Things can get lively when business people hold one of their regular meetings in a Kobrin restaurant. Courtesy photo.

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Many entrepreneurs glare at each other like wolves, but competitors can learn from each other, says the founder of a Belarusian business club.

Sergei Panasyuk has been in business for 14 years, selling computer equipment in Kobrin, a city in the southwestern corner of Belarus.

Three years ago he hit a wall.

“Over time, I realized that I didn’t have enough knowledge of management and finance,” Panasyuk says. “I started watching various videos, took courses, and went to study in Minsk and Moscow. I learned about some tools and started to use them. I first earned and then lost money. At some point, I found that I had hit the ceiling in development, and the new information that I got changed nothing in my business, and the profits didn’t increase.”

He was also frustrated that the courses and training sessions all seemed to say the same thing, but in different words. And the tools he learned about at major events just did not work in small businesses in the region. He spent a lot of time trying to implement KPIs, or key performance indicators, for one, until, “Eventually we realized that all that is completely unnecessary for a small company.”

Panasyuk hit on the idea of gathering his fellow entrepreneurs at a table and just asking for advice from those who had already accomplished something. “People very often ask for help only when everything is already terrible. And you [also] need to ask for opinions and listen to recommendations when everything is going well.”

Sergei Panasyuk started the club to help get himself over a hump. The idea has succeeded far beyond his initial expectations. Courtesy photo.

The problem was that networking among entrepreneurs in the Belarusian regions is practically nonexistent. In small cities, as a rule, such a culture doesn’t exist – most business people don’t understand that they can be helpful to each other. In November 2018, Panasyuk set about changing that mindset. His idea was modest: an informal club where local business owners could meet and talk shop. Eventually, the club was renamed the Business School, and Panasyuk still manages it.

How It All Began

Finding people was easy. With just 50,000 residents, Kobrin is a small city, and Panasyuk was familiar with many entrepreneurs. He reviewed his list of contacts and called those he wanted to join.

“Initially, there was one rule: to invite only one representative from each field,” he says. “For example, if there were three people who sell auto parts, I wouldn’t invite everyone to the club. In the regions, many entrepreneurs glare at each other like wolves. They are afraid that if they recommend something to another person, they will only create competitors. On the one hand, this is true, because the city is small. On the other hand, competition makes you move ahead and adapt to new market conditions. But over time, we abandoned this rule.”

In some cases, club members became partners rather than competitors, as with the case of four furniture business owners who merged their companies and opened a new factory.

Initially, the club met every other Tuesday in a cafe. Panasyuk chose that day of the week because it’s hard to start new things right after the weekend, he says, as some people need to finish tasks from the previous week. For the first six months, each meeting had an average of 15 attendees.

The meetings still run on the same pattern as in the early days, with attendees divided into smaller groups to exchange advice. “We try to have strangers and non-competitors sitting near each other,” Panasyuk says. “Someone shares their pain and the rest brainstorm solutions. The main difference from other business training is that knowledge is specific for small businesses and should be simple and practical.”

At first, these meetups also involved “dismantling” one or two local businesses. A business owner talked about their challenges and opened the floor for advice. Other members would assign them homework (for example, to start or improve the company’s social media accounts, try different ways of finding new employees, or revise the company’s financial plans). Participants did their homework; as Panasyuk says, coming to a meeting without it would be too embarrassing. This format helped many people, including company founders, to solve the problems that had accumulated over time.

“Our meetings also helped me,” Panasyuk says. “I had two lines of business: a repair service and a store. And I was actively trying to scale up the first one, even though it had started to earn less revenue. But I was practically ignoring the store, which was earning more. I had to review the entire work of the firm over the past five years to understand that I should look in another direction.”

One of the club’s first meetings revealed the power of Instagram to help even businesses in less-populous places. “We had participants who actively used this tool. And they explained how to work with it,” Panasyuk recalls. “In Minsk, everyone understands that you can’t get anywhere without Instagram. But in our city, not everyone knows that. After that meeting, everyone opened accounts, started creating stories, and posting. I changed my personal account into a business one and launched an ad. After some time, we had to turn it off, because we did not have time to process such a large flow of incoming requests.”

After attending a few meetings, Alexander Levonyuk, a bookstore owner in the nearby town of Zhabinka, began promoting his store on Instagram and Viber. Now his store has over 700 followers on Instagram – a good result for a small town. At a five-hour club training session he learned how to improve the store’s website, and club members advised him on upgrading his computers without spending a bundle.

Bookstore owner Alexander Levonyuk was surprised to learn that entrepreneurs can see each other as allies, not just competitors. Courtesy photo.

“I also managed to solve issues with my staff, a tangle of problems that I would not like to talk about that we had for several years,” Levonyuk says. “One of the club members analyzed my situation in detail, and in the end everything worked out. … But most importantly, I found real friends at the club, and I can always get support from them.”

Levonyuk joined the club in 2019 with a dozen years of experience operating the Knigolyub (“Book Lover”) book, stationery, and toy store in Zhabinka.

“I met Sergei at a regional business forum in Brest,” where he learned about the club, Levonyuk says.

The idea of a forum where entrepreneurs could share experiences appealed to him: “I understood that this could help me develop my business,” Levonyuk recalls. “But at the same time, I was surprised that we have such a thing. I’m used to entrepreneurs more often seeing each other as competitors, not allies. But this is a completely different, more mature level of business, so I took his contact and came to the next meeting of the club.”

Since he joined, the Business School has grown not only in the size of its membership but also in the quality of knowledge, he adds.

