This Q&A was conceived and conducted by Alison Gee. The introduction was written by Ajay Singh.
In the fall of 2011, when Cheryl Leutjen was in her fourth year as an independent entrepreneur, the Eagle Rock resident realized that she was spending far too much time alone for someone who was supposed to be a businesswoman. Leutjen, who has a background in environmental law, realized that what she needed was a networking group where she could meet other entrepreneurs.
A bit of research quickly revealed that most networking events take place during the evening—just when Leutjen spent time for the family. Some events are scheduled in the morning—around the time she drove her kids to school. Lunch-time events, Leutjen discovered, were usually either far away or ridiculously expensive.
“I wanted something simple, something local, something organic,” Leutjen wrote in a March 2012 blog for Eagle Rock Patch. “It occurred to me that I might not be alone in this.”
So Leutjen decided to start a weekly networking brown-bag lunch event at her home on Ellenwood Drive—an informal gathering where people could share ideas and information about their businesses, while helping each other prosper in the post-2008 economy of the Great Recession.
Leutjen’s networking group required no registration fees, annual dues or meal purchase requirements. There weren’t even any attendance obligations. Called "Work@Homers," she launched her event on meetup.com, printed some flyers and called a few friends.
Leutjen hasn’t looked back. Her networking group has grown phenomenally—so well, in fact, that she has added a once-a-month evening mixer. Leutjen sat down with Eagle Rock Patch recently for an interview about how she built her local business networking event. Excerpts:
Eagle Rock Patch: What is your typical workday like? How many people do you interact in person with from your home office? Do you miss the human contact?
Cheryl Leutjen: I don't have a typical workday. I have several ventures, including a LegalShield business, a personal development workshop called the Soul Café, a group teaching kids about money by making and investing it, a Community Breath series, along with a devoted writing practice. Each day is unique.
Although my work is home-based, it is also very people-oriented. I interact with people on the phone, on social media sites, as well as in person when I invite people into my home for networking and learning. I also engage with people during business, networking and writing appointments in coffee shops, meetups and natural places around the Los Angeles area. (I host another meetup called The Natural Muse, which invites writers to meet and write in beautiful, natural places).
Do you ever work at an office? How was it when you worked in an office? How does your working day now compare to working in an office?
I have worked in so many different environments—field, lab, office, my own store and home office—that it's difficult for me to make a direct comparison between what I do now and what I did when I worked "in an office."
For the first seven years of my career, I was a geologist for a geotechnical engineering firm in Kansas City, Kansas. I reported to an office every day, though much of my work was in the field or in the laboratory. After law school, I worked in the office of a downtown Los Angeles law firm for two years and then for Texaco for nine years. My first experience with home-officing was, ironically, while I worked for Texaco, a Fortune 100 company.
After two years in the company’s legal department, I moved to the business side to negotiate contracts with a small, energetic and highly innovative team that developed alternative energy projects. Due to the unique capabilities of the team as well as the vision and persistence of our team leader we migrated to a home office structure a couple years after joining the team.
It was then that I learned how to stay productive and accountable, even if there's no boss looking over your shoulder. Despite the temptations to play with the kids—my children were babies then—or clean the kitchen instead of working, I still had project-driven goals and deadlines, and my team members counted on me to meet them. I loved home-officing under those conditions.
The challenge for me now is that I am my own team, and I don't have a boss expecting me to produce results on a set time schedule. I let myself off the hook far more easily than my motivated and results-driven Texaco alternative energy team.
Was there a particular moment when you knew you would create this networking group—a point of loneliness or frustration, perhaps, when you said to yourself, "I need other humans?”
When my Texaco team was disbanded—the casualty of several mergers and changes in direction—I bought a store here in Eagle Rock called Smellzgood, which I re-branded as The Blissful Soul. We were still relatively new to Eagle Rock then, and it was a wonderful experience to welcome the community into our shop, which featured local artisans, authors and musicians. It was also a frantic time of not enough resources to support all that I wanted to do. There was no lack of human contact and no issues of accountability. After two and a half years of love, sweat and tears—and no profits—we gave it up.
That's when I became a LegalShield (then Pre-Paid Legal) representative. I had always been providing what legal expertise I had, but I had no experience receiving it. I had practiced environmental law. There were many areas of law I knew—and many I still don't know anything about. I was excited about the opportunity to share the benefits of having affordable access to legal counsel, and I dove in.
I soon realized the challenges of staying motivated to a purpose when there aren't bosses or colleagues depending on you to produce. Life offered its challenges and distractions, and I drifted away from honoring my commitment.
