Rhodri slung his new weekend bag in the back seat of the rental coupe and set off for the Netgain New Member Weekend. He'd loved the Friday meeting and was very happy about the whole thing. He knew no one in Cardiff and joining Netgain could change that quickly. Nick, a friendly estate agent (and Netgain affiliate) he’d met not long after arriving in Cardiff had organised a last minute invite for him while they chatted about his property desires. Well rewarded Netgain affiliates produced guests that bought into Netgain straight away. "What a guy", thought Rhodri. If this was what life was about not being a contract hitman, it would suit him fine.
Rhodri was an estate agents dream – a cash buyer. “Renting has to be your best option while you find your feet in the city” purred his new buddy. Rhodri liked the way Nick said obvious things in a nice way. He’d forgotten what sincerity was like. He’d heard plenty of pleading before, usually from people with a few seconds to live. People being nice to him because they wanted to be was a new experience to him and he liked it. He thought the weekend might help him brush up on his small talk, as retelling some of Stefan’s jokes probably wouldn’t go down well.
Nick knew cash purchasers were rare opportunities for savvy estate agents to put deals together for homeowners stuck in long chains and hit the commission jackpot. Putting Rhodri on ice in a rented flat for a few months would do nicely. Plus, Nick liked the look of Rhodri (he still had his tan, well trained body and youthful looks) and thought he’d noticed a flicker in his eye.
Within a month of arriving back in the city of his birth, Rhodri would be visiting a hotel for a different purpose he was used to. He wasn’t packing a rifle, bullets, knives, silencer or poison. All he needed to decide was what shirt went with his jeans.
“How you settle in my friend?” He'd not heard Stefan’s voice for weeks and it took him by surprise when he saw his name pop up on his phone. He immediately felt a mixed bag of emotions that surprised him and realised it already felt a long time since his old life. “The false identity work out ok for you?” Stefan quickly asked to fill the short silence. “All is good Stefan. Thanks” The truth was, he missed Stefan, but found him stifling. “Sorry I haven’t rung, but there has been so much for me to do to set myself up here” Rhodri lied. He hadn’t realised how much he needed some space away from Stefan and the old job. “Is ok. I understand” Stefan lied back. He missed Rhodri terribly and was nursing a bullet wound in his shoulder. His first every injury on the job and all because he could think of nothing but how Rhodri was doing. His life was in danger without him.
Rhodri sensed that Stefan was hurt by him not calling and tried to change the subject “Hey, I took your advice. I’m joining a business network club. I’m driving to their welcome weekend right now”
“Good. You will have the rich fuckers pay you for garden to entertain their friends instead of kill them!”
“Hi. As Anne said, I’m David, member manager for Netgain. My role is to guide you through the initial stages of membership should you choose to join”
David came across in a ‘best teacher you never had’ kind of way. Not salesy or pushy, more of an honest broker trying to make sure you felt comfortable and ready for the great opportunity Netgain membership offered. In his late twenties, there was nothing not to like about David. He’d adopted the hipster look. Well, it did say on his business card that he was a branding consultant and the male grooming magazine he poured over every month said people in his profession at his age, were mainly hipsters.
“If you were not aware, the first step for new members is our New Member Weekend. We invite you to a country hotel for the weekend for full training, introductions and awareness of how we help you and your business succeed through Netgain. We provide this free of charge for all new members”
If there were any of guests sitting on the fence at this point, that last point converted them. It worked every time. They'd tried other things, but the simplicity of a free weekend away lowered the newbie guard for the next phase.
Sometimes guests worried their business wouldn't be suitable for Netgain. This fear had been engineered out of the process by tailoring the weekly show towards the guest profiles in attendance. The show gave the impression that guest businesses were in high demand from big spending, high profile connections of Netgain. All this was interweaved into an irresistible fairy story so well played by Joseph. Netgain knew other business networking clubs were full of awkwardness, cliques and dysfunctional behaviour geared towards protection of contacts and allocating business to favoured members.
Despite that definition, that’s what people wanted....their slice...
Netgain played on this dynamic. All the guests needed to do was join a group that ‘needed’ them and start doing new business straight away. Yet, that’s what all the networks said to some degree. What they all didn't say was success was down to other things new members didn't want to hear.
David had been round them all and the free weekend was his simple idea that meant the sale funnel that started with an invite to a Friday meeting, ended quickly at that first meeting with sign-up. He put it down to his irresistible offer. Others in the management team put it down to careful selection of guests. He preferred his view and enjoyed that he’d nailed the unique sales proposition, a term he learned on his university course Lorraine sponsored.
