There are so many definitions of networking that it is difficult to track them all. There are countless opinions on both the value and execution of networking. Some people think it is sleazy and a way for you to “work” a room and take advantage of people. Others see it as a waste of time. Some see it as something they are not suited for and avoid it at all costs. Finally, there are people like me that view it as invaluable. Without networking, I could not have built the Money Outlaw lifestyle I discuss here. It is a critical cornerstone of being an entrepreneur and alternative investor.
It might also interest you to know that I consider myself more introverted and not particularly well-suited to networking. When I first started, I found it difficult to walk into a room of strangers and go up and start talking to people. Fortunately, I have learned that networking is a skill like any other. Once you know how to do it, the process becomes considerably easier, no matter your personality type. The benefits you get from learning this skill can bring you a lifetime of financial and personal prosperity.
What is Networking
Networking is the building of relationships with people. The people you build these relationships with cover a large area, but I like to break my network into three categories.
- Business Contacts: These are the contacts you have relationships with that will bring you business for your freelance business or new investment opportunities for your alternative investing. It can also be people that can help you get things done for your business. For example, I maintain relationships with people in the Chamber of Commerce, Government, Banking, and Professional Organizations. The people in this latter group can help me solve problems that come my way. I might need to borrow money (banking), or I might need to get some help dealing with a building inspector (government). I might need an introduction to another organization (Chamber of Commerce).
- Experts: These contacts maintain specialized expertise, such as attorneys, CPAs, contractors, developers, and financial experts. The people in this category might help me get some new business, but that is not their primary purpose. These are the people I call when I have a specific question I need an answer to. For example, suppose I am writing a new contract for either my freelance business or a real estate deal. In that case, I might forward the agreement to an attorney to ensure I didn’t forget anything or make a critical mistake. If I have a tax question, I will contact my CPA.
- Friends & Family: This is my informal network of people I know. However, I don’t necessarily expect to derive any specific business benefits, but they may still be able to help me. These are not only friends and family, but also ancillary organizations such as a church, fraternity, or other social group you belong to. For example, I let all my friends and family know I invest in real estate. If anyone hears of someone selling a house or is willing to lend money and become a private lender, this might be a group that would help in this department. You never know who knows who and who can introduce you to that person that will help you advance your goals.
Network with Everyone
I am not all that different from other people that are good at networking, while I have the above loose organization to my network the bottom line is I consider everyone I meet a potential valuable contact. The person you meet at church might own a business that could use your services. The waiter or waitress at your next dinner meeting might be related to the owner and could introduce you. I once had a student in one of my classes at the University that introduced me to her boyfriend that owned a company and needed some freelance work I provided. Anyone you meet is potentially both someone that you can help and could help you. I would not discount anyone you meet because of the introduction they make. At first glance someone may not seem like they are in a position to assist you, but you don’t know who else they know.
Even if someone isn’t immediately in a position to help you today it doesn’t mean they won’t be in the future and will remember how you helped them today. I have had people I casually met at real estate investment group turn into people that bring me leads and introduce me to private lenders over time. The day I met them they might have just had questions I could answer, but over time they grow and connect with other people and become helpful to you. Think of it similar to farming. The nice and helpful things you do for someone today grows into valuable crops for you in the future.
Here are the ways I have used networking over the years:
- Generating projects for your freelance business
- Finding good alternative investment opportunities
- Learning new things I would have never thought of on my own
- Solving problems
- Opening a door that appears to be stuck through traditional channels
- Finding business partners
- Raising capital
- Removing obstacles
Generating New Business
This is probably the thing everyone thinks about when they think of networking. This can be a very effective way to find leads and grow a business, but most people do it incorrectly. Most people run into someone at a networking event and spend 5 minutes sizing them up as a potential prospect for new business. If during that 5 minutes, you happen to be super lucky, and the person needs your services right now, they set a follow-up meeting. If not, they usually collect their business card, leave them to sit on their desk for months, and never follow up with the person again. This is the exact wrong way to network for new business. Instead, what you should be doing is building a relationship with them over time with no immediate expectation it will lead anywhere. They might need your services in the future, or they may be able to refer you to someone that does, but if you don’t have a relationship with them, neither of those will ever come to pass. They won’t remember you when that day comes.
