Lessons learned 2005-2007

This article, written by Abelone Glahn, one of the founders of Mikronet, was included in the GEM anthology 2007. (Growth-Entrepreneurship in Denmark 2007 – studied via Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. ed. Thomas Scott, University of Southern Denmark) published by Børsens Forlag.
This translation and synopsis by Helen Martin

The Mikronet Network consists of ca. 350 free-lancers, independent entrepreneurs and micro-businesses. The Network is run by volunteers; membership is free. Mikronet functions as a collection point online for various groups and by a very active weblog.

The Network originated in the former Storstrom’s Amt, but now has members from all over Denmark. In 2005, the Network arranged Denmark’s first trans-disciplinary meeting for freelancers and micro-businesses, and has since held several physical meetings

The Network has achieved to attract a surprisingly high number of mature, independent and highly educated people to an outlying area, and strengthens the individual business owners’ ability to grow in network constellations and with competing colleagues “Coopetitioners ” arrangements.

The particular strength of the network is its conspicuous presence on the internet, and Mikronet recommends that, in future, establishers of entrepreneur networks cultivate online networks, and ensure training of the person responsible for managing the network.

From teeny to Micro
At the beginning of 2003, 11 freelancers gathered in a small self managing network to exchange experience and ideas – representatives of consulting, music, acting and data-handling. The meetings eventually became a fruitful exchange of ideas and support in an area where independent businesses are associated with practical trades. Eventually a few of the group thought that these positive experiences should be shared with other freelances and micros – a group which shows continuing growth in Denmark.

This was the birth of the Mikronet Network. Although initially intended to cover Storstom’s Amt, it had to expand to cover the whole county due to great media attention and demand from other micros. The Network was initially funded by various EU and State grants, as well as by various Danish firms, but is now running on a volunteer basis, and a tiny income such as provided by Goole leads on the home pages. Membership of Mikronet is free.

Aims of the Project
To strengthen and increase independent knowledge-based business through effective knowledge and experience exchange in the network. Also to place focus on (the former) Storstrom Amt, now a part of Region Sealand, and to increase settlement in the region.

Background for the Network
An investigation (Rambøll Management 2001) has estimated that ca 163,000 people work as independent entrepreneurs in Denmark, and that they represent a growth area.

Characteristic of them all is that they are in the grey zone between being employed and independent, in that they work project based and on timelines; work for several clients; are geographically independent, and do not (or only rarely) have employees.

These are mature, highly educated people who leave paid employment with a special skill they wish to exploit fully as an independent:-

• Data handling
• Research and development
• Legal, accountancy and book keeping
• Conducting polls and market analysis
• Consultancy, particularly within management
• Organisation and personal development
• Cultural development
• Consulting engineers, architects etc
• Advertising and market development
• Tourism and leisure time
• Media and acting as intermediaries

A few definitions are required:
Micro business (Micros) – according to the EU, a business with 0-9 employees.
This article uses ‘Micros’ to cover Independents, freelancers, free agents, free birds, one-man bands, atypically employed and the third group.

“Coopetitioner” is derived from ‘competitor’ and ‘co-operating colleague’. A Coopetitionership is a professional collaboration between two people who can be considered competitors, but who decide to act as colleagues though without forgetting the competitive element.

Growth in Micros
It is very difficult to clearly define growth in micros particularly seen in context of traditional businesses, but here are some considerations.
Many micros do not want to ‘grow’ they are content to be independent and survive. Some do show the traditional growth and expansion, but the majority elect to grow through networks, coopetitionership and in effectiveness. Micros do not necessarily grow, but create growth for their clients.

Daily running
The network has (July 2011) 545 members all registered in the database. Mikronet’s newsletter is sent to more than 900.
The network is primarily run over the Internet, with is one large online group of almost 300 members (July 2011), and 8 smaller groups which (in some instances) also meet physically.

The other significant focal point is a very active common blog where at present 5 members take turn to write about their daily life with relevance for other independents. The blog which has an amazingly large number of readers, including some based outside of Denmark, is clearly part of creating an identity for a group which does not otherwise have a natural meeting place.
The administration of the Network is handled by 3 members. It has neither office nor a telephone, but is ‘run’ from the member’s private addresses.