Lorraine met David at a café he worked at in the summer holidays before starting university. They got chatting and he told her about the pressure from his parents to study what they wanted. She had no children and saw something special in David. She returned to the café many times over the following weeks and eventually proposed to sponsor him to take the Cardiff university course he preferred in return for doing a part time internship at Netgain.
She was his saviour. He loved living in Cardiff and no other student job paid anything like Lorraine was talking about. She knew he had a streak of laziness, but could see a future heir with a bit of mentoring. His parents eventually accepted his decision, especially with a guaranteed job after graduation. That support disappeared at his graduation party...we'll get to that.
“Ok, we run the New Member Weekend once a month. The next one is next weekend. There is room for all of you to join us then or go on the list for the next one”
David talked the guests through the schedule, vacancies remaining and reminded them that Netgain had booked the whole hotel for the weekend. He even played a little slow motion video of the hotel facilities on his iPad. This final unveiling left the guests ready to sign anything.
The 100% signup record was maintained for another week.
“Hi, I’ve got an invite to Netgain”
“Can I take your name?”
“Welcome. David will show you where to get coffee”
Those few words are exchanged Friday mornings as invited guests appear. Nearly all potential members are referred by carefully selected contacts spread across a handful of business hot spots in Cardiff. Guest attendance is a well-orchestrated process and recent changes were achieving a 100% weekly sign-up rate.
“Welcome to Netgain” announced Lorraine in a humble yet powerful tone that immediately put the most nervous at ease. “Today is a bit special. As some of you know, I am stepping down from running Netgain full time and handing over to Anne. I’ve enjoyed the last ten years and it’s time to slow down a bit!” Lorraine commanded the room. Not with what she said. She could say any string of words in any order and you’d drink up every syllable. Her private education in Cardiff had given her something that those around her liked and trusted, but couldn't quiet put their finger on. “It’s early and there is lots to get through, so I’ll hand over to Anne right now. I’ll be around at the end for a natter”
Members knew this was coming and gave her a hearty round of applause. They didn’t know why Anne was chosen, but then nobody else really wanted to be group leader. Why bother, they all had it so good already.
“Morning all. You don’t hear my voice very often and I have no speech other than let’s crack on. We have five guests and I’d like to demonstrate how fab we are!” Anne knew not to prattle on. Her public speaking voice was not a patch on Lorraine’s. Her London accent got in the way sometimes and she tried to disguise it with words like 'fab'. Anne and Lorraine went way back and this opportunity was always present, but never spoken out loud. Anne was impatient with a ruthless streak that she tried to hide along with her accent. She'd been plotting a takeover for the leadership position, but out of the blue Lorraine offered it up.
Grandstanding was not Anne’s plan. No, she had something different on her mind. Another secret that just became a bit easier thanks to Lorraine. "Oh, before we start. Just one thing. The members you see here today are our platinum members who run this weekly meeting. We have several levels of membership starting with ‘steel’. There will be time at the end to discuss the membership levels and benefits with our member manager: David, sitting to my right. Ok, over to you Joseph”
“Thanks Anne. Let’s begin” Joseph stood and fired those four words across the room in a style that said “I’m in charge now and this is what you came for”. He could have been a film star in a different life. He had honed his weekly performance down to emotional filled theatre that visibly generated ambitious and greed feelings among the guests. His Cardiff twang summarised all the connections, opportunities, referrals and sales made in the previous week by Netgain members. It was all delivered at a blistering speed with no stutters or stalls. Guests sat mesmerised by what a fairly ‘average’ week could be worth to them.
Most guests had mentally decided to join already. None of them knew the presentation was completely false.
Every number, connection and sale was made up in this weekly show to catch "fish in a barrel"...
6.45am outside the venue for the weekly meeting of Cardiff's most successful business networking club, Netgain. No one knows why it's so successful. It doesn't do any visible marketing, but there is always a string of new businesses lined up to join, week in, week out. The boutique hotel falls over itself to provide a plush conference room and the sort of hot buffet breakfast you'd drive an hour for.
Jim’s been hovering outside for ten minutes already, puffing cigarettes and watching porn on his smart phone that he’d propped up on the window ledge. They advised guests not to arrive before 7am. Yet, some did and Jim played the warmup man to any eager beavers. He squinted through the window for the tenth time to see if their coffee flasks had arrived. He'd specified prepared strong filter coffee, not hot water with those packets of instant. Oh god, that gave him the shakes just thinking about it. Cigarettes and reasonable coffee was all he demanded, not a diva in his book.