I have served on committees for the Chamber of Commerce for YEARS, meeting the same people each month, getting to know them, and building a relationship before the business came out of the relationship. This is normal. Networking for new business can be a slow process at first, but it is one of the surest ways I know to build a sustainable freelance business with referrals coming in steadily and regularly, but it takes some time to build this network. Once your network is built it tends to deliver referrals and opportunities to you for years. Of course, networking is also an ongoing process, but once it reaches a certain size it can bring a lot of opportunities your direction. Here are some places I recommend you start:
- BNI Group
- Service Organization (Rotary, Exchange Club, Chamber of Commerce)
- Industry-Specific Groups & Trade Shows
- Conferences & Seminars
- Contact Sphere
This was my first, fastest, and best source of referrals when I started my freelance business. I joined a BNI group the same month I officially started my business. It will typically take about six months to a year after joining to build relationships with your fellow members, but once you do, you can typically expect a steady flow of referrals coming every week or month. I stayed a member of my chapter for 16 years, so obviously, I found value in it. If I had to give one recommendation, I would find and join a BNI chapter and start building relationships with your fellow members. Here are some tips for picking the right chapter:
- Right Chemistry: Every chapter has different people and different personalities. Go and visit a few chapters before deciding. You will feel there is a good “fit” with other members, or you won’t. Please don’t skip this step; it is crucial.
- Right Members: Look for power teams in a chapter. A power team member does business with your customers but doesn’t compete with you. For example, I have a digital marketing and web development company, so good “power team” members for me would be graphic designers, videographers, and IT professionals. When I joined my chapter, a fellow member-owned a computer shop. He provided networking services, computer repair, and maintenance. He was the single best source of leads for me for many years. Another example of a power team would be home services, i.e., an HVAC contractor, electrician, real estate agent, plumber, and building contractor. This power team can easily share a lot of business with each other.
- Professional Chapter: Look for professional, ambitious, and competent people. Sadly, some chapters have people who form cliques with other members, are lazy, and are not remarkably competent at what they do. These people will not be a good source of quality referrals but will expect that you give them referrals, even if they aren’t particularly good at their job.
One to One Meetings
Once you find the right chapter, you need to do your part to build relationships. The number one way members do that is by doing what BNI calls a one-to-one meeting. These are meetings where you invite fellow members out for coffee, breakfast, lunch, etc., and get to know them on a personal and professional level. You will do several meetings with people when you first join and keep doing them the entire time you stay a member. You can’t build the relationships you need fast enough or solid enough by simply going to your chapter meeting once per week.
In addition, the founder of BNI, Ivan Misner, has written several good books on networking. I recommend you seek out and read these as soon as possible. There are a lot of great tips and strategies in them about doing well at BNI and networking in general.
One final comment about BNI, while the organization itself has a pattern for how the meetings are run and processes which can seem a bit rigid this is done for a reason. It is to make each BNI chapter a referral machine for your business. However, that is not the only benefit. BNI will teach you solid networking skills that can apply to ANY organization you happen to be networking in. Their techniques and strategies will teach you a lot of solid skills that will benefit you the rest of your life.
These are organizations such as your local chamber of commerce, Rotary, Exchange Club, Lions Club, etc. These organizations are not organized around giving you referrals each week like a BNI chapter is, but they are still excellent sources of leads and business over time. I recommend you don’t join with the expectation you will develop a bunch of business contacts in a couple of months and have referrals coming in. That is not how they work. Instead, you are joining to give back to the community. Over time, as you develop relationships with your fellow members, the business will happen, but it is a slower process.
