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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Come on, rabbit, don’t be shy!

Rabbit shape

Image via Wikipedia

Quite often when I am taking my evening walk, I pass a man of about my age scurrying back from the rail station. No doubt he is a City worker. He does not meet my eye and scoots past like a frightened rabbit. Generally when I pass someone out walking, I say hello, especially if I quite often see the person. None of my attempts at greeting this guy have elicited any response, so I have given up.

The ant hill

To a degree I understand the man’s attitude. It is a sort of defence mechanism some adopt when they work in a big city, especially a capital city. There are just so many people. I know what it is like to find my way through an enormous number of people especially at a mainline rail station. One is reduced to ant status, almost climbing through and round the crowd to get where we want to.

This defence mechanism often extends to the workplace too, particularly if people are unhappy and just turn up, keep their heads down and work just because it pays the bills. I used to do that too. I stopped doing it because if you keep your head down people really do crawl all over you, and at the time it was a conscious decision. I realised I was not getting anywhere at the place I was working and that I was badly undervalued. I left and got a much better job with more responsibility, which was much more rewarding and which gained me a lot more pay.

The warren

Once we have our own business, we can’t be frightened rabbits. After all, rabbits are social animals really. We have to be seen and noticed. We have to network and build relationships in person and online. You know that already.

As an employee I DID make a conscious decision to go for better things.

When I set up my own business it was still pretty tough for a natural introvert like me. I had done a course on public speaking as an employee, mainly because I had to do a course and I had done all the others. It didn’t train me to present myself properly, because you only learn by doing it in practice. I have to thank BNI for that because it is where I cut my networking teeth. Getting business there was not all that successful because I could not get my ideal business category, but I benefited a great deal from the training.

To see me online you might not think I am a shy person, but by nature I am. We need to be ourselves when we network, but for many of us we still have to overcome our inhibitions and not hide away even when we would like to. I have got used to being “out there”, and that’s what we all have to do, but at the start it’s not easy, is it?

 

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Breakfast referral networking and gaining trust

When I started out running my own business I was lucky enough to be recommended to join BNI. In terms of business, it was not a huge success for me mainly due to local reasons, but it was great training for much more successful breakfast networking later; successful because I have met great people and won more business.

Networking for business involves getting to know other business owners and gaining their trust. We know that if we can help others to find business we will get referrals back. It is not always something that works instantly. We may have to wait for business to come to us because gaining trust takes time. Once we are part of someone’s network, they will think of us when talking to people they know who need a product or service we can provide, and they will refer us only when they have learned to trust us not to embarrass them.

Breakfast groups have the potential to become very tight-knit with true bonds between the members meeting every week. As we learned in BNI, attendance is important to gain that trust, and so it should be.

Why wouldn’t we want to have a weekly meeting with our sales team, for the breakfast referral group is our sales team? It is the most important meeting of the week and we should arrange our other appointments with clients and prospects around attending our breakfast meeting.

If attendance once a week at your breakfast meeting is not that important to you, you just don’t get it. But you do, don’t you? What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Is networking not for everyone?

It is the strangest thing, but there must be a lot of small business owners who simply do not get out to networking meetings. People do not like to get out of their comfort zones, but it seems an awful waste.

I went to an event this morning. It was not too early, so no one had to get up at the crack of dawn. It was a pleasure to meet one or two people whom I had not met before; new people to me and new people to the local networks. The majority of those there I had met before and some of them are in my quite close trusted network. They would be people I would be happy to help or whom I already have helped, or people who have helped me. A couple have become very good friends and I would never have met them in the ordinary course of business or social events. I know them because we have all made the effort to get out and meet new people.

All this is fine and proves that networking works and we can all get great rewards. However, the puzzle is that in a digital age and with so many people working from home or running small businesses on our high streets or industrial or business parks, there are not more. I do not suppose that the “missing” potential networkers simply do not go to the events I go to. We networkers go to quite a cross-section and in fact at one time or another have been to most of the networking groups around, whether they be BNI, the local Chamber of Commerce or one of our home-grown groups of which I run one.

