Promoting your start-up business – Part 5 – Networking

 

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Don’t be a networking butterfly (Photo credit: Jon Stow)

What is networking?

What do we mean by networking? It means getting to know people. We are a social species, and of course some are more social than others. I am quite a shy person by nature, and really had to push myself to get out and meet people when I started my own businesses. Other people, such as my wife, are natural networkers and real social animals, knowing large numbers of people in the local community without thinking about it.

Of course what I am concentrating on here is business networking rather than general social networking.

It is not possible to categorize or talk about every sort of business networking opportunity. Meeting any other person in business, or who is a potential client, is business networking. However, I will discuss the different types of organized meetings which are available in most towns and cities.

  • The one category of business per group / chapter.
  • The several category of business per group type.
  • Networking lunches usually with a talk from a business person.
  • General gatherings organized by chambers of commerce or small business membership organizations, representative and lobby groups.

BNI and others

What do I mean by “one category of business per group”? This is the model started really by Ivan Misner with Business Network International (BNI) in the Eighties. The format is that in every “Chapter” each type of business is represented by one member. There are no duplications of businesses.

Originally all the meetings were over breakfast, although some are over lunch now. The emphasis is on the networking, not the meal. During the meeting, and often during the meal, each member has perhaps one minute to talk about her / his business and the types of referrals wanted. The talk-time is strictly managed and the whole meeting is very much to a format.

Members often take turns on a rota basis to have a whole ten minutes every few months to talk about their business in more detail. Towards the end of the meeting, each member has an opportunity to pass referrals from their referral pad, and all referrals are monitored for quality and success by the Membership Co-ordinator (I have been one, as well as run such meetings myself).

When I first started out with a business no one knew about, and the Internet was less advanced, my coach suggested I tried BNI.  I am very glad I did. It gave me confidence to speak in front of other people and to present my ideas, and most importantly I got to know other local business owners almost immediately. I gained some business and referred quite a lot to the accountant, the solicitor, the carpenter, the web designer, the heating engineer and the financial adviser.

BNI was not hugely successful for me at the time in terms of business gained, but the confidence gained was invaluable. Long after I left I got a huge amount of business from another ex-member.

BNI is great when you start out. I think my BNI “life” of about three years was typical, but some still benefit hugely after a decade or so.

Non-exclusive groups

There are some membership organizations which run breakfast or lunch meetings, like BNI require a significant joining fee and membership subs, and also like BNI are franchised to local organizers. Unlike BNI they permit any number of people in the same business to go to the meetings and indeed to go to multiple meetings in different towns. Whether this works very well is hard to tell. It helps you meet others in your own business as well as many others, but may produce conflicts in terms of getting referrals. 4N is typical of such organizations in the UK. There will be many varieties around the world. Try them out and see how successful they seem. Many will allow trial membership.

Business lunches

I mentioned networking lunches, usually with a talk from a business person. These groups are also often part of a franchise. They have an advantage in that they are focused on networking and you will get good opportunities to talk to the people around you at length. You never know who you might meet who could be an ideal referrer (you might be theirs) or even the perfect person for a joint venture.

The general gatherings I mentioned, organized by chambers of commerce or small business membership organizations, tend to be less focused, in that there is no real format. You may be fortunate to find and gain business at one of these, but especially if they are free at the door or there is simply an entrance fee and no on-going membership required, people turn up to sell. They tend to go to every meeting of this type so that you keep on bumping into them, when you really do not want to see them. I call these people who turn up at every meeting to sell networking butterflies. They never settle and probably never get or receive business, so they waste their time..

It is most important in business networking not to sell, but to be interested in other people and listen to what they have to say. That way you will get more respect and more referrals.

Less useful lunches

As for Chambers of Commerce lunches, I guess it is worth trying one or two, but you may be out of luck if the primary stated object is not networking. I have nothing against pensioners. I am related to pensioners and am going to be one myself one day, but I have found Chamber lunches to be the domain of the retired. If they are not in business any more they are not likely to be able to help you, and are unlikely to think about referring you to their friends.

Get out there

I enjoy getting out to network. I like meeting people, which BNI trained me to do. I have since run a “BNI clone” group. I have tried different sorts of groups, and you should try various types too, to see which you like and which might work for you.

Do not be disappointed if results in terms of business gained are slow to start with. You have to persevere, get known, gain the confidence of other business owners, and show that you really do a great job for your customers and clients. Remember not to sell. Business will come from networking, and maybe years afterwards as it did for me from an ex-BNI colleague.

I would wish you good luck with your networking, but you should not need luck if you work on it and give it time.

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