Don’t start hitting members up for business when you join, or you will quickly become ostracized by your fellow members. Instead, join the organization and get involved. Join a committee or two and put your talents to work, helping the organization accomplish its mission. It is okay to set up one-to-one meetings with other members just as you do with BNI; I recommend it. Over time these relationships will bear fruit, and you will get referrals. The relationships I have built in these groups have helped me build an extensive referral network over time. I count many of the people I have met in these groups as friends.
Don’t overextend yourself with service groups, or you will stretch yourself too thin. I started with my chamber of commerce and eventually joined a community economic development board. I finally reduced my commitments to the chamber, left the economic development board, and joined my local Rotary chapter, which has been a great experience and source of business, but again, over time. It wasn’t instantaneous. If you join these groups and start hitting members up for meetings to sell them, You will quickly develop a bad reputation, and your fellow members will see you as a pariah and opportunist instead of a business colleague. I recommend you only join about 2 of these to start, which is more than enough if you do it right.
Industry-Specific Groups & Trade Shows
This can be a rich source of leads and business. Just about every profession has one or more professional associations and trade shows. Join these organizations and get involved. Don’t just go to a monthly meeting and expect miracles. You need to get on some committees, seek a board seat, and do one-to-one meetings with fellow members. These organizations often have benefits, educational opportunities, and networking possibilities.
I belong to marketing, web development, and real estate groups, and I have found partners, contractors, and referrals in these groups. Many of these organizations also have trade shows. Go to these trade shows and network. Some also hold annual or semi-annual conferences, a great place to learn and meet people who can assist you.
I attend something called Word Camp, which happens all over the world. These are volunteer run weekend meetings around the Word Press web development platform. I have learned a ton of stuff in each of these: I met developers who could assist me in my business and even partners who helped me on future projects.
I also belong to a few REIA groups; this is short for Real Estate Investment Association. I have found partners, lenders, contractors, resources, and deals in these organizations. They are essential to my real estate investing success, and I even attend REIA groups in other states.
It doesn’t matter what type of freelance business you start; I promise you some organizations cater to your industry and business. Seek them out, join, and most importantly, get involved.
Conferences & Seminars
This was not part of my early endeavors in networking for a variety of reasons. A conference can be expensive, involve a lot of travel and the associated costs, and take time away from other activities. However, they can be a fantastic source of potential partners, information, and learning opportunities. I have attended conferences in real estate, marketing, technology, and media. When you attend make sure to take advantage of all the networking opportunities that are built into just about every conference. These might be after parties or networking events during the conference. You can meet some valuable contacts here.
Like conferences, but generally less crowded and more focused on the delivery of information these can still be a rich source of contacts. I have been a “seminar junkie” for several years now and I have met some of my best friends and contacts while attending. Most of the ones I attend are around the real estate investing space, which seems to offer a lot of opportunities for seminars. I have found private lenders, joint venture partners, experts in certain areas, a source of deals, and inspiration for things I could try or do better. I had a real estate deal I was working on and needed some private funds to close the deal. I had no less than 5 people I met at various seminars and built relationships with offer to lend me the money. That wouldn’t have happened had I not attended, met them, and built a relationship over time. You can check out my lifelong learning article for more information about seminars.
Tips for Conferences & Seminars
- Always attend every networking event at a conference or seminar.
- Never eat alone, grab other attendees for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
- Take a lot of notes
- Create action plans from what you learn from other people and the event.
- Create your own networking event within the event.
Every seminar I attend I always go out with a group of people for meals and drinks. This can be an incredible bonding opportunity with fellow members. I have met some of my best friends doing this very strategy. There is something special about bonding with fellow humans over a meal that can’t be accomplished any other way.
Take notes and create action plans. Conferences and seminars have a lot of activity and can be a bit of a whirlwind. It is important to grab small moments of time at the beginning or end of each day and make sure your notes reflect what you learned and build action steps based on what you learned and who you met. I created an action plan in one of my first seminars that I am still executing on today and is still delivering dividends to me.
