The BlackStar group on Ecademy is a network of life members who have undertaken to help each other grow over the years ahead. One of the tools that we use is called the virtual table which happens at our monthly meetings.
In essence it’s an instant, temporary mastermind group. We will have 6-8 people per table and run for about an hour and a half – this means each individual has about 12-15 minutes to bring an issue to the table in turn and they get the benefit of the experience and tough love of the others for that time.
Why is it so effective?
Well one of the main problems of running a small business is that you get parochial in your thinking. It’s not that you’re not open to new ideas but that you don’t get exposed to them often enough. And you get stuck on a particular issue because you can’t see the wood for the trees.
At a virtual table you are confronted by a jury of your peers. They run different businesses from you, have different track records and expertise and most important they have different personalities to you. So some people have long attention spans and some don’t. Some people like the big picture – other focus on the detail. The group as a whole is quick to identify and articulate your own confusion so it can be played back to you and you can collectively start to resolve it.
In case that sounds a bit abstract, let’s talk about what happened to me last time. I have 2 separate sides to my business. I do a lot of research and training material development of how small companies actually do e-business for larger organisations that want to understand or reach small businesses – government departments, Universities and IT companies basically. Then I package it up into workshops and training materials for small businesses positioned as marketing rather than IT because that’s what the small company owner managers are interested in.
Small Company Growth
However I know a lot of stuff about how small companies grow – what should they be tracking to demonstrate the growth of value in the business. My question to the group was about how to promote this.
However in doing the preamble I became confronted by a lot of “get to the point”, “I’ve no time for marketing people who can’t explain what they do” “ask your customers what they really value about what you do for them” etc etc.
This of course is why I stick with doing marketing things for small companies in the first place because it’s easy to articulate and everyone knows what it is. What the experience of the virtual table does is give you a lot of information about how your potential market sees you. I know that to a lot of this group I come across as being too complicated. The interesting thing is that I actually get most of my referred work by my ability to HANDLE complication based on my track record of having run small business for it feels like forever and being able to integrate a lot of disparate stuff into something with a beginning, a middle and an end.
What the interaction with the group tells me is that I haven’t got a presentation issue at all – I have a market segmentation issue. I’m right to stick to selling marketing products to SMEs because the real value I can doesn’t fit within the attention span of many of them. And I should just use one of my other sites to explain what I do to those who are prepared to listen. I only need a few consultancy projects a year to make my numbers after all.
But I should follow a lot of the suggestions made – like ask my customers what THEY think I add to the party – it’s probably quite different from what I think and I should definitely look at getting other people to do the bits that they can do for me and I should just focus on what only I can do – which is probably less of it than I think – after all I’m writing recipe books as it is.
The power of the virtual table is that the gang won’t pull their punches and they force you to think in detail about what you’re doing and where you could be doing it better. It’s invaluable – you can’t get this anywhere else because business support agencies only give you 1 to 1. This is 6 to one and as the song goes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And the advantage of a “home” mastermind group is that it’s composed of random individuals who you know a bit but not well and it’s a different group every time.
So over the course of a year you and your business could be critiqued by 72 people – all running businesses of their own. How powerful is that?
I hope I’ve managed to get across some of the flavour of what it’s like. You don’t need to be a member of our group to do it – but you might consider how you could organise something like this in your life.
Copyright Dr Alan Rae 2007