Networking is now going niche

Annabel Denham
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Annabel Palmer talks to the energetic directors of the online community BusinessBecause

THE charming triumvirate behind BusinessBecause – the online network for the business school world – attribute their success to that sublime combination of luck and very hard work. Their company, which has evolved from a magazine covering the experiences and interests of MBA and masters students to a niche online network, has 20,000 members globally and 100,000 monthly visitors. It made sales of £300,000 last year, and is aiming for £500,000 turnover in 2013.

The all-female team comes from different business backgrounds – Maria Ahmed from business journalism and a subsequent detour to work for Lord Dennis Stevenson (then chairman of HBOS); Kate Jillings from the corporate marketing world; and Sian Morley-Smith, who joined the company later from consultancy Accenture. The original magazine idea was Ahmed’s: she believed that MBAs were “an interesting, ambitious group of young people at a transition point in their lives. It was 2007 and business education was exploding.” Jillings had previously applied to Harvard Business School, and knew there was a gap in the market for an online community for business school students. LinkedIn is “fantastic,” they say, but “we’ve found there is a real desire – from like-minded individuals and recruiters – for more niche networks like ours”.

But starting up your own business is a big leap, so Ahmed and Jillings carried out the early work – market research, formulating a business plan, registering the company – while still working full-time. But after a few months, this system became untenable. It was time to go big or go home.

With that in mind, they started fundraising. “The concept of building an online tech product and marketing it globally was both daunting and expensive,” says Jillings. Their timing could not have been worse – the global financial crisis was just beginning. Their solution? Jillings sold her flat and Ahmed contributed her life savings. They didn’t take a salary for the first two years.

It was a stressful period, partly assuaged by their first sale – to George Washington University. “If your business is unfunded, you have to make sales early,” says Ahmed. “Otherwise you run out of money very quickly.” But theirs is a high-content, high-resource business, and managing costs has been their biggest challenge. Revenue now primarily comes from business schools, institutions and corporate clients paying to have a profile page on their network.

Creating a database of schools, companies and individuals was a “hard grind”. They had to use online marketing – something they were unfamiliar with – to attract people to their network. Going into an industry they had no prior experience of was unavoidable, but “naive”. They have transformed their media product into a technology product building niche networks. “Sian learnt how to use Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator – because we needed to create a booklet,” says Ahmed. “We taught ourselves how to use Google Analytics, because we had no choice. And Sian, with no prior experience, designed our website.”

And they have other networks in the pipeline for different groups of people, replicating the proprietary tech code they’ve built for BusinessBecause. At the same time, they are ramping up their recruitment product and jobs services, and working closely with recruiters. They may have entered this business naively, but there can be little doubt now that the trio have become industry savvy.

Age: 32

Born: The Hague

Studied: PPE at Oxford University

Drinking: Red wine

Eating: Strawberries

Reading: The Four Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferris

First ambition: To build a full Lego toy village

Motto: “There is always a solution”

Heroes: Multi-linguists

Age: 32

Born: London

Lives: Kingston upon Thames

Studied: PPE at Oxford University, MS Journalism at Columbia University

Eating: Food at Polpo

Reading: The Seven Day Weekend, by Ricardo Semler

Heroes: The engineers and designers creating the technology we rely on every day

Motto: “Stay positive!”

Age: 28

Born: Cambridge

Lives: North London

Studied: Biology, Imperial College

Drinking: Guinness

Reading: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Heroes: Quentin Blake and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel

Talents: Drawing

First ambition: To own a menagerie of animals