Gradually, more and more people learned about the club through word of mouth, and the number of participants mushroomed to 80, outgrowing the confines of a cafe. One of the club members suggested moving the proceedings to his restaurant, with an entire floor dedicated to the events.

A Turning Point

The Business School now counts about 200 members, including entrepreneurs from nearby towns and even Brest, the regional capital. Women entrepreneurs are also well-represented and they actively participate in club events. The backbone of the membership, around four in five, are business owners with five or more years’ experience, but rookie entrepreneurs and even high school students also join the club. Even as the club has grown in size, everyone involved in organizing club activities, including Panasyuk, works without pay.

But money can make a difference. Two years ago, the Business School won a competition for projects to boost local economic development. Panasyuk points to that victory as a critical moment in the club’s growth. Part of an EU-funded program implemented by UNDP in partnership with the Belarusian Economy Ministry, the competition included a monetary award of $110,000.

The additional funds allowed the club to invite business trainers to run workshops once a month. Organized in cooperation with UNDP, these events covered finance, sales, customer service, human relations, and other topics. Some club members received training to become business coaches so they could run master classes themselves in the future. The club also started organizing excursions to see how various businesses work. Participants visit each other’s enterprises and high-tech business parks in Brest and Minsk. 

One workshop introduced club members to the idea of psychological support for entrepreneurs. Around 100 people attended a total of 12 meetings. “Most entrepreneurs will experience a lot of stress in the first two months,” Panasyuk says. “When you are just starting your business, it’s still not clear what you got into. There may be no profit, money runs out, and many people think everything is going wrong. At such a moment, it is vital to show a person that he’s not alone, that many people have already gone through this and in the end were able to achieve success.”

Club members at a session on the psychology of business. Courtesy photo.

The club is also reaching out beyond the confines of Kobrin. They tried streaming meetings on Zoom for those who couldn’t attend in person, but this was not suitable for everyone, Panasyuk says. The club now posts videos of its meetings on YouTube, editing them down to one hour or less. The channel has about 300 subscribers so far, but, as Panasyuk admits, there is not enough time to promote it properly. Two years ago, the club launched a website called x100.by, where anyone interested can view announcements of future meetings, read material aimed at business owners, and see photos from past events.  Still, the primary task of the club is to help members who come to meetings in person.

Support Group

Another regular at the club, Roman Dubinka, says the meetings helped him, among other ways, psychologically.

“When I joined the club I had just become the director of a retail grocery chain and was very afraid of failures and mistakes,” he says. “There were more than 100 people in the company, and I understood that the lives of these 100 people, and also their families, depended on my decisions. As a result, I was afraid to make any moves. … The club helped me to understand that you should not be afraid to make mistakes – thanks to them, the company becomes stronger, more resilient.”

Dubinka was also able to gain proficiency in public speaking. Over time, club meetings had transformed from small get-togethers into mini-seminars and training events, where participants shared their stories in front of an audience. This came in handy for Roman’s future job: he currently works as a top executive at a large company in Brest, and he has to speak at large meetings.

Dubinka also followed the suggestion from club members to start his own YouTube channel.

“I have loved reading since childhood, and accumulated a decent library over time,” he says. “When a problem was raised at club meetings, I very often gave advice based on solutions from various business books. At one point, I realized that I was talking about the same books every time a new member came to the club. So I had the idea to shoot reviews and share them with everyone at once. Now the channel has more than 600 subscribers, and some videos have more than 5,000 views.”

Panasyuk also recalled a teacher who, after classes at the club, opened her own children’s center and now teaches children English.

By broadening its range, the Business School has solved a problem that it initially faced: business people would come for help, and when they solved their particular problem, they stopped attending – even though their experiences could be useful to other members. The more the club developed and offered new formats of work, the more people wanted to stay on a long-term basis.

Future Possibilities

Nikolai Mikulich, a co-founder of Smart Business Today, a business consulting company in Minsk, has watched the development of the Kobrin club from afar since he met Panasyuk at events run by a large entrepreneurs’ club in Minsk that he used to lead. There are no hard and fast rules on how business clubs should work, he says.

“An obvious plus is that the person who created this group is engaged in entrepreneurship himself. That means that he understands what problems the members of the business club face. It’s very cool when a founder is immersed in the values of his audience and shares them,” he says.

At around 200 members, the club has reached the optimal size, Mikulich adds. More than that and not everyone will have the opportunity to communicate with each other. Some modifications could be made, he suggests.

“In the club some have been running their own businesses for a long time and some have just started. There are owners of larger companies and those who have small businesses. Perhaps it is worth dividing into groups according to their interests,” he says.

Mikulich also believes that the club should encourage its members to act as ambassadors when they participate elsewhere in larger meetings or events. “When they go to other cities or other countries, everyone could broadcast the values of the club, talk about its advantages using their own specific examples. As a result, it might attract foreign entrepreneurs. And these days you can do this online.”

Virtual meetings have also allowed club members to attend events during the pandemic, though, Panasyuk says, with the limited restrictions in Belarus, they have only had to cancel several meetings.

Participation in the UNDP program has brought tangible results but also pushed the club, to some degree, into more formal training events. Now with the funding having run out and enough new expertise accumulated, the plan is to keep the workshops at a minimum and return to what put the club on the map in the first place: lively gatherings in an informal atmosphere that promotes networking and the exchange of lessons learned.

Iryna Bardouskaya has been a reporter and editor for more than 10 years, including at Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus; Pro Business, a website for entrepreneurs; and at the news site Tut.by, which the authorities effectively shut down after the protests against the disputed 2020 presidential election.