Why I closed the WU Business Clubs

For the last few years I have believed whole heartedly in the premise that if you risk nothing you gain nothing. Putting stuff out there and asking other people to buy it can be hard. Very hard.  It’s exposing. It’s challenging. It’s scary as hell sometimes. But without taking that chance, without taking that step… you will never know whether something is going to work or even be worthwhile.  I’m sharing this part of our journey with you because I think it’s important to share the lessons as well as the successes.

I’m not afraid of failure. I realised early on in business, that not everything is going to be an awesome success and while I wasn’t thrilled about it, I knew it was part of the journey. But that doesn’t mean that dealing with failure is easy. And honestly, I don’t feel that the business clubs were a failure, because I know that there were loads of women who made amazing shifts in their businesses by coming along to the meetings. Connections were made that will last a lifetime. And great things have come about from applying the strategies and techniques that we shared in the members area and at the meetings.

St. Albans club
St. Albans Club

I think we did a lot of things right but I definitely made some mistakes along the way. I am incredibly grateful for all the wonderful support that I had along the way and the fantastic women who helped to create the clubs in their local area. I personally have built connections and relationships that I will cherish for a long time.

I want to share the story and the journey of the business clubs with you, as I know there will be some of you that are very curious about what happened, but also I think there are lots of lessons that might be of use to you; particularly for anyone that is struggling with the idea of closing something down or removing a product, you know that you are not alone.

So, here is my story and I hope you find the lessons useful –

The Women’s Business Clubs, a national networking group with over 70 clubs around the UK went into receivership in April 2013 and I was offered the opportunity to bid for the members list and email list for the network. And I had 18 hours to make the decision as the offers were going to closed bids at 12:00 noon the following day.

I had been running our business club meetings very successfully at the British Library for the previous 2 years and we regularly had 36-40 women attending every month.  But it was a big leap of faith to go from running one meeting by myself to taking on a group that had the potential to be a ready made network.

When I was first considering the idea, the thought of taking it on made me feel sick. I was practically hyperventilating every time I thought about it. But the thought of not doing it felt crazy. How could I possibly pass up such an incredible opportunity? Talk about taking me out of my comfort zone! Over the next 12 hours I fought with myself back and forth and eventually decided to put in the bid. The opportunity was too good to miss.

So I swallowed my fear and put in my bid. I knew there were others in the mix and it was a best and final offers scenario. So I just had to wait another 24 hours to hear the answer.

It was a no.

Another organisation had put in a higher bid and bought the members list and the email list. What surprised me was that rather than feeling relief; I felt deflated. I had made the mental leap to think much bigger, pushed through my fear, decided I wanted it and now I couldn’t put it back in the box. I couldn’t let go of this desire to build and create a national network of meetings for business women.

I felt the fear and swallowed it

So where to next? I quickly made the decision that we should create the Women Unlimited Business Clubs and launch around the country.

But there were challenges.

The meetings that I had been running at the library were very ‘how to’ focused. I did an hours training on a business topic like content marketing, twitter, how to use linked in and that was then followed by a mini-mastermind session, where we split the participants into groups of 4 and each person at the table would share a challenge and get feedback on their business or an idea.

It was an incredibly empowering format and the buzz in the room was fantastic.

I realise now, that part of the power of the model was that people showed up because they wanted to be there and to learn about the topic and they left feeling energised and wanting to come back because of the brainstorming. We had no problem filling the room, because the women who came along knew they would get great value in the training, but they also felt part of a community and connected with the other women in the room. Our repeat visitor levels were extremely high.

Translating the model from one to many

But the big question was, how do I translate that into a model that can be rolled out across the country where other people would be leading and facilitating the group… particularly when some of the training required specialist knowledge.

An organised meeting desk
An organised meeting desk from Claire Portis in Hampstead

So I decided to create an online training at the beginning of every month, which would provide the focus for each month’s session and create a worksheet and facilitation guide for our club leaders to use with their clubs. And rather than creating ‘how to trainings’ we would do marketing and strategy sessions.

I had a meeting with some fantastic friends and supporters and shared my vision and my plan. We ran a Discovery Day to recruit our club leaders, shared the vision with them and managed to attract over 20 fabulous women – we ended up launching 9 new clubs in September.

It was an incredible accomplishment.