My conclusion is that there are many people whom we are somehow missing who would be valuable resources for us, in that we could refer our network friends to them; they could benefit so much. I remember that when I was in BNI, a fine organisation, I took a lot of trouble to try to find people to come along to our visitors’ day. It was such hard work though and so few could be persuaded to come along. Those who visit my own group and join do it on their own initiative, though they may originally learn about the group from current members. The visitors understand the deal from meeting the excellent networkers I am fortunate to have. However, there must be a huge number of people sitting on their own working in their business and hoping for their best without tapping into the huge resources that networking brings. They may fail on their own. There is strength in numbers.

Some admittedly somewhat out-of-date figures (2004) said that

• 2,200,000 businesses had no employees (about 61% of SMEs).
• 1,450,000 businesses had an annual turnover of less than £50,000.
• 1,350,000 businesses had less than £10,000 worth of assets.

I believe there may be about 10% fewer businesses now, but plenty to go round.

Where are all these business owners? I love meeting my “same old faces”, my trusted network, but I am sure that we would all like to meet new people, expand our networks and tap into them as a resource, from which they would benefit. How can we get the message over? What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

Social networking and a testimonial

I had been going to write another piece about the person who insulted a guest and embarrassed his potential project colleagues, but it occurred to me that I could not do better than refer to my friend Penny Power’s excellent recent article Why Your Social Networking may not be working which shows how we need to move away from a closed and selfish attitude in a social networking environment and to be open and giving. It is a change which many coming out of a corporate environment are unable to make without adopting a completely different mindset. Some never do.

I was lucky enough to first meet Penny five or six years ago and whilst I am far from perfect I got a head start in better understanding the fundamentals of networking, coming on top of my initial BNI training of course. Get to know Penny. You will be pleased you have!

Read the article and enjoy.

“Show me the money” and Giver’s Gain

I alluded a month or so back to my early steps in referral networking and my experience with BNI.

I wonder if I am going soft though. What always made me happiest in BNI was the concept of Giver’s Gain. In other words, if you help others they will help you; the logic of that is one will prosper from referred business which stems from the referrals one hands out. So why is it that at an open meeting put on by BNI the other day (which was otherwise very enjoyable – thank you BNI) I cringed when someone yelled out the slogan “show me the money” and went on to explain how rich he was getting?

I have been around the networking circuit for over six years now, since not long after starting working for myself. We would all like more income, especially in these difficult trading conditions, but I have become more circumspect in talking about my financial needs, especially in the environment of the wider world of social and business networking, online and offline. The funny thing is I have no problem in asking for a sale in getting a new prospect’s business, but boasting about how much money I am making as the BNI guy did would make me uncomfortable as did my hearing it from someone else. That is not to say I am a great salesman, or at least not with the hard sell.

I suppose hard selling was what the BNI stooge, for that is what he was, had been put up to do for the event. Maybe it worked for the newbie start-up businesses, but I am more into soft selling and referral by recommendation rather than because I belong to a certain group. Talking about money sounds like greed or avarice, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Yes, I know “show me the money” is popular in demonstrating the success of a Chapter but it gives me the shivers. If we realise that the more we have, the more we can give there is value in the statement as well as the money. Charity is what we should all have at heart when doing business; that is why I always loved the philanthropy of Zig Ziglar as well as his wonderful books about sales and motivation.

Despite all this, I am considering returning to the BNI fold, though not giving up any of my present local networking including my current breakfast meeting. I enjoyed the old camaraderie and togetherness of BNI, and whilst I think some BNI members including Assistant Directors don’t quite understand what Giver’s Gain really means, the lure of the old tribe may be hard to resist.

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Referral networking and serendipity

Once upon a time, well in 1985, Dr. Ivan Misner, my fellow Ecademy BlackStar more or less invented referral networking, at least in the formalised way we see it today. Following my accreditation course to a well-known network of business advisers, or management consultants as they were more likely known twenty or thirty years ago, I was assigned a coach. I had weekly telephone meetings with him to assess my progress in getting work and to help me with my marketing. Remember, this was still in the Dark Ages of 2003.

