Solo support

Entrepreneurs who trade the work place for a home office find they can turn their competition into advisers and collaborators
The PRChix, l-r, Patricia Robitaille, Madelaine Hatch, Anita Webster, Ann Gibbon and Maureen O'Brien. Missing from photo are Mairi Campbell and Judy Rudin

Madelaine Hatch left behind the office politics when she eschewed the nine-to-five world in favour of being her own boss. Good riddance to negativity, but with it went the proverbial water cooler: camaraderie and co-workers.

"I missed the day-to-day banter, brainstorming and collaboration," Hatch said of her former employment with a Vancouver PR agency.

To fill the void, Hatch recently joined PRChix, a group of seven public relations professionals who meet monthly to support each other in their independent business ventures.

Owner of Granville Communications, with close to 30 years of experience, Hatch was a natural fit for the PR powerhouse. Each "chick" brings her expertise to the group, but all share the desire to support, motivate and inspire each other into professional success.

PR Chix co-founder Patricia Robitaille has been self-employed for 20 years. The president of PR Strategies Inc., Robitaille values the ability to maintain control of her business – hours, clients, workload – but enjoys "having colleagues without having colleagues."

The group initially formed for business support but has evolved into a team of creative and collaborative dynamos. Despite the fact that they literally "collaborate with the competition," the Chix have complete trust in one another.

The PRChix use their collective power to develop working relationships with industry.

"It's hard to call on your own and ask a well-respected journalist to go for coffee," Robitaille explained. "But as a group, we can contact media, invite them to discuss our mutual needs and develop those relationships."

Solo-preneurs might find the idea of one more obligation overwhelming given the relentless demands of operating a business. Professional networking groups and meetups offer opportunities to make connections without the commitment.

Both Hatch and Robitaille have attended networking events, but prefer their intimate network group. Besides enduring awkward conversations with strangers, they also found limited use in networking interactions that were not specific to their industry.

The PRChix augment their monthly meetings through phone calls, email and other ecommunication. They have no intention of taking their relationship online.

"Can't we just be real people?" asked Robitaille, when questioned about the value of virtual networks. "We spend so much time communicating online for work; it is a nice break to get together face to face and share. It's good to be with colleagues who understand your world so clearly."

Not everyone has the ability to meet in person, however.

Cynthia Frenette is an independent business owner who must rely on virtual connections to engage with other industry professionals – online fabric design colleagues scattered throughout North America and the United Kingdom. Frenette is the owner and designer at Green Couch Designs and offers clients graphic design and illustration services for web and blogs in addition to her unique fabric designs.

Frenette also chose entrepreneurship over office politics and workplace norms. To fill out her professional life, she tried various networking groups for entrepreneurial support, but without connection to other fabric designers, the groups never met her needs.

The specialty designer now belongs to a private Flickr community with approximately 15 active members from the fabric design industry. Access to their community is purposely exclusive and limited to personal invite from a current member.

"There's lots of positive sharing," Frenette said of the group. "We collaborate on projects and tell our war stories."

Despite members spread across continents, Frenette has found the support and creative collaboration she craved. As professionals, group members are friendly competitors, given the wide variation in their creative designs. But as with PRChix, they find having industry-specific connections invaluable to their work, whether critiquing designs, providing fresh ideas for a creative dilemma or offering support for client catastrophes.

Though Frenette's Flickr community is of the virtual variety, she considers them real colleagues in business. The group holds an annual Secret Santa event each Christmas, drawing names to exchange small gifts to celebrate the season. For Frenette, she loves the surprise of the gifts, receiving packages from all over.

Solopreneurs like Hatch, Robitaille, and Frenette have secured a balance of business independence and collegial support through their willingness to trust, and work with, the competition. Robitaille sums up her experience: "It's how to be independent without being alone."

No water cooler required. •

Five steps to successful support


•Join forces with industry-specific peers. Increase the opportunities for collaboration and sharing of resources, contacts.

•Keep the group small. Relationships and trust come easier when members know more than first names.

•Make – and keep – the commitment. Successful groups require equal participation by members despite experience levels.

•Be prepared to give and take. Each member is an asset to each other and the group as a whole.

•Celebrate successes. Prepare to be inspired and motivated by sharing in each other's victories.

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