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Our techno culture hasn’t yet eradicated the need for human contact. Growing your people network may be the key to that next big contract.

Imagine: you bump into your next-door neighbour one day and start chatting about your day job. You comment on how your plumbing business has been a bit slow lately, while your neighbour mentions that her hairdressing salon is flourishing.

She invites you to the next meeting of the local chamber of commerce group, which runs regular events with guest speakers and workshops.

You go along and after listening to an accounting expert and getting some cash flow tips, you stay around for coffee. You’re introduced to another member who runs a large real estate agency nearby.

Talk turns to business and it turns out that a plumber the real estate agent contracted to maintain leased properties has relocated his business, and so she’s looking for a new plumber to take over. You give her your business card and set a time to meet the following day. You’re back in business!

Networking is about establishing communication links with other people as a means of exchanging ideas and information. And although the concept has been around for a long time, networking has become a bit of a buzzword of late as small business owners are realising its benefits.

"People are starting to realise that the real value of a business is the relationships you have," says Geoff Kirkwood, national director of the Australian branch of Business Network International (BNI). "It’s called social capital—the connections, relationships and networks that you have are worth far more than any other single aspect of your business."

Networking doesn’t have to be business-related. You can easily make contacts in social and special interest settings, or your next big client could be your next-door neighbour—the important thing is that you do it.

According to Kim McGuinness, founder of the Women in Business Breakfast Series and Network Central, not everyone is a natural networker and so having a strategy will help. "People will often put off networking because of a confidence issue or a time issue, but it’s probably the most important thing you can do in your business and your career. Having a strategy just encourages you to get out there and do it and make it important, and then come back to your business and follow up," she says.

The more you network, the easier it will become. Getting your hands on extra resources and books such as Network or Perish—co-authored by several networking experts including McGuinness, and renowned networking specialist, Robyn Henderson—can provide practical advice to help make the most of networking for you and your business.

Getting Started

Various network groups or clubs have been established for like-minded people to meet, exchange ideas, form relationships and potentially provide added knowledge and/or business leads to help you work smarter in your business. There are many out there catering to a variety of people and purposes and so it’s a good idea to do research.

In Network or Perish, Neen James, co-founder of the Connect Network, suggests asking the following questions: what types of people attend this event; what industries are represented; how long has the group been established; what three words best describe this group; is there an opportunity for me to promote my business; does the network have membership, and if so, how does it work and what does it cost? A network’s website is a good place to find this sort of information, otherwise contacting the organiser is a good starting point.

If you’re considering joining a network, ask if you can try a few sessions before making a decision about joining. Also consider getting involved with more than one network. Networking across a broad age, industry and geographical spectrum can be beneficial.

Group Options

Industry-based networks are a good way to mix and exchange ideas with individuals experiencing the same issues. The Connect Network was co-founded by James in 2002 to create a network for marketing and communication professionals. "Very deliberately we focused on this area. We thought that by having a focus on those particular services, our members would be able to benefit each other," James says.

Between its Sydney and Melbourne networks, around 250 like-minded members take advantage of being able to bounce ideas, create things and share strategy. "It works so well for us because people are so generous in doing that for each other and they’re all helping to grow each other’s business."

Connect holds a monthly breakfast in the two states (non-members welcome) where attendees will hear from a guest speaker. Members are also listed on its website.

Alternatively, BNI is a 20-year-old networking business that started in the US. It launched in Australia seven years ago and now has some125 chapters and 2,500 members Australia-wide.

BNI’s main difference is its focus on building business through referrals with only one member from each chapter in an individual business category. Each chapter meets over breakfast weekly and, according to Kirkwood: "The real benefit is not the business they’ll do among themselves in any one group, the reason we really exist is to tap into the people each member knows."

BNI provides ongoing training on how to identify referrals and be proactive in turning them into new business. Members also receive their own home page on the BNI website, reference in the BNI trade directory, regular e-newsletters with articles about networking and word-of-mouth marketing, and they have the opportunity to do mentor sessions with one of the directors.

Online networks are now becoming more abundant and popular. This type of network could particularly suit a small business owner who is time poor and can’t attend all the group’s events but would still like to have a support network and access to resources.

McGuinness recently started the online-based Network Central, which provides an online community, books, resources, links and online event/networking for students, entrepreneurs (including small business), business (including the Businesswomen’s Breakfast series), parents (including the Thinking Parents forum), sea-changers (in a career/vocation sense) and retirees. It will also soon include a mentoring program that will match recently retired senior executives and business owners with younger business people and business owners.

"I thought it was about time networks focused on the whole person rather than just particular aspects," she explains. "I wanted to bring together a ‘whole of life’ networking resource, one that recognises the different roles and responsibilities that people have to make everything available in one place."

Go Clubbing

Centrum Events—Businesswomen’s Breakfast Series

The Executive Connection (TEC)

Network Central

Business SWAP

Home Office Network

Business Network International (BNI)

Young Business Network

Australian Businesswomen’s Network

Connect Network (for marketing professionals)

Business Enterprise Centres

Australian Chamber of Commerce &
Industry (also links to state-based chambers of commerce)

Australian Institute of Company Directors

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