We're more for mutual support than how to do it. I think women get accused of being competitive quite a lot – but I don't see that. We want everyone to do well. If that happens and it works and jobs are created then it's all for the good." So why just a network for women then? "Well, there are networks for men and women but I think women struggle in some ways with confidence and creating a space and time where they can be authentic and open," argues Finer. "When you go to other meetings and networking things – it's kind of showing off. You go in and go: 'Hey everyone! I'm amazing, my business is fabulous... buy my stuff!' That's OK, but I think having an opportunity to say: 'Does anybody understand this stuff?' or: 'This isn't going quite how I planned it,' and knowing that you're going to get honest, helpful or supportive answers is really important."
One of the women who joined the first MTLTS group in St Albans is Anita Lindeman, who left her job as a part-time florist after 11 years to set up her own business, The Flower School, which teaches flower arrangement. She agrees with Nadia Finer that the key to the success of MTLTS is having a group of like-minded strangers both to bounce ideas off and to be inspired by.
"It made me think I could take the risk and do it," she says. "I saw women there who were making changes in their lives. I just said: 'Wow' – they've left their jobs and set up on their own. It was as much a mental boost as anything and they were so encouraging."
The New Year is a common time for people to reevaluate their lives and careers. And it's an equally common time for people to make grand plans and not keep to them.
But making a career leap of starting a business isn't the same as a new year resolution.
"It's not a resolution," says Finer, "because if you say: 'My resolution is to change my life...' by the 10th of January you'll have changed your mind. It's small steps. The new year is a really good time – you go back to work after Christmas and, even if your job is kind of OK, if you've got a passion for, say, making clothes – well, it doesn't mean you have to ditch your job at a really difficult time – it's more looking at the things you enjoy doing and doing a little bit of it on the side in a way that it can become something in the future.
"There doesn't need to be some dramatic change. Do a bit until you're ready. January is a very good time to start doing it."
How to break out: Nadia Finer and Emily Nash's tips for starting your own company
1. Try new things to find out what you like
It can take some people years to work out what's going to make them leap out of bed in the mornings, but it can be a fun process. It's a chance to try new stuff, notice things and meet exciting new people. Volunteer, take courses – and say "Yes".
2. Get skilled up
Bide your time and take the opportunity to learn as many new and useful skills as possible. Go on courses, learn computer programmes or languages, get qualified – by adding to your CV and your brain cells, you're getting ready for the right moment to take over the world.
3. Embrace the side project
You'll be amazed what you can get done during lunch, on the bus or instead of watching TV. We've met some remarkable women writing our book, More To Life Than Shoes: How To Kick Start Your Career and Change Your Life, who've achieved great things whilst working full time – especially Preethi Nair, who wrote her bestselling novel during her long commute. So, start planning a new business, get started on your blog or do an evening class – embrace the "side hustle".
4. Break it down
We're not saying you need to jack in your job, move country or rent premises... well, not right away. Once you know what you want to do, break it into smaller steps and just take the first of them. Do research, apply for courses – these aren't scary things when you start out small, but they'll make things happen.
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