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A Different Perspective on Networking
Unexpected Benefits Lead to Clients

February 2012

Never underestimate the power of networking.

What business owner hasn’t heard over and over the benefits of networking? Like flossing your teeth, it’s one of those things you know you should do more of, but the tendency is to skip it so that you can focus on the million other things on your plate.

As with most marketing tactics, networking is the one task that falls to the bottom of the list until business starts to slow down. But inconsistent networking is just like inconsistent advertising – it simply doesn’t deliver the same results. And just like any marketing initiative, it’s important to be strategic about who, what, when, where and how you network. To better arm you with the information you need to develop a smart strategy, I95 Business talked to local business people and groups and found that networking can sometimes grow your business and connect people in unexpected ways.

Marketing, Multiplied

In May of 2009, local CPA Dawn Rowles launched First Act Accounting to offer professional accounting advice and hands-on training to empower and improve the profitability of small businesses. Facing the challenge of launching a start-up in a rough economy, Rowles had to determine the best way to market her new business. Rowles says, “I believe that what sets my business apart is my personality and trustworthy nature, which made networking particularly critical to my business growth.”

She opted to start with three networking groups: the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce, Chesapeake Professional Women’s Network (CPWN) and Mid-Atlantic Networking. While Rowles did generate some direct customers from these groups, she points out that even more of her business growth came from indirect benefits of her involvement with these groups.

For instance, it was through the Cecil County Chamber that Rowles was nominated for the prestigious Cecil County Athena Award in 2010. The publicity that nomination generated captured the attention of a local business owner in North East, who has since become a loyal client.

Also through the Cecil County Chamber, Rowles met Laura Metzler, who runs a training program through the Elkton Public Library. The two put their heads together and decided to test a free training session open to local businesses and individuals who wanted to learn the basics of the popular QuickBooks bookkeeping program. The class quickly filled (registration had to be capped at 30), making the event a big success by the library’s standards. And although intended as a community service rather than a marketing tool, the training ultimately generated three clients for First Act through the name recognition and relationships developed from that class.

Rowles adds, “In today’s local market, relationships are the backbone to trusting someone with your business, particularly from a finance perspective. First Act made its way into the market in May of 2009, with zero clients, and today we are up to 25 thanks largely to networking.” In fact, Rowles attributes 73 percent of her clients to networking, whether direct (such as sponsoring events and meeting prospects face-to-face) or indirect.

The Positive Side of Peer Pressure

Heading north, Havre de Grace-based web design and marketing firm E-Moxie takes a very different approach to networking. While the firm is actively involved in community groups such as the Havre de Grace Chamber of Commerce and with doing work for area non-profits such as the Boys and Girls Club, owner Chris Stone put his own mark on networking by launching the first Baltimore-area peer group for PHP web developers. The group was so successful, growing to 350 members in just four years, that Stone has since launched a second peer group for Baltimore-area mobile developers.

Both groups follow the same model: monthly meetings that provide members an opportunity to drop in and socialize, share ideas and learn from each other and industry experts about best practices and solutions. There is no cost to become a member and many meetings are free. Stone says the benefits to E-Moxie from these groups are numerous, including media coverage, increased sales and better recruiting.

A Baltimore Sun write-up and recognition as a top mobile company in the area in another Baltimore business publication generated numerous inquiries from prospective clients. One of the firm’s highest profile projects, a citywide game on Foursquare sponsored by The Urbanite and WTMD called The Great Baltimore Check-In, came as a project that originated from community involvement.

And as for hiring? Stone says, “It’s been an awesome tool. Carl [Olsen] came from my interaction at Baltimore Mobile. Shawn (who is starting in January) is my co-organizer from Baltimore Mobile. It would have never happened without the group.”

