I was completely unaware of the concept of business networking before I became self employed. I soon became aware that networking was essential to establish contacts.
First of all I had to find a group that I got the right vibe from, where a rapport can be established with at least some of the group straightaway and there is some synergy and interest between various professions and in the right group some can become friends as well as business associates.
It is very rare that you will get business immediately from a group as they have to learn to trust you and you have to show commitment as well but it does help if you are made welcome and that you like the members within the group. If you immediately feel uncomfortable, don’t give up networking, join another group until you find one that suits you. You can normally go twice as a visitor before committing to a group so this gives you an idea if it will work for you, different groups work for different people
Roughly a third of my business comes directly from business networking and indirectly probably closer to half but this concept does work better for some businesses than others.
I found that another benefit of networking groups is that it helped me with public speaking, business skills and to have the confidence and belief in running my own business
In my ten years of networking I have met some very interesting and talented people in all walks of life.
Once you get established in the world of business networking you quickly learn of other opportunities as most of us belong to more than one group
I started off by googling and joined West London Business Network in Ealing and I liked this group which meets once a month at Drayton Arms but it wasn’t easy for me to get there. From this I was introduced to Trevor, a business coach who helped me tremendously in my early days. Another member was the late Brenda Seel of ACN who introduced me to BNI, probably the most well known and most successful worldwide business networking group. They meet weekly at 7am which is not for everybody but now they have introduced lunches as well. I have a few lasting relationships and customers with BNI members and they have remained my most loyal customers. Ten years down the line even though I have not been a member for many years I still have a handful of very loyal clients.
I was quite unlucky that the group I was comfortable with dwindled in numbers and became unviable. BNI only have one of each profession in each group and a group of 20-25 is healthy. Too many, becomes noisy and chaotic, too few means no business passed round the table. BNI has some really useful business courses and because it is costly it is wise to take advantage of these. It is a very formal group, regular referrals are expected and you must provide a substitute if you cannot attend. I did find these commitments very difficult to maintain week in and week out but the right BNI group can prove very fruitful indeed and most people find that the £1000 a year roughly does pay off.
Another group I joined was The Athena Network, a womens’ lunch group which meets once a month. Personally I felt that once a month was enough of a commitment for people to get to know and trust you and I still often recommend people from my Athena days and a handful have remained my loyal clients. I reckon I did and still do get more business from Athena members and they have remained the most loyal. It is quite expensive as they are lunch meetings and you can only visit once before you join. This also has a business exclusivity and a yearly subscription. Athena only has 10 meetings a year
WIBN – Women in Business Network has a very similar concept to Athena but somehow I found that it didn’t work well for me and although a few did book once or twice, none of the people I met remained loyal. A colleague joined them too and stayed with them for a few years and she did gain a few loyal clients so it does prove that what works for one may not work for another.
A couple of networking groups that bridge the gap between formal and informal networking is Fabulous Women which is an expanding network but strongest in London and Surrey. It is is subscription based at different levels and you can only visit twice before joining. It is a very friendly and welcoming group and despite the name they do welcome men too but they do like it to be predominantly women. It does have the advantage of being very flexible with no pressure to refer and it is also cheaper than most and these were the main reasons I stayed with them for so long. There are no business lockouts which is good in one respect because in some professions you can collaborate on projects and share work but for other professions it is more difficult to do that so that may not work so well for you if are part of a franchise. The other drawback is that many members go to several different groups up to 2 or 3 times a week, there is a lot of overlap and often too many of each profession. I found that in this less formal, open environment it was harder for people to remember me personally and to understand how I work, so despite being a member and even a group leader for 4 years, longer than any other of my networking groups, I have retained about the same number of clients as I had from BNI and Athena.
There are a few local groups with no subscription obligation, including KNOTS which I run myself monthly in Notting Hill. It is currently once a month on a Tuesday morning at Dechen, 106 Chepstow Road, London, W2. I run this free with no business lockouts and about half and half men and women, but the venue needs voluntary donations. The other group that I try to attend as regularly as I can is Ealing Connect which is run by Anita Wong of Bommie Media. This is £15 a session once a month and there is also an evening session once every 3 months, both at Charlottes at Dukes Yard, Ealing. A modest fee will also add your details to an online directory. Another group that I try to go to regularly is Askew Business Networking at Orchard Tavern, Askew Road which is lunch once a month which is a very modest £7.50 or thereabouts.
I attend open networking groups as well. Your local chamber is a good one to consider. Some restrict where you live or work but some don’t. These vary considerably in cost. I belonged to Hounslow Chamber for many years . It is well run and is excellent value at around £95 a year and I believe one of the best. They arrange many regular functions and meetings for little or no cost. The Best of …. are also worth attending and I have established some useful contacts. Although open networking is generally cheaper, you don’t develop the same level of relationship and trust that you do in regular and more formal networking groups so therefore it doesn’t normally generate business unless you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time
Many of the coffee mornings, lunches and dinners I go to have been spin offs from other groups like Athena and BNI, these include Coffee with Jo in Ealing, excellent value at £5 including a coffee
I hope that I have pointed you in the right direction and that you too will find a profitable and comfortable networking group in your area. Find Networking Events will take some of the hard work out of finding a local group
A few lessons I have learned over the years though. If you feel a group isn’t quite right for you or feel uncomfortable, don’t join it and if you have any doubts whatsoever about rejoining, don’t rejoin. Once you have a few loyal and established contacts, they will stay with you because they respect and trust you and you have less to gain by continuing with a group for “just one more year” and feeling as if it is a chore. I have made this mistake too many times. Another lesson I have learned is that business networking contacts are exactly that. Some may be more warm and friendly than others and you may build up some excellent, lasting relationships with them but always keep them as friendly business contacts rather than as friends to socialise with. I have been to a few business networking social evenings, Christmas lunches etc. and I have found myself in some very awkward situations both financially and socially, so I tend to make excuses and avoid them.
Do you know of any other good networking groups, particularly independent ones? Don’t keep it a secret! Please post them on my own KNOTS facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/1247637008581204/