Searchable network
During the first year, a network of independent micros was planned, consolidated and expanded. The network helps in supporting micros which are often isolated and lack someone to spar with. A database where the members can be found on the net, where they can find potential collaborating partners and also clients who are seeking help with projects was set up. And the network is also growing because the individual members act as ambassadors for the network.

Conference makes history
Having established the database the next step was to hold a skill developing conference for micros and to help establish self-managing subgroups.

The conference took place September 2005 where 200 participants met for 3 days.

Some comments from the participants:

I think this was one of the really good experiences which will put zap into the lives and careers for many of those who were there. Most inspiring, confirming. Visionary, perspective right! Extremely well organised and carried out. Well chosen workshops. Vigorous and fun, togetherness”.

“Congratulations on a super-good arrangement and 100 thanks for a lovely conference this week-end! Personally I am going home with more than I dared expect. One definite job, two enquiries on training/consulting projects and a handful of promising contacts with collaboration potential, and additionally loads of inspiration and a truly great experience in total –what more can one demand?”

“I have been to several conferences, workshops etc, but your arrangement this week-end is absolutely amongst the best I have experienced”:

It would require too much space to go into details of the conference, but history was written when 200 participants from all sorts of disciplines and trade unions gathered for a professional programme. Apart from the professional and work oriented focus on points relating to micros, it proved invaluable to meet physically with people in a similar situation. With hindsight, the arrangers of the conference can see that this – meeting with others in the same position – has been one of the most valuable benefits. Reports of projects tackled by 2 or 3 micros who met during the conference are regularly received, and comments that the conference helped to break the isolation which many micros can feel as a threat.

The subgroups which were formed should run on a ‘what can’t survive must die’ principle. One of the subgroups has become an independent business: Speaker’s Net, a group of 16 speakers and educators.

Other physical activities
Based on the 2005 conference two smaller events were held in 2006. One covering the relevant ‘etiquette’ of group behaviour on the Internet, and an extremely popular one on how to ‘sell’ oneself. Arrangements have also covered physical visits to other network groups. A mini-conference was also held, again with a high professional level and time for the important social contact.

Mikronet also planned to establish a network of Mentors for micros, but had to cancel due to too few applicants. Lack of funding prevented further activities although these were requested.

Online activity
Great effort has been placed on being present online, as we have concluded that the virtual presence is incredibly important, not least because it creates a feeling of ‘belonging’.

An online forum independent of the homepage has been established. This forum is open to all who define themselves micros or free-lancers. There are 250 members at present, a reasonable activity and exchange of experience e.g. we report on courses, exchange tips re. Fees etc. A ‘market’ platform where members offer each other services of a more commercial character has been established. The network also draws on the members to review relevant books.

The Network wanted to contact other nationalities through the homepages, so have written an English welcome and have additionally involved an English-language blog writer.

October 2007 saw the launch of a much requested overview of networks. Many starter-ups and micros enquire about relevant networks, and Mikronet has now taken the initiative to create a wiki over Danish networks. (www.netwiki.dk).

The on-line dialogue has proven to be the best method of maintaining the continuity, enabling exchange of experiences and contactThe netwok blog was lauched on the 1st September 2006. mainly written in Danish, but also with some Englsh language entries. All who wish to comment are able to do so, and non-Danish readers link to our entries.

The blog has lacked funds to market the Network in the traditional manner, but from the network alone has reached a very high number of readers. Precisely 1 year after launch it had had 112.000 visitors, of these 48.000 unique hits. The blog has a daily readership of ca 2-300 which is very good for a nicheblog which is not also trying to sell something. Surprisingly, the most read entries are those written in English, and comments are received from English readers. RSS subscription to the site (free) and the opportunity to photoblog is in place. The web log has proven to be a far greater bomus than expected, partly because it fulfils the desire to participate without necessarily having to contribute. It is important to mention that many of the network travelling outside of Denmark have met someone who knows of us through Mikronet’s English language blogger, who has the ability to write so it is read internationally.

