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A group of self employed workers meet at a restaurant in Vancouver.

LAURA LEYSHON

One of the frustrating things about being a start-up entrepreneur is that a key support for you and your business is often out of reach: the peer forum.

The options are surprisingly limited for new owners seeking to accelerate growth by tapping into the wisdom of other entrepreneurs. Most established peer forum groups carry hefty annual fees –averaging $10,000 a year – and require minimum annual revenue of $250,000 to more than $1 million to join.

Although several associations offer MasterMind-type groups at lower fees, in my experience the process of assembling these groups can be hit and miss. After enduring two big misses – there's nothing worse than attending a time-wasting group session when you could be making a sales call – I got fed up and decided to start my own group.

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My goals were simple: help me grow my business and expand my own network, with a side objective of keeping me sane as I faced the roller coaster that is entrepreneurship.

I dubbed my group BARN (business alliance and referral network), and if you're interested in launching your own peer forum, here's how to do it:

Be clear on the purpose of the group. One of my goals was to build my business by shortening my sales cycle. To do this, I felt that referrals were a great way to go. I identified a group of entrepreneurs who offered non-competitive – but complementary – services in similar markets and were interested in expanding or growing their businesses. Shared purpose is the key to making a group work successfully. Decide what yours is.

Nail down the logistics. Keep your peer group fairly small. Six is ideal. No more than eight. This allows everyone to get lots of air time at meetings. Our group initially met every six weeks for three hours. Anything less can be a little tight for meetings, and more than that could require that you meet less frequently (every two months to quarterly). Our group now meets every two months since all of our businesses have grown and we have less time to get together.

Start with who you know. I began by recruiting five people I knew really well and who I felt would get along – you don't want to find yourself mediating personality clashes. From the core group, others were invited. Word of mouth is best. If you don't know enough people to invite, then set up coffee chats with entrepreneurs you're interested in working with. See if there's enough chemistry to make something happen.

Set the guidelines. I sent out an advance e-mail to everyone, sharing my vision for the BARN group as well as the key ground rules (confidentiality, attendance requirements, and meeting format). At the first session the group discussed what I had sent and we made a few adjustments. One person opted out because of the time commitment and the rest of us moved forward. Even if you've talked to everyone one-on-one, it's good to go over expectations at this first meeting.

Structure your meeting. There are a number of ways to do it. We have adopted the MasterMind format: everyone provides an update on something positive that's happened to their business, then we put out a challenge or opportunity to get input from the group. We also take about 20 minutes to share any new ideas or best practices we have learned that may be of benefit to the group.

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The final consideration is facilitation. It's important that you, or someone in your group, be a strong facilitator. Without strong facilitation, it will fall apart. It's best to have two, so that you, as group leader, can have an opportunity to participate as well as lead the meetings.

A well-run peer forum can be an amazing source of knowledge, inspiration and encouragement for any newly minted entrepreneur. In our group, members have launched new business extensions, landed new clients, built new offerings and shared countless tips on everything from hiring lawyers to where to find temporary staff.

If your revenues don't qualify you for some of the more established peer forum communities, consider starting your own. You can extract a great deal of value and keep your hard-earned money in the bank for a while longer.

Glain Roberts-McCabe is founder and president of The Executive Roundtable , an organization that leverages peer mentoring programs to help high-performing leaders accelerate their careers.

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