2021 marks Opendoorz 10th anniversary. It’s been quite a journey for founders Cathy Dunbabin and Sonia Kearns who have not only managed to build a successful business but have remained the best of friends throughout. For our latest blog they share the secret to their success.
Good friends and committed fizz drinkers since their eldest daughters started school it was around 2006 that Cathy and Sonia started talking seriously about going into business together.
“It was over a few drinks that we hatched a plan to start our own business. It wasn’t exactly on the back of a fag packet, more like a champagne label!” says Sonia.
In 2007 they launched Frontdoorz, a property company, which Cathy freely admits, ‘wasn’t the best timing’.
Under the cloud of the global financial crisis, the pair turned to networking as way to get their new business on the radar.
“Cathy was already a seasoned networker, but it was completely new to me.” Says Sonia “The original plan was for Cathy to do all the networking and I’d be ‘backstage’, but with so little work coming in we had to both get out there and start building connections.”
Despite being heavily involved in their networking groups the right sort of referrals just weren’t coming. “I decided to step away” says Cathy “But I felt so sad because I just bloody love networking! That’s when Sonia said to me ‘Why don’t we set up our own group?’”
The seed of Opendoorz was planted.
Both knew they wanted their networking group to be different to anything else on offer. So, they booked a private room at The Old Bank in Oxford and dug through their little black books to find the most successful business owners they knew.
A year later and they had a buzzing group with a list of business owners who wanted to join. So, they launched a second group in Summertown.
New groups followed across Oxfordshire and Berkshire but the model wasn’t quite robust enough to prevent Cathy and Sonia from being worked into the ground.
“We reached a point where it just wasn’t fun anymore.” Says Sonia “So we reigned it back in to the original two groups and took a long hard look at what we wanted the business to be.”
They took the decision to reduce the number of meetings from weekly to twice a month, introduced group ambassadors to run the meetings and launched the North Oxford group at the same time.
“It was absolutely the right thing to do but it was such a wrench for us to step back a bit from the meetings.” Laughs Cathy “They were like our children! Even now, we’re not very good at not being at every meeting – it’s the bit we love, meeting people, building connections.”
Sonia agrees; “It’s been hard finding the right balance but enabling the groups to be more independent, firstly with Ambassadors and more recently with Associate Directors, has absolutely been key to our ability to grow.”
The business has grown significantly (there are now seven Opendoorz groups across Oxfordshire and Berkshire), a feat Cathy and Sonia attribute in large part to their business coach and Oxford group member, David Haimes, who Cathy says “put the elastic in our big girl knickers!”. A meet up with former colleague, Sebastian Brown, led to a new group in Henley with Sebastian as Associate Director and Jon Ellard took on the role of AD in the North Oxford group.
“With the help of David, we became very focused on playing to our strengths.” Says Sonia. “Now we have well-defined roles and focus on what we’re good at. It’s made us a lot more effective and it keeps us accountable.”
So, what would they say is the glue that’s held them together for the last 10 years?
“I can honestly say that we’ve never fallen out.” Says Cathy. “We trust each other implicitly.”
Sonia agrees; “Neither of us has ever said ‘I told you so’. We share the same passion and values for the business.”
There is one more factor that both agree is fundamental to their successful business partnership. FUN!
“Fun is so important to our business model that we wrote it into our core values.” Says Sonia “From the day we met, we were friends first. We see our members as friends and when you’re with friends you have a great time. It’s at the heart of Opendoorz.”
And finally, what are their over-riding memories from the last 10 years?
“For me it’s the charities we’ve been able to support. We make a difference to our local community and that is an amazing feeling.” Says Cathy.
For Sonia it’s the friendships and laughter that she treasures most. “There have been so many fun, crazy moments over the last 10 years. It’s that shared friendship that has led to so many powerful connections being developed. I’m proud that we enable that to happen.”
And what can we expect from this dynamic duo in the near future? Well, organic growth seems to be the watch word.
“The world is an uncertain place right now but we’re quietly optimistic about the future.” Says Cathy “Our focus is our members. Ensuring they get the support they need from Opendoorz to help their businesses flourish. Getting that right naturally leads to growth. We just have to keep doing what we’re good at.”
And they certainly are good at it, even if they don’t always appreciate it.
“Someone recently pointed out to us that Opendoorz generated £1.8 million of new business in Oxfordshire, during a pandemic.” Smiles Cathy “It’s hard not to feel proud of that – seeing people and their businesses grow makes it all worthwhile”.