One day, Coach said to me “You should think about joining BNI or BRE”.
“What are they? I asked.
“I don’t know” said Coach “but they are on the list of marketing tips I am supposed to mention”.

Well, even though it was the Dark Ages they had invented search engines and I would have used Yahoo in those days. I tracked down the local BNI franchise and after a false start try-out with a bunch (or a Chapter) which had totally lost direction I joined a pre-launch core group which was to become a full blown BNI chapter with whom I had breakfast every week (and attendance is essential unless you can send someone to stand in for you).

The big advantages of referral networking are that you learn to get on your feet and sell your business in (usually) one minute and, because it is expected of you, you learn to sell not just your own business but that of the other members all the time you are out seeing your clients. It is a huge confidence booster especially when you are feeling your way in business, and it is great to feel you have the support of other members.

I have to say, though, that BNI was not a great success for me in terms of promoting the business adviser – management consultancy type business, which is ironic given that Ivan was a management consultant when he came up with the idea of BNI. The members of our Chapter were all rather small businesses themselves and not my ideal customer. That was in itself fine, because the aim in BNI and clones of it is that the other members sell your services by passing your business card to their clients or customers, recommending you and promising that you will call. No, the problem for me was that the other members of the Chapter were B2C businesses whereas for me it would have been much better if they had been B2B offering office cleaning, industrial electrical contracting, office furniture fitters or something akin to that, meeting owners of larger businesses with a number of employees. I had similar issues with another referral networking group I joined subsequently.

Still, I was nearly three years in BNI, and stayed mainly because I enjoyed the atmosphere and liked most of the members. I was Membership Coordinator (VP) twice and in my second time ran the meeting for four months after the Chapter Director (President) upped sticks and left. I enjoyed that immensely, which is amazing for someone who was nervous of doing his sixty seconds, let alone a 10 minute presentation when he first started out. Towards the end of my tenure the Chapter’s printer cane up to me at the end of the formal part of the meeting and told me it had been the best run in his three years in BNI. I must have been doing something right! It still did not help me get any business and eventually I decided to leave because of the huge time and investment which was no longer paying off.

Why “no longer paying off”? Didn’t I say that I got very little business advisory work? Well, that’s true. However, this was where the serendipity factor came in. When I joined the core group there was already an accountant filling the relevant category which included the area of my particular expertise, which is direct taxation. He and I became good mates and as tax was not his forte I provided a sounding board for him. My friend was in the process of taking a step up from his small local firm (just him) to joining a firm of accountants in London. They had inherited a major tax investigation into the affairs of one of their clients and when my friend joined they had no one of sufficient experience to deal with HM Revenue & Customs (as they now are) in such matters. I was called it to work solely on this one client, for whom I obtained a very good settlement.

Anyway, I earned for myself over a period of nearly four years some tens of thousands of pounds from this work, which was not related directly to what I was marketing in BNI. The point is to get out there because you just never know.

While I was not a great success in marketing the business helping-hand work I had diversified into, I learned a great deal from BNI though the philosophy of “Givers Gain” which is basically the art of giving in order to get. It is a hard thing to get used to for some, but in fact one can get great pleasure from helping others; I always have, but in case you think I am building myself up here, I have to say that giving is fun. My Grandfather used to say that giving was selfish because one really did it to please oneself. Combine that with giving in order to receive and that is doubly selfish, but it is a great way to go about business. Knowing that one has referred many thousands of pounds of business is in itself very satisfying too.

Give BNI, BRX as BRE has become, or a similar organization a go, especially if you are B2C and dealing directly with the public. Remember you have to be at the meetings, not just because the rules say so, but because you need to gain trust and be seen as reliable and reachable in case there is any slight problem with a referred customer of client. Know that your BNI or other colleagues will work hard and do their best for the referred client or friend because otherwise they will let you down too. Give out as much business as you can and if you receive a fraction of that you will be happy and prosper. And there’s always serendipity. You just never know.

© Jon Stow 2009