Additionally, we have created a learning situation in that we have managed to teach a series of people how to blog. For example at exhibitions and micro conferences people have had a go at blogging as ‘guests’, and those who are given the chance to blog for Mikronet.

Country-wide significance
Even at the launch of the Mikronet network it was apparent that that we had hold of something of interest both locally and outside our region. We have therefore made our knowledge available for many who contacted us and asked how we did it. We have also been invited to talk about Mikronet half a score of times at more organised sessions – exhibitions, arrangement aimed at new micros etc.

This country-wide interest is due to the fact that we have focused on areas of problems for Micros common across disciplines, and letting cross-pollination take place.

We can also see that the network now is accepted as active and interesting collaborators. Mikronet has been represented on Conferences focused on start-up micros both in 2006 and 2007. We have also been invited to speak about the experiences of this network as others have wanted to copy the idea.

As a generalisation – Mikronet is different from other organisations by being a network that is founded from the base (rather than a top-down approach) and which builds on volunteering, passion and social contacts. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage, but the advantages clearly win. Mikronet functions as an intermediary in a series of investigations which attempt to place focus on what growth-factor micros represent for Denmark and of what success for a micro actually consist.

Mikronet indirectly influenced by a larger non-fiction publisher (Børsen Forlag) into taking the initiative to establish a series of books directly aimed at micros – Børsens Mikro.

International Interest
Rumours of this untraditional attempt at collecting this type of business and of our conference spread widely. Even before the conference we were contacted by a university professor from Singapore who was interested in using the conference for part of his research. The results are now part of a greater research into micro entrepreneurs and networks.

Germany, Norway and Sweden have shown interest, and Mikronet has been represented in these countries. For example, we have contact with “Business Regionen Gøteborg and their “Tillväxt Mikro”, Tilväxt Mikro employs 90 who all are engaged in creating growth through micros!

Experiences garnered through preparing the project
The biggest difficulties have been funding. Simply because Mikronet is an unconventional group, not organised and ‘establishment’ as the established grant-providing organisations are familiar with. This has in particular been the case when seeking funding from the EU. We had to create a formal ‘society’ just to be seen as a legal unit, and have found (like many others) that the administrative burdens are extremely exhausting simply because we are not geared in the same manner as more established societies, businesses and training centres.

To sum up- if you are going to be in a similar position – be prepared for much more administration than would appear reasonable.

Great Local support and understanding
Many of in particular the regional sponsors have shown positive action. Subsequently there was great support from Banks, Funds, trade unions, un-employment funds, the local polytechnic and a few private firms. So, locally there was an understanding of this ‘odd’ group which also represents a huge potential in an outlying area like Storstoms Amt and which can attract new resourceful inhabitants.

There is no doubt that Mikronet have placed both micros and the region on the map. The fact that the arrangers are part of the target group has been invaluable. Mention of the project and the frequent comments on what has been learnt via Mikronet come from Mikronetters and that is in reality more valuable that a single newspaper article.

Participants – profile
In 2007 we organised an evaluation by electronic questionnaire and some follow-up by phone, by an impartial firm. Here are a few of the results:

• Half of the micro who participated in the investigation have a turnover of less than 200.00,00 DKK ( 26,825 €). Ca 12% has a turnover of more than 700.000 DKK annually.

• 70% consider themselves to be a full time occupation and 30% as an occupation – micros do not see themselves as ‘hobbyists’

• 13% have employees and are 33 % indirectly employs – people bought in to help with e.g. bookkeeping, marketing or directly as s subcontractors.

• Unusually, there are more women (57%) than men (43%) represented in the investigation.

• The majority (55%) consider themselves as independent businesses, the rest see themselves as consultants, free-lancers, micros, free-agents (in the sequence listed).

• 84% of the businesses have a higher educated person at the top. Only 11% have a technical education and very few are without a saleable skill. Mikronet deliberately set out to reach businesses with knowledge based background.

