Author: Suse Coon

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Saturday, October 28th, 2006 at 4:16 pm
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I Heard it on The-Grapevine

The phrase “I heard it on the Grapevine,” has taken on new meaning for British businesses, thanks to West Lothian entrepreneur Jennie Hamilton. Her virtual business organisation The-Grapevine has really taken off and in just 8 months, found itself short listed for two business awards.

“’Collecting data is the first step to wisdom. Sharing data is the first step to community’. This was the sum total of my thinking when first setting up The-Grapevine,” Jennie says.

As with many successful people, Jennie’s career path has had more to with the University of Life than with formal learning. Born in Jersey, in the Channel Islands Jennie left school with a handful of ‘O’ Levels but energy, drive and enthusiasm by the bagful. Her true passion was English, both literature and language but she spent the 80’s and 90’s in the world of business, starting as an Office Junior and working her way up to Executive Assistant for a number of blue chip companies.

After 20 years working as a top level PA, Jennie decided it was time to indulge her creative side.

“I wanted to be able to use my writing and research skills,” she says. “And the curriculum for the The CAM Foundation (Communication and Marketing) as it was then known, seemed to fit the bill. At the turn of the millennium, I entered the realms of self-employment and went freelance.

“I was full of vigour, determination and enthusiasm to turn a good idea into a successful venture. But, however good the idea, you have to go out there and sell yourself – this was vital to ensure that my start-up business expanded and developed. I became an avid networker and built up a tremendous bank of contacts. But then the idea crept into my head to put all my contacts to good use and to allow others to access them by co-ordinating a virtual network rather than taking time away from our desks to attend live events. I formed ‘The Grapevine’ to help business people connect in a non-selfish, positive way, where we all gain from knowing each other.”

“The-Grapevine is unique because all networking is carried out on line either through the e-newsletter (Harvest) or through the website (www.the-grapevine.co.uk) There are no events to attend…. I like to think of it as business networking without the breakfast!”

There are no membership or joining up fees. Income comes through advertising and sponsorship.

The Spanish Office“What is special about The Grapevine,” Jennie says, “is that traditionally, networking efforts can easily become scattered and too broad to yield beneficial results. Typically, the complaint of business folk focuses on the lack of time, momentum and ways to create and stay in touch with valuable relationships and connections. The-Grapevine works virtually (as I do) so it doesn’t have to be scheduled into your valuable time. I do all the work (again saving members time) and the weekly newsletters get passed onto people who are genuinely interested in learning more about the service/product/news on offer.”

Generally, Jennie offers a free initial plug in the newsletter and, if people benefit from it, they tend to come back and advertise. By mentioning that they read the Grapevine when responding to Special Offers, even those who don’t advertise, play their part by generating goodwill.

And it’s goodwill which makes Jennie’s world go round. “Lots of folk and events have and do motivate and inspire me – for many different reasons,” she reflects. “In business, I am often reminded that many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up. (I think it was Thomas Edison, who originally said that!).

“I really admire Whoopi Goldberg because she has amazing versatility and unique talent. As UN Ambassador, she is actively involved in numerous projects supporting underprivileged children, the homeless, and women’s rights as well as AIDS awareness campaigns. And because she has a super name. You couldn’t fail to have a great time with a friend called Whoopi!

“Sophia Loren’s comments spring to mind as we speak, “it’s better to explore life and make mistakes than to play it safe. Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life”. I believe in cramming in as much to life as you can. You really do only live once. You will have gathered that I’m a pretty impulsive person, I make plenty of rash decisions and I have several scars to prove it!”

One of Jennie’s most memorable escapades was a visit to Thailand with new boyfriend Derek. Whilst there, she decided to try paragliding and crash-landed in a crumpled heap on the sand. The result: an emergency trip in a pick-up truck to a very remote Thai hospital where very little English was spoken. “After much deliberation, plenty of gesticulation and no x-rays, I was told I had not broken anything. I knew better! However, after much disinclination, they eventually applied a ‘plaster-cast of sorts’ and sent me off with a pair of antiquated crutches.”

“After a couple of days, I noticed that my leg was turning a funny shade of blue and it appeared to be growing like a mushroom over the top of the plaster-cast. Another impromptu decision ensued. We decided to fly to Australia rather than back to the UK as I thought the recovery process would be much more fun there. Within hours of landing at Perth Airport in Western Australia, I was whisked off to hospital, where my very badly injured ankle was operated on and pins and plates inserted! Not broken eh! Always trust your instincts!

“5 months and 6 plaster-casts later, having fallen in love with Perth, (and each other), Derek and I got married on a boat sailing down the Swan River.”

Not surprisingly, Derek is also an entrepreneur and runs a golfing holiday business in Spain. This means that the couple divide their time between Livingston and the Costa del Sol.

“We love the outdoor life,” Jennie explains. “We love living in a warm climate and we both run businesses that enable us to work remotely. We bought a place just outside Marbella last year and we plan to move out there permanently next year. Once we move to Spain, I can continue to run The-Grapevine, as I do now, nothing changes except my working location. Oh and a whole new way of life too!”

Working from home

With homes in West Lothian, Southern Spain and the Channel Islands, not to mention a virtual office in Edinburgh, Jennie exemplifies the growing trend towards home-working and flexible hours.

“Through the creation and development of The-Grapevine, I have fulfilled one of my key ambitions,” she says. “I work from home (wherever that may be) in a fulfilling role and my work enables me to continue growing and developing in my own right. I am never bored. I work when I want and where I want and, for me, that is the ultimate freedom. Many of us are restricted by time. No matter how good our intentions are, networking is often at the bottom of the ‘To Do’ list. The-Grapevine allows me to network without having to leave my desk! I’ve discovered, like many other Grapeviners, that co-operation is far more powerful than competition.

“Running a virtual business has meant that I have spent lots of time with our daughter Jasmine. My family life is hugely important to me because it brings me so much joy.

“If asked about one of my favourite working moments, it’s the real pleasure of the opportunity to sit on my terrace in Spain, in the basking sunshine, topping up my tan whilst bashing away at the keyboard and occasionally taking a sip of a good Spanish Rioja – multi-tasking at its best!”

Relaxing with a glass of wine

Although Jennie has plans to develop The-Grapevine, she doesn’t see it as a job for life. “Most definitely not,” she says. “It’s easy to let life deteriorate into making a living instead of making a life. I don’t even see it as a ‘job’ as I enjoy what I do. I believe you should indulge in the things you are passionate about.

“The big drivers for virtual or electronic networking are mobility and shortness of time. It is obvious that only the electronic world enables you to overcome both to generate new contacts. So I have lots of plans for growth. I have a long way to go but I’m looking forward to the journey.

“I can’t ever imagine having a proper ‘job’ again, but wherever or whatever business I’m involved in nothing is as important as making sure I spend time with the people that matter most in my life.”

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