A couple of years ago, I sat at my desk, looking at my list of calls to make and feeling as unmotivated as I have ever felt in my business life. It occurred to me then that I was spending far too much time alone for someone who purports to be in business for herself. Thinking back to my home-officing days with Texaco, I realized that being around other people is energizing, even if they aren't always in the same room with me. I missed the charge that comes from collaborating with other creative people.
I looked for networking events and had never found one that met at a time or place when I was available. Many are at 8 a.m., when I'm taking kids to school—or in the evening, when I have family or volunteer-related responsibilities. Many others are expensive to join, have time commitments beyond the meetup itself and/or have a rigid structure. I decided then and there to start my own group—one that meets when I'm available, is inexpensive, honors creativity over rigidity, and offers all the referrals and accountability of a dedicated networking group. Voila, Work@Homers was born.
What happens at your networking events?
Each person is invited to share, as they choose: their name; a response to the Question of the Day; an overview of their business; a request for referrals; any business goals to which they wish to be held accountable.
Because our goal is to get to know each other well enough to have a solid foundation for providing referrals to each other, we allow each person to speak for three minutes to five minutes, depending on the size of the group on any given day. We encourage people to bring samples of their products to show. We also invite our regulars—anyone who has attended at least three networking events—to give a Showcase, a 20-minute to 30-minute presentation of something related to their business. We've had everything from hula hoop lessons to conflict resolution to fashion shows to to nutrition supplement sampling in our Showcases. We like to mix things up and keep it fresh. If the Question of the Day routine feels old, we will play Scrabble or a digital game instead. I'm saving up the Twister game for a special occasion.
What are some of the most interesting developments that have come out of these events?
It's interesting the circuitous path that the referrals and connections may take. For example, I met Jennifer Oliver O'Connell through Work@Homers. She also hosts a meetup called Tuesdays with Transitioners for people who are between jobs or would like to find a new career. She asked me to share a Showcase I had done with Work@Homers called "What's My Line?" with her Transitioners. At her meetup, I met Bob, who works with seniors, and I talked with him about the benefits of LegalShield membership for seniors. He invited me to a meetup for caregivers, where I met Nicole, who attended a few Work@Homers events and also became a LegalShield member. Bob now has a fulltime job, so we don't see him at Work@Homers anymore. Nicole, on the other hand, has become a friend, a colleague and a client. It was a case of the cow that kicked over the lantern.
What have some of your networkers said to you about your gatherings? What do many of them do and what kind of issues did they come up against?
Most people say that they appreciate the flexibility. We have no attendance requirements—our regulars attend because they want to. The cost is low and the environment is fun. We have people who attend a single meetup, some that attend regularly for a while and then move on, and some who have attended regularly since the very beginning.
We have people who design and create websites, graphics and marketing materials; people who provide personal services such as home health care, photography, massage, Reiki, self-defense training, workout programs for moms and yoga classes; people who sell nutritional supplements, cosmetics, jewelry, real estate and legal plans; people who make their own products for sale, such as handcrafted drums and pottery. We have entertainers.
We are all looking for those connections that make our products and services not only saleable but desired and appreciated. There's not one of us who, I’d say, is in sales for the love of selling. We all truly want to provide what we offer to those who want and appreciate it. We look to each other for ways to make those meaningful connections.
What do you envision as the future of Work@Homers?
That's a very good question—and one that I've asked myself very often. Part of me thinks it's a brilliant idea to offer networking events that are tailored for people who work out of their homes—and that I should register the name and take it into other communities. But there's another part of me that says this is something that works where it is—as it is. The world of networking is evolving and we are a part of the evolution. So, for now, I'm content to meet up with—and be inspired by—other brave and inspiring souls who desire more for their lives than devoting their time to creating someone else's dream.
Do you get some networkers from the Highland Park-Mount Washington area as well?
Yes, we do. In fact, we just had a Work@Homers field trip to the Gymnasium of the Mind at the Carlin Rec Center in Mount Washington, which is hosted by two men, one of whom is Robert Leh, a Work@Homer. Another Work@Homer, Charles Lowery, the drum maker, about whom I have blogged on ER Patch, met us there. He walked over to the event from his home.
In fact, we have members from Studio City, Temple City, Glassell Park, Highland Park, Atwater Village, Valley Village, Burbank, Mount Washington, Glendale, Pasadena, Hollywood, Encino and even one from Marina del Rey.