Networking Schmetworking. A Necessary Evil?
One of the basic tenets of growing a small business is networking. Who knew? I was green when I started my small physical therapy practice and just assumed people would come see me when I opened the doors. In the first few months I promoted myself on social media, wrote letters to doctors, reached out to friends and family, set up booths at town events, dropped flyers at nearby homes, and met owners of nearby businesses. With all of this, people did not walk in the door or call for services. Then one day someone from the chamber of commerce invited me to a networking breakfast. I had no idea what it was but I went to check it out. It disturbed me. All of these people sitting in a room cheering for each others 'commercial' about their business. Then the counting of points and referrals. Then the main speaker of the morning. I left there with my head spinning and an application in hand. I had been warned by one of the members that if I joined, I would not be able to speak about one of the main things that I do in my practice, because it overlapped with what she does. So I could not speak of it. At any rate, I was intrigued and terrified that this is what business owners do to get referrals. Well, the price tag for that referral network was high and the time commitment was huge. With two small children at home and a spouse that traveled heavily for work, I could not emphatically know that I could always make it to the meetings. Any more than two absences would lead to dismissal. I let that 'opportunity' go.
Another business owner who saw me promoting on social media invited me to a leads group meeting at a different chamber of commerce. I went to a meeting. I thought the people were nice and nobody told me I could not speak about what I do. The whole thing seemed much more forgiving about absences and referral points. I joined. It was social. It felt productive. I felt like I had a team behind me shouting for me on social media. Given my personality, I also hated every moment of it. I hated giving my 'commercial'. I hated being the speaker of the week. I hated sitting in the same room week after week with the same people, hearing the same things. Week after week. But overall, it was a good experience and I got referrals and gained trust from the members. This is where I learned about networking. It did really make me feel like I was productively moving my business in the right direction.
Here we are seven years since my first networking experiences. I shut down my first business when I needed more financial security as I plodded through divorce. I worked a job in a physicians office, got a paycheck, and loved it......for a few years. Then I needed more, had more skill, had more contacts, and opened my own business again. I wrote letters to doctors, I promoted myself on social media, I figured out FB ads, I got referrals from a few doctors that believed in my work, I ran specials, and I joined new chambers and new networking groups. I declined one of the chamber leads groups, because of course, someone in there felt I would pose a business conflict and would not let me talk about what I do. So I joined a more expensive networking group. I didn't mind this one. We met in the evenings at a restaurant and we habitually drank cocktails with our networking. I didn't feel the horrible pressure of delivering my 30 second commercial. I also didn't mind being the speaker of the week. But the weekly meeting was rote and repetitious. The agenda never changed. The group wasn't big enough to provide a healthy amount of referrals. But I stayed with it as this is how small business seems to survive. It seems you must have a nepotistic cheering squad. When someone in one of your FB groups says 'hey, I'm looking for a (financial planner, real estate agent, insurance agent, mortgage broker, etc.), your referral family is expected to scream out and vouch for you whether they use your services or not. If they do, they probably earn some 'points' in their networking group. This is small business. If you represent a popular category, like the ones I just mentioned, it is often hard to find one of these networking groups of which to join. They are category exclusive. One person per profession allowed. This way referral/business conflicts are avoided.
In my opinion participating in a networking group provides the extremes of love, hate, and meh. It generally costs money, at least a few hundred dollars up to $1,000's + a year. It takes time to go to required meetings and go to 'getting to know you' meetings with other members so that you can accrue points in order to stay in the group. There will usually be people in the group that won't refer to you nor you to them. I've done meetings for about five years. The formats are rote and repetitive. There is a standard agenda of small talk, member introductions (commercials), referral discussions & points accounting, general administration discussion, a weekly speaker, and good byes. I've been in groups that haven't given a darn about passing leads or building relationships. I've been in one group that was small but mighty. We fostered great respect for one another and great relationships. That said, once we had all done business with each other, we were basically left doing shout-outs for each other on social media. I loved that group, but when my brick and mortar business was at a stand still due to the pandemic and my membership expired, I left. I know people that have stayed in the same networking group for 20 years. It baffles me, but I guess they see the reward in still developing new business. While the effectiveness of networking groups is variable, a common desire from most small business owners seems to be wanting to meet and get 'in front' of more people. Having the personal relationships with the same people week after week is nice and builds trust, but is still limiting. Many networking groups do not allow you to join any other networking groups. Joining multiple networking groups is costly and creates referral conflicts. I hated being in two groups even for brief periods of time.
Now facing a pandemic, times have changed quite a bit for most small business owners. There is uncertainty throughout most, if not all small industry. Rents remain high and consumer spending is low. The pandemic is not being kind. Personally, I took an opportunity to close my brick and mortar shop before my lease was up. I feel fortunate that I was able to do so. I know many of my neighbors in the same shopping plaza are enduring true hardships in continuing to run their businesses. I know every restaurant, coffee shop, and brewery that I visit is struggling big time. Winter will definitely be more unkind as operations move indoors. Most business people I know are working from home. Many of my previous clients have been furloughed and figuring out what's next. Unfortunately or fortunately, for many, the key word of the year is 'pivot.' The shift is real. People, out of necessity, are figuring out how to work on-line and from home.
I dream of a thriving economy. I dream that small business can survive the storm. I dream of a healthier world so that we can get back to business, travel, and fun events full of togetherness. Until then, I pivot, I work behind my computer. On the plus side, many geographic boundaries have been erased. I look forward to meeting small business owners across the nation and possibly the globe. Given my love-hate relationship with networking and my obvious dislike of running through a stale agenda week after week with a feeling of futility, I am starting PinPoint Networking. Check out our selection of small business networking meetings. These meetings have no geographical boundaries. Even if you do business in only a specific region or state, you may find utility in some of our meetings. Take a look! Sadly, I must say this out front: THESE MEETINGS ARE NON-POLITICAL AND WILL NOT HOST ANY POLITICAL DISCUSSION OR AGENDA. These meetings are for those entrepreneurs that would like to spread the word about their business and make some new contacts. These meetings are 'come when you want' with no high membership cost. Let's rock and roll small business! Let's support each other however we can. Hope to meet you soon!