Right from the beginning we had mixed results. Our pricing strategy was to be slightly premium to recognise the value of the training that was being offered but we would have a low entry point to membership as we wanted to encourage people to commit to the programme, as this is the way they are most likely to see results.

In some areas we were able to launch with pretty full clubs of 16-18 people, but in others we only saw 2 -4 people join as members.

While we are pretty well known in the London area, we weren’t so well known further afield. So we were reliant on our new club leaders to promote the clubs in their areas. Our club leaders were fantastic and they all put in an incredible amount of effort to attract people but it was difficult for them if they didn’t have a large network in place already.

What we found was that in the beginning, all the members were very excited about the clubs and really enjoyed the learning and the brainstorming. Even the small ones. The members were getting great value and the club leaders were really happy with their groups. But over time, things started to change for some of the members.

So much learning

Here are some of the biggest learnings that I’ve taken away from the process and and I hope you find them insightful:

1. Our funnel wasn’t regular enough and consistent enough, so we weren’t getting regular growth. We didn’t have a clear plan, or the financial or people resources to build a network in each of our target areas. And we were spread too thinly to give each region the focus that it needed. Our sales team were our Club Leaders, but they all had their own businesses and it was difficult for them to market both at the same time.

2. Our target market wasn’t clear.  Our members were at very different stages of business. We had some extremely experienced business owners and some who were in the very early stages of business. Some of our members hadn’t made their first sale, where others were turning over £400,000. Obviously their needs were very different and it was difficult to cater to all of them. Also, in the brainstorming groups, some members were doing most of the giving but didn’t have the expertise in the room to get what they needed for their business.

3. The product we created wasn’t quite fit for purpose. Many of members didn’t watch the training beforehand, so didn’t come fully prepared to the meetings. This then built resentment in some of the other members. Also, it meant that some people weren’t seeing results. We realised very late into the process that actually lots of people don’t like to do training like this on a monthly basis. It felt like a drag. And, if they didn’t do the training, they also often felt a sense of guilt which meant that they didn’t want to come to the meeting. So, the meetings went from being a really positive experience (and for many did stay that way) to becoming something that was a chore and didn’t lift the members in the way that we had envisaged. We started to see big drop outs at our meetings. We would have a core group of people that attended every month, but lots of people that dropped in an out.

4. We didn’t do enough planning. Hands up, it is probably one of my weakest areas – and I genuinely believe that planning is one of the skills that will most increase your chances of success. A big personal lesson was learned here. Lack of planning meant that I was often struggling to get the content up in time, was making some decisions very last minute and it felt like we were chasing our tails a bit.

5. We were massively under-resourced. Financially, people wise, time wise. I hadn’t for-seen how much time it would take to manage the groups, the team, the technology. As a team we were stretched to capacity but the business model didn’t support additional people at that time.

6. We expanded too soon. In February we launched 5 more clubs before we had really sorted out our problems. Also the launches of those clubs were much less successful than the first round. It was getting harder to attract new people. Again, we had a team of absolutely fantastic club leaders but there was a smaller pool of people to choose from. Attracting the right club leaders was starting to be difficult.

7. We couldn’t get our audience to understand our point of difference.  We were a training and masterminding group and yet no matter how often we said it, people thought we were a networking group.  I’m not sure why our message wasn’t being heard but I think it was about people’s expectations and they didn’t hear what we were saying.  In the whole time we were running the meetings we never cracked this one.  Trying to build a market for a new service is tough.  Much easier to work with people’s existing memes.

8. Our business model wasn’t robust enough. It appeared financially sound and had a lot going for it but it required growth to be successful. The financial plans looked very positive and we were regularly attracting between 7 and 10 new members a month – but we were also starting to lose members.

Some of the members that weren’t getting the results or were still struggling with their businesses were starting to dropout. In an online club / membership the average length that people stay a member for is 3-4 months. We started to see people requesting to leave at about the 7-8 month mark. This obviously had an effect on the individual groups themselves and I started to worry about the long term future of the groups.

Over the last couple of years a few of the women’s business networks went under because they didn’t know when to quit. I didn’t want to be a part of that group.

9. I was stretched too thinly. Even with all of those challenges and problems, if the business club had been my only focus, we might have been able to turn it around, to pivot, to make adjustments. But I noticed the issues too late because I was focused on other things. As a typical creator, I was looking to the next project. At the point that we should have fixed the problem trying to launch a third round of clubs.

