Geoff Shepherd ventured on a new business with his partner and, as is often the case, was drawn to our capital. The throngs of people on the streets threw up an idea for Geoff: “I wondered who all these people were and why weren’t we working with them? What facilities were there in place to connect with them? None of them was talking to each other; none of them were saying hello to each other,” This explains the initial thought that led him to explore the world of networking.
The result was The Yorkshire Mafia, launched in November 2008 on the professional networking platform LinkedIn. Business membership organisations are plentiful today, more so on social networking sites. This growing online group originated in Yorkshire with a philosophy quite contrary to sales-driven, let’s exchange business cards arrangements. The Mafia strives to explore the finer side to business communion. “We wanted something that is a lot more about building old fashioned relationships in a nice, warm and friendly, content-driven way, which depended on what you knew, what you gave, and what content you shared within the community. We didn’t really see anything like that out there so we created it; and because we had no money we called it ‘The Yorkshire Mafia,’ added Geoff.
A year on, the group had 800 members and was gradually exceeding the online boundary with the arrangement of offline meetings and events, including the UK’s third biggest business to business meeting: the Buy Yorkshire Conference and the more recent Leeds Business Week. The former alone is a programme of seminars, panels and workshops attended by close to 5,000 delegates, with 180 exhibition stands and high profile speakers and top executives from large firms along with Google, Facebook and LinkedIn gracing the event. “We achieved the unachievable the first time we held the event and have moved from 1,278 people to 5,108 this year. I don’t think anyone else pushes themselves that way,” said Geoff.
The Yorkshire Mafia is a peer to peer advisory and support network, promoting healthy business relationships. The discussion board on LinkedIn is providing simple access for the Mafia’s 17,718 members. “Our idea was never to have Yorkshire’s biggest business group. That was never the plan. It’s just a happy coincidence.”
One of the very first members of the Yorkshire Mafia, Amanda Lennon, who is currently on the Business Innovation and Growth Panel of the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership (LEP), has been supporting the group and Geoff over the years and has this to say about the unique nature of The Yorkshire Mafia:
Other business networks have revenue very much in the forefront of their activity, and some address members’ needs well, but this model grew out of a time when the information overload we have now was not an issue. Most membership organisations are still trying to sell to members, which in my opinion is an outdated approach. The Yorkshire Mafia offers a platform for peer-exchange of intelligence and referral which is far more valuable when it comes from an impartial source.
Members such as Amanda believe that the Mafia plays a pivotal role in raising the profile of the region, through facilitating valuable introductions and connections that enable remarkable projects, businesses and activities to move forward, resulting in a long term economic impact for Yorkshire. “The Mafia is the catalyst if you like, the enzyme that makes it all happen a little quicker and easier than if all of the parts had to do it independently,” she adds.
Professor Christopher Prince representing Leeds Beckett University as the Business School Dean and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Business and Law, spoke of the importance of the Mafia as one of the biggest professional networks outside of London and the benefits to the School through participating and sponsoring events such as Leeds Business Week. Explaining further he highlighted:
Over the last few years The Yorkshire Mafia has grown quite strongly. We see this as a key vehicle for promoting Leeds Beckett Business School across the region. The events are growing year by year. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it in any other regions, certainly in the north. So it’s an important body to be part of and we are very proud to be cooperating with Geoff and colleagues at Yorkshire Mafia.
“I think every business community could do with the function of a mafia and if you listen to George Osborne, who keeps on saying he wants a Northern Powerhouse, he’s already got one in the Yorkshire Mafia,” said Tony Watson, Director of The First Direct Arena, another member who has very similar thoughts on this fast expanding business membership group. Reiterating that the Mafia is one of a kind and an entirely neutral business membership organisation free from politics or agendas, Tony also emphasised on the mafia being far from an aggressively sales-led platform.
"In Yorkshire if one business wants to reach out to another business the Mafia is a really effective means, posing as a central nervous system with Geoff as its brain and all the businesses as the organs; and they are all connected really strongly together through the Yorkshire Mafia,” added Tony.
Bob Proctor, Sales Director of Aquapoint, has been a Mafia member for the past 5 years involved both online and offline, including having exhibited at the Buy Yorkshire Conference on a regular basis. As a member who has attended countless events, contributed to LinkedIn discussions and supported the group in a range of ways, Bob also had much to say about the Mafia:
“The Yorkshire Mafia is a place where I have found lifelong friends; a place through which I've undertaken life enhancing adventures; a place where I have been able to promote my businesses effectively. It is a unique entity, not only because of the members but also because it is superbly run by Geoff Shepherd and his team. The YM has been fantastic for me and my businesses. The trust I place in the organisation and members is very unique.”
With a growing membership close to 20,000, an online business networking group that brings over 15,000 people face-to-face yearly without the abuse of a penny of tax payer funds is certainly a feat worthy of acclaim. Speaking about the organisation’s future, its Founder Geoff concluded:
What next? I think we have to evolve; organisations that stay still don’t develop. We would probably take the group off LinkedIn and build our own, but then the challenge is to provide enough value for 17,000 people to move with us and to become 170,000. With access to 170,000 businesses across the North, in a way we become the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. I would also love to have a Yorkshire Mafia village; a real physical place where businesses can work together, their children have a school and so on, like a commune. Why not? All things are possible if only people have the will.