John Barkdoll is used to being characterized as a therapist for business owners.
Mr. Barkdoll, a Columbia resident, says that's not quite an accurate description of his role in a 5-year-old venture, the Business Network. The company puts business owners together to discuss growth strategies and solve problems.
"I like to think of us as helping business owners see what the common sense solutions are," Mr. Barkdoll, 47, says.
"My expertise is in running good meetings and in the front-end preparation for those meetings. It's the business owners who provide the support and the advice; they are the therapists, not me," he says.
Business owners pay a $2,400 annual fee to sign up with the Business Network.
For that fee, they are placed in a group with other business owners to form something akin to an advisory board.
Mr. Barkdoll calls his client groups "inner circles."
The groups fill the same needs for small companies that directors fill for large corporations, says Mr. Barkdoll.
"Most of our clients own and run small- to medium-sized businesses," he says. "They have management and growth issues to juggle while they are, at the same time, trying to run a successful business. They're in the trenches day in and day out.
"What we do is give them an opportunity to step out of the trenches and see the forest with the help of other people who have also been in the trenches."
Mr. Barkdoll believes that the groups' most important element is providing an atmosphere where business owners can risk being creative.
The Business Network's service is not unique. Regionally and nationally there are numerous firms that assist small business owners with banding together in advisory boards to jointly ferret out solutions and growth strategies.
Sam Andelman, owner and president of Graphic Concepts, a Laurel-based screen printing and design company, has been a client of Mr. Barkdoll for about four years.
"There's a lot of mutual respect in the group for one another; no one thinks they are a better business owner than anyone else," he says. "That allows us the trust to play devil's advocate."
Mr. Andelman says he prefers to seek advice from his inner circle over hiring outside experts because he believes inner circle members feel a bond with one another. The group offers a range of experience and resources that hired guns can't match, he says.
"For me the investment has been really worth it. The meetings are very therapeutic," Mr. Andelman says.
Mr. Barkdoll and his partner in the Business Network, Paul Riecks, launched their networking service in affiliation with a Minneapolis-based networking service, Inner Circle International.
Business owners who have signed up with the Business Network meet monthly for 2 1/2 hours with their inner circle at a central location.
On average, groups have 10 to 14 members each. Mr. Barkdoll says he takes care not to match up competitors in a group.
Howard County-based clients include a defense contractor, a wholesale produce supplier and a screen printing company.
Annual sales revenues of clients range from about $100,000 to $80 million.
Meetings begin with time for inner circle members to share and discuss pressing issues, such as personnel matters.
That time is followed by a session in which one member makes a detailed presentation on what Mr. Barkdoll refers to as a "strategic" issue -- one that could have long-term ramifications for the company, such as launching a new product line.
Mr. Barkdoll or Mr. Riecks -- both former Equitable Bank employees -- runs the meetings.
Their duties involve keeping discussions focused and making sure all inner circle members know what issues will be broached at future sessions.
Aside from running the meetings and preparing clients for inner circle klatches, Mr. Barkdoll, who works out of an apartment-turned-office in Baltimore's Canton waterfront, periodically makes the rounds to meet with his clients and see their business operations.
The Business Network has 105 clients in eight inner circles, up from 11 clients in two groups during its first year of operation in 1988.
Mr. Barkdoll says he and his partner are looking into the possibility of setting up affiliates in three other states, but those plans might take another three years to unfold.
Two of the inner circle groups are comprised of business owners and entrepreneurs in the Howard County area, and meet at Columbia locations. Several other Howard County-based business owners are members of an inner circle group that meets in Prince George's County.