I was focused on recruitment and growth, when I should have been focused on retention.

10. Lastly, I realised that I had created a business that I didn’t want to run. This is probably the biggest learning of all. A lot of the joy and pleasure that I get out of running Women Unlimited had disappeared for me. It had turned into a chore rather than a pleasure. I’ve always felt so privileged to be able to do what I do and serve this amazing community. I love the interaction, I love running the workshops and events that we do, I love teaching and sharing best practice, I love bringing wonderful experts to you who can help you build and grow your business.

But the business that I had created put a layer between me and my community. I had built a business that was more about managing people and resources, meeting deadlines, chasing payments, being tech support and talking to a computer rather than doing the stuff that I love. And the stuff that I am good at!

Enfield Club
Enfield Club

The final stages

The one great sadness I have, is that we had to close down some of the clubs that had a really strong bond and community with each other. We had tried reducing the number of clubs that we were running to focus only on the successful ones, but when one of the larger clubs decided to close, the model became unviable. It would have cost us too much to continue, especially with no clear plan of action on how to recover to our former size without a lot more investment than I was able to give. Particularly given point 9 above.

Thankfully some of our Club Leaders are continuing to bring their members together in a more informal way and I’m happy that those little Women Unlimited communities are still continuing.

The decision to close the clubs was slow to come, because it was very difficult to make, the decision to finally let go. I was worried about letting people down, I was worried about the brand perception, but in the end the economic argument won.

Thankfully I have an absolutely incredible support network of women who were happy to be a sounding board as I went through the process. They helped me to understand what the next steps should be and gave me the support when I had to make some difficult decisions. So if you are reading this, you know who you are and I am truly grateful.

What happened next was a bit of a surprise to me. Closing the clubs has really made me re-evaluate myself, Women Unlimited, how I spend my time and what I am looking for out of my business. And I ended up grinding to a complete halt.

So I took a much needed sabbatical from everything. For 2 months I took a break from everything to do with the business and the clubs. I was completely burnt out. I had reached the end of my energetic tether and had absolutely nothing left. A very strange feeling indeed! It was a time to lick my wounds and heal, but also a time to refresh and figure out what’s next.

In business we get so caught up in the day to day running of the business we rarely stop and think about whether we are still on the right path. I am an A type personality that finds it difficult to slow down, but I had moved from productive to manic and it wasn’t healthy for me or my business.

Going into hibernation was deliberate and absolutely what I needed. When I decided to take the time out, I trusted that it wouldn’t be forever. And I’m really pleased to say that I am back now, and feel amazing. But there are changes.

1. I am more focused and clearer than I have ever been before. Lack of clarity is a business killer.

2. I have built in downtime into my week. I had completely lost touch with who I was outside of being a business woman and seemed to have lost the ability to do things just for fun, as my mind was always turning over the latest problem, idea, piece of work.

3. I am finally writing my book MicroEntrepreneur to go alongside our podcast that is relaunching next week. Writing the book is an incredible and amazing endeavour that I am loving – watch out for more news on that soon.

4. I am back to creating the business that I want to create rather than falling into the trap of building a business that I think I should create.

5. I have brought in focused resource to deal with very specific tasks in the business which has included bringing back Jayne Ryan into the fold as Women Unlimited Editor (yay!) And we will be starting up our newsletter and regular webinars again.

I am glad that we launched the business clubs and thrilled that we has such a great impact for those that had breakthroughs while they were members. There were lots of highs as well as lows and it was a fantastic experience.  I heard Catherine Watkin, the creator of the Selling from the Heart sales programme once say that becoming a business owner is the greatest personal development programme we will ever go on and this experience has certainly been that.

I am grateful for the lessons that I have learned as I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

I’m excited about what the future holds and look forward to sharing some wonderful things with you over the next few months.  So watch this space 🙂

Julie Hall

Business Mentor & founder of Women Unlimited

Julie is the founder of Women Unlimited and a business mentor to women who know they are ready to step into their leadership. She works closely with them to help them remove the blocks that hold them back and achieve their business goals. Clarity, Focus, Strategy, Mindset and Marketing.

Be the change that you want to see. Step into your leadership.

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