Nashville entrepreneurs bond over common issues

Nashville entrepreneurs bond over common issues

The Tennessean

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Entrepreneurs' Organization — an international group designed to help business owners learn from one another — traces its roots to the late 1980s. In Nashville, the EO chapter has 54 owner/members, each of whom has a company with at least $1 million a year in sales.

Chapter President Arnie Malham, 42, is a serial entrepreneur here with three businesses. Chief among those is cj Advertising, an agency that works with personal injury lawyers on ad campaigns and Web site design. Membership chairman Cullen Douglass, a wealth management adviser, also has a residential real estate development company.

Both extol the virtues of EO, which has more than 7,000 members worldwide. The idea, they say, is to help entrepreneurs cope with the headaches and challenges of corporate growth while balancing what they do for a living with the rest of their life.

"If you have a little bit of the entrepreneurial fever, this organization gives you a lot of the fever," Malham said. He and Douglass discussed what they've gained personally from EO and what makes entrepreneurs tick in an interview with Tennessean Business Editor Randy McClain.

How can new members join? What are the financial and professional requirements?

Douglass: The requirements are (1) your company must have at least $1 million in annual revenues; (2) you've got to meet with two of our board members; (3) you can't be over 50 years of age when you join; and (4) there's a financial commitment in terms of annual dues, roughly $3,000; and you have to be approved by our board.

If someone's running a business out of the trunk of their car and is trying to be entrepreneurial but doesn't have any real revenues coming in yet … our organization isn't really for them. They need more experience and exposure to the business world. If you don't have any staff or you've never dealt with payroll or leased office space, there's not much you could gain from membership. The whole idea of EO is that members share their experiences with each other, and if you don't have much experience to share just yet, it'd be premature to join our group.

Malham: There are a lot of resources out there for new business owners to get them from zero to $1 million a year in sales, but EO is about helping entrepreneurs who have already had some level of success take it to the next level.

We meet a lot, and we meet in small work groups. We call it "forum," and we have conversations in which we all share what we're going through. If I share my story about how I am dealing with having 150 employees, and the struggle to make payroll or meet my bank's requirements, it's very different from a beginner's struggle to move out of their house into their first office. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just a different conversation — and one I had eight years ago. Now, I need to talk about buying my own building versus the lease I have.

How often do EO members meet and in what formats?

Douglass: You have different layers. The first one is a social component where you have events every month or two where you can go and talk with other business owners or just hang out and learn. But it's a social occasion, and families are welcome. The second thing would be educational workshops over a lunch or in a classroom setting. We have sessions on leadership, hiring, anything you could think of that affects entrepreneurs. The third layer is "forum." It's like having your own small board of directors who don't compete with you, but who run other businesses. These groups (up to eight members) commit to meeting for three to five hours a month to hash over things in a confidential setting.

Malham: You can't stress enough the confidentiality that applies to what is discussed in forum. Groups are made up of six to eight people in each forum. It's a matter of trust. Discussions aren't just about leases, the cost of goods or picking the right vendor. Sometimes we talk about where my kids could go to school; or how someone has issues with their spouse understanding the demands of the business. We talk about work-life balance, being a better person. It's not only about profits and losses.

Why is it helpful to discuss such sensitive issues with fellow entrepreneurs?

Malham: I have 150 employees; I have a wife that loves me and I have two kids that want to hear bedtime stories at night. But none of them want to hear me complain about being an entrepreneur. So, to whom do I talk? Who are my peers? For me, EO provides that. I meet with people who are like-minded and who are going through similar experiences at work and at home. It's a chance to share and learn.

Another thing about EO that sometimes sounds unattractive to prospective members is that no one in our organization gives advice, tells you what to do. We share stories and experiences. We refrain from saying: "If I were you, I'd tell that guy. … "

We share our experiences to help members see their problems in a new light and arrive at their own conclusions. It's an amazing process.

What other labels don't apply to EO?

Malham: It isn't a political organization. It isn't a business-card trading or lead-generation type of group. In fact, it's strictly forbidden to solicit other members on business deals. It's different from a lot of other organizations out there. This organization is about improving entrepreneurial knowledge.

What are some benefits of discussing common problems with fellow entrepreneurs?

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    Every member who applies or renews their membership agrees to comply with the Policies and Procedures, Bylaws and Code of Conduct of Entrepreneurs' Organization. Current members must complete the online renewal form acknowledging review of the organization's Policies and Procedures, Bylaws and Code of Conduct.