Consider creating your own networking event within the event. I have a friend that attends a lot of the same seminars as I do. At each seminar he announces he will be holding a “Monday Round Table” which is where everyone meets and talks about their best takeaway item from the weekend and their action step. Anywhere from 10-30 people typically show up to this and by “sponsoring” this event my friend elevates himself to a position of credibility and stature among the group, which helps with his own networking efforts.
This is like the “Power Team” in a BNI group but on a broader scale. To implement this strategy, think about a group of professionals working with your customer base but not competing with you. Please make a list of people in that profession and get to work setting up one-to-one meetings, seeking them out at service group organizations, and building relationships.
For example, I have found that CPAs are an excellent source of leads for me because many work with small businesses that need help with marketing and setting up websites. I build relationships with every CPA I meet, and I try to cultivate a relationship with them over time. If you are good at what you do and do quality work, you are an excellent resource for the CPA because you make them look good when they refer you to one of their clients, and you knock their socks off with excellent service.
In the real estate investing realm, I have a strategy with options I do, and the leads for those often come from contractors such as HVAC, electricians, plumbers, roofers, etc. I build relationships with every contractor I meet and explain what I do. They benefit by getting new business, and I benefit from option deals. Everybody wins in this arrangement.
Once you build relationships in one group, figure out another one and start all over again with a new contact sphere, remember good contact sphere members share these traits:
- Work with Your Customers: They work with your customers but don’t compete. In other words, you both offer complementary but non-competing services to the same group of businesses.
- Large Field: They represent a large enough field of people that you can build relationships with many of them over time. I now work with several CPAs and contractors, and I try and add new ones to my network whenever the opportunity arises.
Tools for Networking
Networking requires a toolbox of sorts to do well. The more prepared you are for networking encounters, the more successful you will find your efforts. Here are the top tools I recommend having at your disposal.
This is obvious but what isn’t quite as obvious is the card itself. A good business card should be two-sided. On the front should be all your contact information, and on the back should be a list of services you provide and possibly a call to action, such as a QR code or landing page link that people can easily visit and get something of value. The CTA (call to action) can be a tip sheet, eBook, or another resource you give away in return for their email address. I make sure to include these on every business card I design.
You should also have your cards printed up in full color. Full color business cards have dropped considerably in price since I started in business. I can get 1,000 cards printed up for about $150 dollars. Make sure your business cards have your tagline on them. I use the tagline “Spinning the Web into Gold!” for my marketing business and nobody seems to forget it. You want your cards to stand out and get attention and not be like every other boring card people hand out at events.
I have multiple card cases in every pocket of my suits and sports jackets, and I keep them on my desk so that when I am leaving, I can grab them. This keeps your cards neat, organized, and ready to present. Instead of pulling out a wrinkled, spaghetti-stained card from your wallet, you make a great impression.
This is an introduction you give that takes about 10 seconds to deliver, and you use it to answer the most common question everyone at a networking event asks, “so, what do you do?” Your elevator speech should be short, pithy, and generate curiosity in the person you deliver it to. For example, here is the one I use in my freelance business:
“I work with businesses that want to explore how to use the Internet to generate more leads, boost sales and avoid costly mistakes. I call my process spinning the web into gold!”
This usually generates at least one follow-up question and is memorable. People that have only met me once or twice will remember my tagline of “spinning the web into gold!” even if they remember nothing else about me. Having a good follow-up to any questions this generates is imperative. If someone asks me what “costly mistakes” are, I have answers ready to go. If they ask me how I “generate leads,” I have answers ready to go. In other words, I am prepared with follow-up responses to keep the conversation moving in the right direction.
Lead magnets are tip sheets, articles, eBooks, and other resources I have gathered and kept in various file folders on my computer. Some of them are industry-specific information or general business related. Some of them I created, and some I found or collected over the years. I use them because when I am talking to someone, I want to follow up with at a networking event, I will tell them I have this great article, tip sheet, or eBook, and I would be happy to email it to them. I will note this, and when I am back in my office, I will send them a follow-up email telling them how much I enjoyed meeting them and that I have attached the resource we discussed.
