Many SME owners know the value of networking groups, but sometimes the more industry-specific these are, the better
"A lot of business comes through networking groups," runs the received wisdom. But are the standard versions the best choice for your business? A number of niche networks are starting to emerge – is it worth picking the right one and sticking with that instead?
Steve Bustin, a journalist, trainer and PR man from Vada Media in Brighton, thinks it may be. He began his PR operation at a branch of a large, established networking group when he lived in Shoreditch, but found his local version since moving to Sussex operated on a smaller scale. "This was 2002 and Shoreditch was just becoming the creative hub that it is today," he says. "The chapter emerged out of the fringes, so you had partners in major City firms and you had freelancers like me." This effectively kickstarted his business when he first went freelance. On moving he found the local group operated on a different scale. His business had thrived with the budgets people in the London group had at their disposal; the level of referral in the Sussex group was more along the lines of people buying flowers from a member florist rather than elsewhere. There were slim pickings for anyone wanting longer term, substantial contracts. He was simply in the wrong place.
Bustin now networks through a specialist LGBT group and sees narrower operations as the way forward, in spite of this not guaranteeing big budgets. "The most successful groups are the ones that serve specific market sectors," he says. "It's actually because you bring together people with at least something in common, but they come from a broad reach of business." He cites Asian groups and groups based in a local church of which he's aware – the commonality makes it easier to do business.
BNI, however, believes the broader approach still has some way to go. National director Charlie Lawson believes networking will work as long as the purpose is to extend the base of the referral network. "The biggest mistake people who think only niche networking works can make is to assume that it's only people who complement what they do who can refer business to them," he says. "What we've learnt about networking is that you should never underestimate who knows who. When seeking a dream referral, the more specific you can be the better."
Nonetheless, smaller groups are gaining ground. Jonny Rose heads up a breakfast networking club in Purley but also a new group called the Croydon Tech City initiative, which aims to build a second tech city to rival Shoreditch in south-east London. "The idea came from what's been going on around the world, creating an ecosystem where there are creatives and entrepreneurs in the same place," he says. "There are great ecosystems around the world where people are working across their professions together and it really works."
Unlike other business networks he has attended he aims for a less formal atmosphere and structure. "People who attend those tend to see people as prospects rather than people. I know it sounds a bit weak but I want people to see people first, developing friendships and relationships first." It appears to be working; at the last meeting in January people had to watch the presentation on video in an anteroom.
Rod Banner co-founded Collision, a London-based group whose aim is to bring together technologists and marketeers. Banner has connections in both groups and believes they would benefit from meeting up – essentially many of the technologically minded people he knows develop apps that will need funding through advertising and when he asks how they'll sell these adverts, they shrug and ask how difficult it can be. In reality, it's very difficult indeed. "Collision was born specifically to bring these two tribes together and catalyse changes in thinking, working practices and old school business," he says. "We reckon the sooner Adland and Techville realise how much they need each other the sooner new kinds of businesses will be built and successful new formulae will be discovered."
Heather Townsend, author of FT Guide to Business Networking, sees both broad networks and niches as effective. "You have to ask why people join a networking group and then why they leave," she says. "They join because they believe that by doing it they will get more business, it really is as simple as that." They hand over money to join and psychologically they have fulfilled a contract, she says – and then they leave because they don't get the business. "I never hear people say they've left a group because they have too much business."
Reasons people don't get the business vary, but a networking group run well will work whether it's niche or not, she says. "However, unless a networking group is really clear about its purpose and what it's there for, it's likely to die."
Networking expert Will Kintish offers advice for first-time networking group attendees:
• Go in thinking you're going to enjoy it. Talk yourself into having a good time – once you're there in the right state, you have a chance of creating opportunities.
• Go in with a generous and kind spirit – think "what can I give to them?" Give your full attention, your time, be interested rather than interesting. As the writer Dale Carnegie said, let the other person do the most talking, be a good listener and let them talk about themselves. People will like you and build rapport.
• Networking is building relationships. That works in three stages – know, like, trust, so start by giving something, such as a compliment. It's about building rapport – don't try and sell your products and services too early.
• Ask the right questions. If you think the opportunities are all about helping people with your expertise rather than selling to meet your budget, it will be so much easier.
• So many people spot an opportunity and fail to follow it up. If you go to an event and don't follow up an opportunity, what did you go for? You fear rejection, you worry you're pestering, but you're not. They went to make contacts as well.
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