• 67% are aged 41-60. In relation to the population of the employable age in the country this is a skewed distribution. Mikronet thus appears to attract adult well-educated people. This is of particular interest for an out-lying area.

Benefits of the Network
For ca. three-fifths of the members, joining Mikronet has primarily been to gain new knowledge, and to share experience with others. One fifth sought new partners; only slightly over 15% had increased growth as the prime motive.

Looking at some of the themes or topics which have been brought up in various Mikronet connections:

– 53% has to a significant degree or to a certain degree become less worried about working with competitors.

– 52% has found their self-confidence as independent micros strengthened,

– 49% have become better at marketing their skills.

Another dimension of gain could be that the businesses have begun to be involved in economically binding collaborations, gained new clients or joined more micro-oriented networks.

Between 1-7% have to a significant degree entered into new collaborations, gained new clients, while 2-17% have to a certain degree Trust in advice and experience from other micros is vastly greater than trust in private advice, advice given by public start-up organisations and banks. It is positive that the trust is so great within the Mikronet framework. It seems likely that it is the project activities which have assisted in breaking down the perception of other micros as competitors and instead perceive them as “Coopetitioners”.

The research was not intended to directly evaluate the impact of the physical meetings held but it is apparent that there is a clear need for more conferences and meetings with relevant topics for Micros.

Success criteria for a micro business
– Mikronet gathers adult, well educated freelancers and independents in a cross-disciplinary network
– Unfamiliarity about micros is still widespread, but beginning to change
– We are a continually growing number of people who place great value on being able to make own decisions, and on being catalysts for growth.
– We are not ‘hobbyists’
– We are not all equally naïve or wet behind the ears.
– We are interested in growth, but not measured by the traditional parameters.
– We create workplaces

A certain amount of benchmarking between the micros is taking place and we consider it very significant that there are role models in the network which help to give others energy.

A small group (12) has additionally been interviewed in depth (by Per Darmer, CEUS) to determine what drives micros on Lolland-Falster. The investigation is not complete, but present findings are

-It is characteristic for micros that they expand their client basis through their network (word of mouth) rather than trough conscious marketing.

-it is characteristic for micros that they to a higher degree are established to create freedom and autonomy rather than with the aim of great expansion and riches.

-Success in micros is not simply measured in terms of growth and turnover. Rather that a certain turnover is an essential basis to create and maintain the business.

-Criteria of success vary amongst the investigated businesses, but is measured to a great extent on client satisfaction and the ability to run the business and attain the autonomy which was a significant part of the reason for founding own business.

Advice about networks
Mikronet’s experience of setting up a network can be summarised in these points:

• Use existing informal fora rather than trying to form a network based on a well-meaning pressure from the top.

• Be a service function to a certain extent, but work on all taking a responsibility

• Be in front to show how one shares knowledge for the benefit for all (Push information into the network over a longer period

• Listen to needs and answer them in the form of physical meetings

• Allow space for the social element in physical meetings (Christmas lunches etc.)

• Tend the network by building an effective online section

Development of the network manager’s role
Our experience is that there are many smaller networks in Denmark, with important experience and knowledge about how to run such networks and where the problems arise.
To collect all these networks, whether they are volunteer based or linked to a professional organisation would be valuable.
This is a task that is difficult for volunteers to do, for organisational and pecuniary reasons. Our recommendation is therefore to arrange a conference for those responsible for networks so we can exchange experience and learn from each other.

Also, many who are responsible for running networks are untrained – both for the physical and virtual aspects. We therefore recommend offering a training course for these people which will enable them to run these networks more effectively. Particular attention should be paid to the management of virtual networks. Many of these function as huge on-line groups. Being a manager responsible for this sort of networks is a special task. It is particularly important to support and educate these, because many start-ups use these networks as they are independent of time and place, and one cam get immediate and impartial advice and guidance from others. It also enables searching in the collected, on the net retained memory. And, online communication is an aid to break down the isolation which many start ups can risk finding themselves in.

As we have been in the forefront with a series of the virtual initiatives and have important experiences to contribute it would be a great pleasure to be contacted of anyone who could take on these tasks.