Phillip Jones – founder of Schmooze

With a background in managing fine dining rooms internationally, event management, then the obligatory stint in the Canberra public service, Phillip founded Schmooze in 2003 with the aim of creating a collaborative environment for people to develop their businesses and careers and have a great time in the process.

In addition to managing Schmooze he is a consultant and facilitator, and is often invited to speak on networking, professional relations and related topics.

In his spare time his reads military history, dreams of being a country squire and perfects his dry martini’s.

Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?

Usually, I quip it was desperation. But really I saw the need for a collaborative and informal space for creative professionals to meet and support each other. Note, this was in 2003, so no Meet-ups or facebook groups back then!

Usually in professional networking you’ve got your game face on, and it doesn’t lend itself to more open or even vulnerable conversations among peers to ask advice of each other.   I had moved back to the private sector after some while in the public service and needed an environment to test ideas, build my contacts back up and have a support network.

So with my background in hospitality I saw that setting the stage, attracting the right people with the right intention, a cultural dimension to the experience, ensuring a personalised touch, and then managing the experience carefully were some of the key elements that was missing in the traditional events.

I had a colleague at the National Press Club and several contacts in similar client relations, marketing and PR roles and they loved the idea and over some drinks in November 2003 Schmooze was born.

Very quickly it took off, just informally, and it was a couple of years till I realised it could be a business (and work out the business model) and it has evolved substantially since then, but has never lost its original vibe or collaborative premise.

The essence of what we do at Schmooze is to create the space for people to meet and provide support for them to achieve their professional or business goals. A key difference is that we’re not a network per se, but rather a professional community that uses the tools + strategies of networking to create opportunities.

How do you make money? (please explain your business model)

Schmooze’s revenue stream is a mix of professional services, events, memberships + guest attendance fees.

Over time the business model has matured and now we offer event management services (eg hosting a VIP networking experience as part of a conference), and members pay for 6 or 12 months and attend our events for free (simpler that way) as well be supported in their marketing of their services or events, or professional introductions.

Several years back I realised I was really undervaluing what we were offering and benchmarked our events and services nationally and globally.  I changed the pricing structure (tripled the prices actually), but doubled our program and expanded our member services, but still less than the competition.

The result was threefold: people took us more seriously, members were more engaged and proactive, and we actually started breaking even!

I’m also invited to be a guest speaker or trainer, usually on professional + social networkings and related themes, so that brings in additional revenue.

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next three months? 

There are two things in the workshop.

The first is that we’ve an intern coming from Germany (really!) shortly as part of her business masters degree and she’ll be looking at where we can go next as a business, what opportunities are we missing for new revenue streams, both online and real world, so that will be interesting to see what she reveals & recommends.

The other is a partnership with a major shopping centre that will see a mix a competition for them to win a pop-up shop in the centre, events to launch and support then, and an ongoing social media campaign to documenting their experiences over several weeks. This ties in a few themes we’re keen on, putting our members into the foreground and sharing their experiences, bringing together the online + real world, and documenting the business and career opportunities that arise in a way that doesn’t come across as PR.

Plus, every year we have an artist in residence who sojourn with us for 3 months and respond creatively, we’ll advertise for that person around June (http://www.schmooze.net.au/site/artist2012.php) and that’s always an exciting experience.

How do you make ideas happen?

As a business owner you can be too close to your company, so you need to create opportunities for honest feedback…

As someone once said, ideas are easy, but executing them is hard and the most important part.

My way of unwinding at the end of the week, is a good dry Martini (or two), there is usually no shortage of inspiration after that!

But more seriously, we take the idea of community seriously at Schmooze, so each member we meet and also when they renew their memberships, and from those discussions will often emerge new content for our program or a new service.  So at best its a creative collaboration, if only for one event.

As a business owner you can be too close to your company, so you need to create opportunities for honest feedback, and I always ask someone who is new to Schmooze how we’re perceived and come across. I’m not fishing for compliments but its an opportunity to hear how people see us, and that can be a clue on future opportunities.

I’m mindful that I want to evolve the company, but can’t get so far ahead of where my main market is at that they can’t follow.

They’re pretty trusting of going with something I roll out, but anything new has to be tested, and although Canberra is a conservative market, it can be a good test bed or incubator.

What does your typical day look like?

phillip_case-study

I’ve always kept things lean, so as to keep costs down. So I’ve worked from home, but ensured 2 days a week I’m visible, having meetings, and of course at our events or our members activities.

