Saturday, May 17, 2008

Fashion, Rebels and Angels

This article originally appeared in The National Networker

"I am not looking to set up a big website. Niche networks have always been the case; it's never been about big networks. It's about quality and interest to other members. Fashion is what I do, so it's very topical and it has to be relevant."

Roubi l'Roubi is the London based Haute Couture fashion designer behind, a small, active and popular social network for his friends from the creative sectors, and culture vultures from the business world.

We met through Ecademy, a mass social business network, a couple of years ago, but the future according to Roubi is niche. He now participates less on Ecademy than he did and uses LinkedIn rarely. While Roubi needs to maintain a presence on MySpace as the choice of artists, he is still very selective about its use.

In contrast to these large networks, has 260 members, with a long waiting list and Roubi doesn't want to grow it any further.

Roubi isn't alone in his belief that niche networks represent the future of social and business networking. Social networks are growing at a fast rate in the UK and elsewhere, with publications such as Business Week and The Sunday Times featuring targeted networks. In fact, The Sunday Times ran a report in March 2008 suggesting that a second internet 'boom' is on the way, one that is going to eclipse the last. A common feeling is that any boom will revolve around niche networks.

While the big networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace are gathering the plaudits and grabbing the bulk of the media attention, the growth of small networks has grown dramatically in the last year. Technology such as Ning is making it easy and accessible for people to set up their own social networks and there are many reasons why people do so.

Sean Weafer is the Irish 'r'evolutionary' behind Rebel Island. "The idea came from the fact that more and more people are rebelling against the old institutional values and ways of doing things", said Sean. "In Rebel Island, we are attracting people who are looking for new values and new ways of evolving both professionally and personally."

Sean's drive behind creating a social network is to bring together like-minded people to discuss and debate ideas that evolve individuals, leaders and organisations.

"By creating a social network, we get to synergise and leverage many brains internationally. Before the growth of this technology, it would have been so much more difficult, inefficient and expensive to do so; particularly across time zones." The efficiencies provided by the social web are a key driver for many business-focused networks. People are able to interact, learn, research, get feedback and even enter into new business relationships without leaving their homes or offices.

Scottish accountant Bill Morrow formed his social network, Angels Den, a year ago. Born out of the frustration of not being able to raise funding for his own business venture, Bill founded the site to make the connection between entrepreneurs and financiers so much easier.

"When we were looking for finance, we approached all of the usual brokers, attended countless seminars and breakfast meetings and paid several thousands of pounds for introductions to financiers and got nothing. The more we spoke to entrepreneurs, the more we became aware that it was a common problem", said Bill.

Angels Den, named after a popular BBC television show 'Dragons Den' where entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a group of successful business people, charges £499 for an entrepreneur to put their ideas in front of potential investors.

The site offers tips and help to entrepreneurs and business plans are created through a template that has been designed to get the information that angels want to see.

Bill attributes the site's initial success largely to how the network makes life so much easier for both parties. "What it does is maximise the angels' minimal resource - time. Rather than travel all over the country meeting entrepreneurs, they can log in and see the latest initiatives online.

"In the meantime, entrepreneurs have low-cost access to so many more potential investors than they have ever had and valuable feedback that helps them to hone their ideas."

It's not just the social networking that's key, a number of networks recognise the value of the content they provide and the different ways they offer members to engage.

As Rebel Island grows, Sean's plan is to create a 'Rebel Council' of thought leaders and content providers, who deliver regular insights that contribute to the evolutionary journey of the members. Future plans include webinars, special interest groups, Rebel Radio podcasts and Rebel Retreats.

Roubi sees four key components to engaging all members and drawing them back to the network. "Some people are stimulated by reading blogs, others by looking at new products. We also now have an online magazine where people can submit and read articles on a range of relevant subjects", he said.

"It all helps me keep people engaged and reinforces the Roubi brand". These three components, together with the vital, fourth component, offline networking events, helps Roubi keep his name high up in the minds of his network.

Despite the relatively small number of members and their global spread, Roubi still welcomes over 100 members to each of his events, which he sees as a testament to the value of a small, focused membership. It is also where he sees most of the business on the site generated.

"One member told me that it is the only network he is on where he has ever sold anything. I have been amazed at the amount of business that goes on. Anyone who appreciates their time will never be a member of a big network, it's just not sustainable. They all have people who are trying to flog you something, people who are spamming you.

Like Roubi, Bill also feels that, whether niche or not, online networks can't operate in isolation. "Real world events have proven to be just as valuable. We have just run a 'SpeedFunding' event, where 24 entrepreneurs met 24 angels. The entrepreneur had three minutes to pitch the angel and then the angel had one minute to ask questions. They then changed partners.

"The response to this has been phenomenal. There was a tremendous buzz and, following the first event, there were 62 further meetings in the days that followed. At this early stage, 16 out of the 24 entrepreneurs present are hopeful of securing a deal.

"It's a crazy kind of networking. It allows the Angels to meet so many people, not all whom they'd love and like. Similarly, it gives the power back to the entrepreneurs, allowing them to gauge how well they get on with the entrepreneur and whether they'd want them on board."

So, are niche networks the way forward? The three networks above are driven by individuals with a passion for what they are doing and have each, to different levels, produced some success. Their subject focus is key to this, as is the drive of the people behind them. Not all networks will be as successful.

The functionality provided by Ning is quite basic and crude. I am a member of four Ning social networks now but only visit one of them on a regular basis. They look the same, feel the same and have to fight to stand out from the pack. Perhaps it is still the case that the networks with the budget to look and feel different will be the ones that succeed, irrespective of niche.

Having said that, with so many networks fighting for less and less of our free time, it is the networks that draw you back time and again that will keep our attention. The large social networks, which have the critical mass to be talked about and referred to, will continue to grow and help people grow their network base. However, networks where you find people of a like mind, discussing the issues that are relevant to you and connecting you with the people who make a difference in your business, or your life, will perhaps draw people in more regularly.

What is clear from speaking to Sean, Roubi and Bill is that the functionality online won't do it alone. Social networks need to be constantly innovating, providing rich content and bringing members together if they are to be a key part of their members' lives.

Maybe then, we'll see another boom.

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