Not Just for Small Business

While it is a common misperception that networking is most utilized by small businesses, one of the largest employers in Harford County would beg to differ. Defense contractor SAIC has more than 40,000 employees worldwide, including 500 in Harford County, and is heavily invested in community and business groups too numerous to list. Mike Simms, senior vice president and operations manager at the company’s Abingdon office, explains, “SAIC is built on the foundation of building strong partnerships and actively supporting key organizations and peer groups. That is part of our credo with customers, suppliers, vendors, partners – and the community.”

Simms cites examples including the firm’s support of the Army Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to ensuring the well-being of programs and organizations at Aberdeen Proving Ground; the Association of the United States Army (AUSA), a private, non-profit educational organization that supports America’s Army; and its involvement founding an Aberdeen chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA).

As operations manager, Simms oversees the delivery of lifecycle solutions for a portfolio of programs for Joint DOD, the Army and the Department of Homeland Security, including the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense (JPEO-CBD) and the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC), which both recently relocated to Aberdeen Proving Ground as part of BRAC. Simms believes involvement in groups such as AUSA and AFCEA is crucial to reaching these organizations entering the Maryland area and to overall business success.

“Business networking frankly is critical to our performance. True top-line and bottom-line performance success is based on our ability to understand our customers and the community in which we work,” says Simms. He adds, “Both existing clients and new prospective clients are part of these communities. Also, we find a lot of our subcontractors through these interactions. If you are a small business looking to team with SAIC or another contractor, these networking events are vital.”

In addition to business networking, SAIC sponsors community outreach such as the FIRST® Robotics Program designed to encourage STEM education in K-12 school, and encourages inter-company networking as well. Simms explains, “We have one of the most talented and diverse staffs of any company, and these internal networks allow us to draw from expertise in various disciplines to the benefit of our customers. So if we need an expert in cyber security, we will contact the subject material experts in that field regardless of their geographic location. This helps us be successful with customers, which helps drive business performance.”

And Simms points out another benefit of this emphasis on involvement and networking: improved employee satisfaction. He says, “Because of our focus on partnership we encourage people to apply their passion and enthusiasm to get involved and give back, which engages and empowers our staff and helps SAIC make a major contribution to the local community.”

Top Tips

Knowing that there are so many different ways to network, how do you go about building a strategy that is right for
your business?

According to Renee McNally, owner of HR consulting firm HR Solutions and president of the Chesapeake Professional Women’s Network (CPWN) board of directors, the single most important strategy is consistency. McNally says, “I believe building business is all about building relationships. Going to an event here or there will not lead to long-term relationships.”

She also cautions people against passing on an event or group because “the right people” won’t be there. “At HR Solutions, we frequently get referrals from people who aren’t in a position to be a client themselves, but because I’ve built a relationship with them, they pass our name on to other people who are in that position to become a client,” she explains.

Harford County Chamber County of Commerce CEO Vanessa Milio agrees. “One of the challenges we all face in our over-busy world is carving out time for relationship-building with potential customers and peers. The person you’re networking with may not be a potential customer, but you don’t know how many people they know who could be. There becomes a ripple effect. I think that’s an important thing to keep in context.”

Milio also reminds would-be networkers that networking often requires stepping outside of your comfort zone. “One of the things we tell people is you actually have to do it. We have people sitting by themselves at events or sitting with someone they know and not engaging with people. There really is an onus on you to introduce yourself and ask a question to engage someone in conversation. If you’re not sure what to say, start with something simple like ‘Tell me about your business.’”

Finally, Milio encourages people to stay current with business news like trends or mergers and acquisitions. “You can’t go talk to a colleague in a vacuum,” she points out. “It’s nice to be able to say to a defense contractor, ‘I heard they cut the federal budget this week, how is that affecting your business?’ That provides a great starting point for a conversation and shows you are knowledgeable about their business.”

As Milio observes, in an era of instant gratification it’s important to remember that relationships do take an investment of time to form and nurture, but once developed they stay with you from job to job and even from industry to industry. “Particularly in our region where people tend to stay, unlike New York or L.A., which are more transitional, you are going to run into the same people so it behooves all of us to play well in the sandbox,” she says. Or at least to meet the other kids in the sandbox. Good luck!