Our work varies each week, so in the first week of the month there are no events, so its time to ramp up promotion for the upcoming events, meet with the team, and exploit the opportunities that have come our way over the past weeks.

In the last week of a month we host several events, so its a mix of social media (30 minutes daily), fielding RSVPs, last minute event preparation, hosting the events, debriefing afterwards and doing our follow-ups for each guest or possibility that has emerged from the experiences.

I’ve aimed to keep the admin simple and one of my team takes turns hosting events, doing the social media and servicing our members each week.

I try to avoid working weekends and work from about 730-5pm (unless an event is on in which case its a much longer day).

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?

It took a few years to get going and I realised that people are always aspirational, they want to feel good about what they’re part of or joining.

I exist in a very competitive market. Its not just the plethora of other formal ‘networking’ groups, its meet-ups, tweet-ups, and just the sheer busy-ness of living that means you have to work really hard to get people to show-up, even if they want to.

I love competition and actually think we’ve been ahead of the curve for a while now, but there are so many hours in a day and your value proposition has to be pretty good.   So we work harder to deliver excellence in all we do and offer great value, so they can’t fault the product or service.

We’ve also expanded our online services and marketing options in response so that even if they can’t make to events, they can still leverage their membership that way.

There is also the challenge of having a name like Schmooze. We get folks thinking we’re not a credible organisation, get a bit snobby, but it sets the tone perfectly, attracts the right people and lets us go places, creatively and physically, other groups can’t.

It took a few years to get going and I realised that people are always aspirational, they want to feel good about what they’re part of or joining.

So once we’d been around for a while, proved ourselves and started getting a good reputation, then the memberships starting taking off, so a long term perspective is vital.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?

Sure. Authentic experiences are what people crave. We have all the stuff we need, but people still want to connect, find their tribe or experience unique.  If you can package those in a way that doesn’t feel marketed or a PR fest then you’re onto something.

We’ve been trialling something along these lines and they’re being well received.

What role do you think business can play in affecting social change?

It’s becoming expected for companies to be social engaged, but that has to be authentic…

I think businesses have to be very attuned to society in order to survive and evolve.

Sometimes its a niche market or more broader, but it means that they are very connected to the zietgiest in ways they may not realise.

That provides them with both a feedback loop but also an opportunity to influence their clients and all the people their brand touches, and through them society more generally.

It’s becoming expected for companies to be social engaged, but that has to be authentic, so any drive by a business to affect social change has been be perceived  as a non-commercial venture else there will be push back I suggest.

For our part we partner with lots of charities and NFP’s during the year, and offer free publicity for fundraising events etc, but its case of, we’ve got the network and audience, why not use it for good? The feedback we get is that our members appreciate being associated with a company that is active this way.

Name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers?

  • An oldie and goodie (started by a kiwi actually) very ahead of its time and unchanged by design trends: http://www.artsandlettersdaily.com/
  • Came across a series of videos from Brooklyn NY recently – beautifully shot, but really about the love and fulfillment that comes from doing what you love well, and the communities that are nourished or created as a result: http://vimeo.com/31455885
  • Purely for fun, for lovers of tweed, pipes, gin and Old School Chapdom: http://thechapmagazine.co.uk

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?

Yes, all of the above actually! I think Schmooze has scope for national and possibly international expansion, and so I’d love to explore scaling options with someone to make that happen.

Our intern program is very popular and we’ve run it for several years now.  We’re always taking applications, and people can read about the experiences of past interns here:  http://www.schmooze.net.au/site/Internships.php

Our readers are smart, creative, talented and good looking. Here’s your chance to ask them anything.

If you were me, what would you evolve Schmooze into next?

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?

In Melbourne, its the European on Spring Street…. half Paris, half Melbourne, a perfect combination.

In Canberra, its hippo bar in the city. Our homebase for a long while in the early days and the scene of many a classic Schmooze, and best Martini’s in the city.

What is your favourite song by an Australian artist at the moment? 

I keep coming back to the Church’s ‘Under the Milky Way’.   Sorry, I know that’s a bit old hat, but its evocative and thoughtful and something lovely to listen to when you’re driving home late at night.

We thought it would be cool to crowdsource an annual prize to award to the interviewee’s choice (each person interviewed gets one vote) winner for the year’s best interview. Are you willing to kick in a prize?

I’d be very happy to offer a 12 months professional membership valued at $750.00

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