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All the Way to the Top

Community role trumps national attention for local businesswoman.

Sharon Rainey never expected her volunteer work to evolve into a thriving business that receives accolades from the community and land her on a national stage with President George W. Bush. Although Rainey has garnered loads of attention recently for her company FYINetwork, she says she’s most gratified by how people in the community are affected by her service.

“I seem to have attracted a lot of members who feel the need to be connected to what’s going on here. That doesn’t always seem to be an easy thing in this community,” said Rainey. “I have people remark to me how much happier they are to live here in Great Falls by being a member of FYINetwork.”

FYINetwork is a membership-based, online service that gives neighbors the opportunity to weigh in and comment on subjects ranging from recommendations for handyman help to where to find a caterer for an event. It is entirely community-based and active only in Great Falls. Rainey is toying with the idea of franchising the network in the future.

One network member recently submitted Rainey’s name to the Bush campaign to be a panelist at a Bush stop in Annandale last week at the Northern Virginia Community College.

Rainey said, “They were looking for small businesses that had started in the last 12 to 24 months.” During his talk to the invitation-only crowd, Bush stressed the importance of small businesses in American society, according to Rainey. “The theme of the day was giving everyone a sense of ownership,” said Rainey.

SHE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO speak directly to the president and tell him what FYINetwork does and how she has built the business. “It was awesome, surreal, an honor and exciting. I’m still in disbelief,” said Rainey. “Only in a free democratic society can you have an average citizen like me up there with the President of the United States.”

Expanding the network's membership and ensuring the integrity of the information relayed to residents are Rainey’s everyday responsibilities. She gets several hundred e-mails a week from members of the network seeking information, which she then passes along to other network subscribers who respond.

For three and a half years she operated the network as a volunteer, then realized its potential about a year ago and pursued it professionally. FYINetwork got its name because when she was volunteering at the PTA she would send out non-PTA related items with the subject line “FYI.” Today, there are more than 450 lists contained in the FYINetwork that allow members of the community to search for the information they need.

Member Dave Hull contends that being a part of the list saves him both time and money. “Whenever I have to do something that requires some sort of service that I don’t know an existing source for, I look at the FYI lists,” said Hull. He recently used the list to find a painting contractor to paint the exterior of his home and was able to get several quotes from people that had already worked in Great Falls and were given good reviews by his neighbors.

“It’s a tremendous service to the community. It’s clearly the best return on investment I’ve ever gotten because it reduces the risk of getting faulty service,” said Hull.

Not all of the information is business-centered. “We’ve been able to build a relationship with the Reston Police Department. Last spring there was an attempted abduction of a 16-year-old girl. Within an hour we were able to post a description of the suspect and a description of the vehicle. We do the same for an Amber Alert,” said Rainey.

The kinship that has developed between members and between Rainey and those on her network is something that surprises her. “I’m most impressed, or astounded by, the intimacy of the network in how people are connected to both me and each other,” said Rainey. “I can tell you peoples life stories but I’ve never seen them.”

MOST OF THE MEMBERSHIP is comprised of women but is split between stay-at-home mothers with children and working women with children. “I think the commonalty between them is that they all want to know what’s going on in the community,” said Rainey.

The real keys to FYINetwork’s success, said Rainey, is that it stays local. “If I tried to expand it to include, say, Reston, it would loose that intimacy,” Rainey said.

Though she’s often credited for giving residents the help they need, Rainey said it isn’t her that makes the FYINetwork so successful. “What I laugh about constantly is that it’s not me, it’s the members who really make this work. I can’t possibly provide all the information people need. It’s only through the participation of the members that this works. I feel more like a traffic officer,” said Rainey.

Her modest view of the service she provides to the community is in contrast with the hosannas of those FYINetwork has help. Janet Jameson turned to the network recently after her young daughter was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital and she needed information about how to handle the situation. “Some people in the community gave me inspiration and some people gave me advice. There wouldn’t, in my world, have been a broad enough circle to get the information we did, or even the time to call people up and ask. I applaud [Rainey] for being such an entrepreneur and for filling such a need in the community,” said Jameson.

Information on the service can be found at www.fyinetwork.info.