By Cynthia McKay
Reviewing my reports from 10 years ago, I calculated the number of product and franchise sales I acquired as a result of networking. In fact, the number of job offers I got was astounding--and I wasn't even pursuing a new career. Networking is a fine art and should be taken seriously. Some individuals think that networking is simply a vehicle for self-promotion and a venue for selling. But the personal relationships you cultivate are much more important, and those face-to-face interactions will establish you as a friend, confidant, reference and a pillar in the community. No kidding.
I started my business with no experience, no inventory and no office. I had no staff and no money, but I knew I could begin marketing my product if I could simply tell people about it. I looked through the newspaper and found a business directory that listed weekly meetings of the Chamber of Commerce and two professional networking groups, LeTip and Business Networking International. Feeling ill-prepared and with little to offer my newfound contacts, I went to each meeting armed with only 50 business cards, which was all I could afford at the time.
Although this story sounds painfully pathetic up to this point, the ending is happy because I ended up with a million dollar-plus company and several office buildings. I bring this up not to boast. I want to use those humble beginnings to encourage new entrepreneurs to go after their dreams--I did it with literally $22 to my name.
The trick to networking is, first, to show up. Check out these groups to find out if you're compatible with the individual members and their professions. Most groups restrict membership to one representative per profession. So before you go, find out if your category is available. I entered these groups in the gift basket category before I began franchising. The volume of baskets sold through the group enabled me to build on my modest business and reinvest my profits into the goal I was seeking to reach.
Making friendships is the key to success in businesses that network. An acquaintance who is an attorney visited a networking group only to find his ex-wife, a chiropractor, was already a member. She adjusted more than his spine at the meeting and made it clear he would be unwelcome. Yes, it's a unique situation, but you have to consider everything before you make a commitment.
To succeed in this kind of marketing endeavor, the commitment will include both time and money. If you can do neither, wait until you're able to pursue this option correctly. The costs can be several hundred dollars, plus the meal at your weekly or monthly meeting. The hours can also be challenging: My group used to meet promptly at 7 a.m., while others have lunch or evening meetings. Absences count, and the group could ask you to resign if you fall below its expectations.
You will also be encouraged to find leads for your clubmates. For example, if the group has a mortgage lender, you should refer anyone you know looking for a mortgage to that person. The process is not that difficult. I switched my insurance carrier to the group's representative, I sent flowers through the group's florist and I began using the group's dentist. The members learned to trust me, as well, and recognized my dedication to the group. They thought of my company when they wanted to send gourmet foods as gifts. Later, when I introduced the idea of franchising, the group recommended two people who got my endeavor going full force.
The importance of networking is to establish yourself as a person with integrity and a commitment to support others who share your enthusiasm for self-employment. I jumped in by attending every meeting, volunteering to mentor new members, working on social networking events and actively recruiting new members. The more people we brought in, the more business everyone had.
I am a huge networking advocate. You do indeed get back what you give. However, there's one caveat: Be at your very best when attending and participating in group networking activities. Don't end up like "Barb."
She was a wonderful member of a networking group to which I belonged early in my career. Barb was polished, refined, sophisticated and willing to help any of our members at any time. We all decided to get together socially in order to have a relaxing cocktail and introduce our significant others to those in our group. Keep in mind that our meetings always took place before work, when we were in our "professional" mode.
Barb showed up for cocktails in "leathers," with a biker she had met two nights earlier at a biker club. There's nothing wrong with that, but the venue she chose for introducing this nice, spirited man was inappropriate. Barb left us all feeling as though we didn't really know her. It's true we shouldn't assess an individual based on her dress. But shocking the people you do business with may not be reasonable, either.
We also discovered that Barb had a penchant for rye and bourbon, and eventually several people had to carry her out to her date's Harley. Sadly, Barb felt she should leave the group based on her foggy remembrance of that evening's activities.
Work hard to develop good, solid relationships and a reputation that your group can rely on. After all, we'd rather do business with people we know and trust than rely on the Yellow Pages.