"What's up Jim?" Sarah chirped warily, long having learnt to keep it light with Jim. She was usually first to turn up to have time to apply her make up. She always said her face was too puffy when she woke up to do it. In fact she will tell anyone who listens, like it was some kind of trendy exotic disease.
"I fucking hate this time of year. Fucking self-assessments. I've had no sleep and I need a fucking coffee" Jim spat the words out like halitosis bullets right in her face.
"OK matey. Good morning!" she winced at Jim's swearing, but tried not to show it. He loved to swear as much as possible in front of her and watch her squirm. He liked the way she pulled her arms into her body like a defence against the words, which made her boobs rise up. "Look, there's the coffee coming now!" Sarah pointed, and trotted off to the loo in heels way too high for breakfast.
She knew to be polite to him. He was the ‘Accountant’. He did all the management team self-assessments. He also managed the payroll. Yes, the membership payroll – a business network club that paid its members. That was one of those things, you know the type - one of those things that had both rumour and fact in it. It was enough to create a buzz alright. The membership was steady and rarely lost members. In fact it had become an ‘in joke’ that the only end to membership was death.
This was the best business she'd ever been involved in, but her boyfriend hated that they never took holidays, yet loved the things they could buy. She loved to treat him. He was her trophy. He wasn’t quite premier level, but pretty enough for the odd photoshoot now and again.
That’s what he told her anyway.
“I’m out Stefan. It’s been twenty years and I'm done. I’ve always wanted to be a landscape gardener….in Cardiff” Rhodri had travelled the world and lived in hotels for so long he’d almost forgotten he was from Cardiff. He wanted a life, he’d earned it. Well, he’d taken many other lives that deserved taking. He thought he might sound a bit whiny when he said those words, but they came out strong. He couldn't look Stefan in the eyes as the came out though.
“If you is sure is what you want – is ok with me” Rhodri loved Stefan’s east European accent. His words were economical and monotone, yet you understood any nuance from how he looked at you.
They’d saved each other’s lives many times, which meant the usual exit for a contract hitman didn’t apply. Stefan knew Rhodri hadn’t been himself recently or enjoying his work. He’d kidded himself that this day wouldn’t come, but he’d noticed the signs for a while. Part of him hoped he wouldn’t live to see Rhodri leave him.
“Maybe you save job for me?” Stefan would miss Rhodri. They’d seen dozens of their peers come and go over the years. Yet they’d survived everything thrown at them and were like a family unit. After all, Stefan was the closest thing to a dad Rhodri had. “You’d shoot yourself after five minutes in a garden!” Rhodri knew Stefan would die doing his job. He couldn’t cope in real life. They both knew it. It didn’t need to be said. Deep down Rhodri feared Stefan wouldn’t cope as a solo operator very long.
Rhodri had accumulated enough cash to retire at thirty. Working as an international hitman since ten years old can do that. Stefan’s clients always paid and paid big. In between jobs, Rhodri had fantasised for years about being a landscape gardener to enjoy the anonymity of real life.
For a few seconds Rhodri dreamt of the future and Stefan reminisced about the life they’d had together, as they sat outside their favourite Barcelona back street café not knowing what to say next.
“Time to catch my flight” Rhodri broke the silence and downed the last of his Americano.
“Ok my friend” Stefan understood. “Wait” Stefan muttered in a thick slow dark tone he used in the day job. Rhodri’s hairs rose on the back of his neck. Stefan reached inside his jacket, his hand brushed past his loaded automatic and plucked out his sunglasses. “My uncle sells the double glaze windows back home. He gets plenty business from business network club. You join club to get business yes?”
The story starts...
A monthly serial based on something you either love or hate : the business networking 'club'
It's going to get weird!
Netgain is a business networking club. It’s the most successful club of its kind in Cardiff and probably the world.
Local businesses can apply for membership and benefit from expertise, connections and business opportunities that come from business leaders getting to know, like and trust each other. That doesn’t sound mould breaking, so what is the secret sauce that has made them so successful?
Something happened a few years ago. Something that changed everything.
It was an accidental discovery. An unfortunate episode that should have been reported to the police.
They did what all business people tell you to do in networking meetings. “Seize the day”, “Create your own luck” or such like. Their various talents were blended into an awful criminal entrepreneurial opportunity. You could call it “crimin-eaurial”...