- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

Small-business owners seeking to join networking groups are likely to find they have dozens, maybe even hundreds, of possibilities in their cities or towns.

But finding a group that’s right for you is a lot like hiring an employee or choosing an accountant — you want to find one who fits your needs. It’s a business decision to be made carefully.

If you’re not sure where to look for a group, your local chamber of commerce can be a good place to start. And, of course, other business owners you know might be in groups that interest you. Many groups allow prospective members to attend a meeting or two to check them out.

The advice from people who run networking groups is to look for groups whose members think and work the way you do, and who are likely to help you get the kind of business referrals you need. Referrals, after all, are the main reason why business people network.

“Make sure the folks out there are in your circle of influence,” said Christina White, who co-leads a group in Worcester, Mass.

One question to ask yourself is, “Are these folks that are in front of your ideal company, or your ideal consumer?” said Miss White, a partner in Brainware Consulting, a software firm.

For example, say you mostly do business with other companies. Then you probably don’t want to be in a group of people whose customers tend to be individuals.

You also need to have a certain chemistry with other group members. But that doesn’t mean you want to be in a group with your best friend. In fact, that might work to your detriment, Miss White said.

Group size also can be important, because that affects how helpful meetings — and the group itself — can be. In a typical group, each member has time to speak, to make requests and to offer leads during a meeting that runs one to two hours. If the group is too small, and some people don’t show up, it’s hard to get referrals.

Some business owners believe too large a group can be unwieldy. Yet Ben Bradley, who runs a group called Growth Company in Wheaton, Ill., says his group has helpful meetings with as many as 70 people showing up at a time. He runs a Web site, www.growingco.com, that also helps members — there are more than 1,000 on his mailing list — make and get referrals.

Many groups also evolve into support groups as time goes on, and some meetings might tend more toward support than referrals. If that’s not to your liking, keep looking.

Similarly, some meetings are more formal than others. Joanne Dennison, a management consultant in Martinsville, N.J., said her group holds monthly potluck meetings at members’ houses.

But keep in mind that in many groups, what goes on during a meeting is just a small part of the networking process. Many people in groups find that they learn more about members — and lay the groundwork for good, solid referrals — during individual meetings.

“One-on-ones are the real key,” Miss White said.

If you find a group that you like, joining might not be automatic. Many groups limit the number of members from the same industry, so two or more aren’t competing with each other for referrals. Groups might not admit someone with whom current members feel uncomfortable.

Logistical considerations also go into choosing a group:

• Meeting times: You need to find one that fits into your schedule — but you also might want to consider adjusting your schedule for a really good group.

• Requirements: Some groups require members to come in with a specific number of leads. Members who don’t can be fined, or even asked to leave. Some groups fine people who miss several meetings.

cFees: Some groups charge fees, sometimes well into the hundreds of dollars. But that might be a worthwhile expense, especially as you are likely to make that money back with one or two good referrals.

cManagement: There are professionally run groups, operated by nationwide organizations or companies, and sometimes by chambers of commerce. Other groups are run internally.

The same considerations apply if you’re thinking of starting a group. Miss Dennison adds some of her own advice for the early days of a group: “Don’t let it get too large. … Start with four or five people; that group will formulate how the group is going to go.”

No matter how you proceed, finding a group or starting your own, you need to have patience in the beginning. That means giving yourself time to get to know members and vice versa before you can expect to get solid leads.

“People refer business to people who they have a level of trust with,” said Marcia Golden, a partner in the marketing firm DJD/Golden in New York. She helped found the Business Development Network, a group that meets biweekly in Manhattan.


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