Trying to network the nation

A Government-supported organisation is helping young entrepreneurs build confidence and share experiences
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The Independent Online

As a result, networking is a key facet of the Make Your Mark campaign that Enterprise Insight is running to promote enterprise in schools and elsewhere. "We're trying to encourage young people to set up contacts and peer support groups," adds Hill, enterprise networks project manager for Enterprise Insight.

One who has already taken this step is Heather Wilkinson, who has founded a network for young entrepreneurs as a social enterprise. The Striding Out Community Interest Company has been going for nearly a year and, while focused on young entrepreneurs in the social and creative fields, also welcomes "intrepreneurs" - people with ideas working within large companies.

It is an approach welcomed by others in the field. For example, Oli Barrett, a young entrepreneur, says it should be "about enterprise - having ideas and making things happen."

He points out that many people have ideas but are not able to take them further because they do not know what to do with them.

Networks are a way of bridging these gaps. Wilkinson agrees. "It's important for entrepreneurs to have support. I think it's all about confidence building and sharing experiences."

The distinction between modern networking and more familiar business groups is also important to Barrett, who admits that being known as a good networker does not sound particularly complimentary. Regular network gatherings can be "quite stagnant," he says, explaining why he has brought the techniques of speed-dating to the genre. "All you need is a stopwatch and a whistle," Barrett says of an approach that involves everybody in the room having to change the person they are talking to every few minutes. It takes some of the randomness out of such functions. Wilkinson is also proactive about ensuring that those attending her events get some value from the exercise. "We actively work with members to connect them and we broker deals," she says.

Where the two differ is over charging for attendance. Barrett runs events as an ancillary activity to other enterprises, including his latest venture - a subscription service for buying socks call, because he enjoys "meeting people and connecting people and ideas". He does not charge for attendance because he thinks that encourages those taking part to see it as a transaction whereas he likes to think of it as the beginning of a relationship that he or others may be able to call on in the future.

Wilkinson, on the other hand, is in the process of expanding her networking service around the country with a view to creating local communities of enterprising people. She charges £120 a year for membership, but includes a free coaching session for new members in addition to the access to two networking events a month. For an extra charge, members can also obtain one-to-one coaching.

Hill stresses that there is no "one size fits all" in this area. Already different types of networking groups have sprung up around the country and she and her colleagues at Enterprise Insight want many more. "We're trying to network the nation," she says.