Do you see what I am doing here? I am trying to be helpful and offer resources before I ever ask for anything in return, including a one-to-one meeting. I might send 2 or 3 of these to new contacts over time. I might send them links to articles on my website. Each time I send something, I write a brief note with the lead magnet or resource attached. I say something like, “hey, I thought you might find this useful,” and email it. That’s it. By doing this, I have a reason to reach out to them that doesn’t involve me asking them for the opportunity to deliver a sales presentation. I might not even know if they are good prospect at this point. This allows me to build a relationship over time with them. Eventually, if it seems appropriate, I might ask them for a one-to-one meeting again to get to know them further. I am NOT using this as an opportunity to pitch them unless they have specifically requested to talk to me about my services. This last point is essential.
One of the things established businesses have is a website. Not having one makes you appear like an amateur or someone that doesn’t have a real business. This will make it harder for you to establish your credibility when you are networking with people. Have a nicely organized resource-rich website. My site has information about my services, many free articles, and lead magnets to encourage people to visit and interact with my site and materials and learn more about me. You would be surprised how many people you meet at an event that will visit your website to learn more about you. If you provide them with articles, lead magnets, and resources, you are providing value. I will occasionally get people that meet me at an event and say they checked out my website and found a helpful article. This allows me to talk to them about what I do in a subtle and relaxed way.
Useful Networking Tips
- Practice Givers Gain: I learned this in BNI; it means giving value to others without expecting anything in return. You might give someone a referral, introduce them to someone who can help them with their business or personal goals, send helpful information, or serve as a resource for something they might be struggling with. I will take calls from people with questions about their website and spend time giving them information, even if they aren’t clients or ready to become one. I am providing value with no expectation of return, but guess what? I get a lot of return on these efforts just the same. People will remember these acts of generosity and assistance, and it will come back to you in the future. Possibly from that person or someone else, but it does come back.I once met a person at my church that wanted to start a charter school for his organization. I happen to serve on a charter school board and know a lot of people in the industry. I was able to introduce him to someone that I thought could help him further his goals. I got nothing out of this other than helping two people connect. I have no idea, if anywhere, this will lead, but I was able to help someone and now we regularly connect at church whereas I didn’t even know him before this. You never know where these encounters will lead.
- Relationships Take Time: Building a business network is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time, and if you try and rush the process, it will backfire on you. You must genuinely care about people, build relationships, offer value first, and be curious about others. Doing this takes time, patience, and practice. You should not expect to go to a networking event and collect a stack of cards of people ready to buy from you today. That is unrealistic in the best-case scenario.
- Follow Up, Follow Up, Follow Up: The one thing I have learned about networking is that follow-up is the key. Too many people collect cards and never reach out to people they meet. Understand that the cards you collect are meaningless if you don’t follow up. Those people won’t remember you, and you will have no relationship. Send helpful resources, look for opportunities to help, and schedule coffee with the people you want to build a relationship with.
- Do NOT Sell Unless Specifically Asked: This is important. When you reach out to people with follow-up messages or ask them to coffee for one-to-one meetings, please do NOT use it as an opportunity to pitch them UNLESS they have specifically asked for information about your services.
A member of my BNI group joined and immediately started scheduling one-to-one meetings with people but used those meetings to make a sales pitch. In BNI we are taught that one to one meetings are to get to know the other person. Start a relationship, and see where it goes. It is NOT about selling someone the first time you meet them one on one. She would bring brochures and contracts and expect to close a deal in the first meeting. She completely missed the point of a one-to-one meeting and damaged relationships from the beginning. She eventually left the group disappointed and claimed “BNI didn’t work” for her. Had she taken the time to build the relationships first, she would have had a completely different experience.
- Network at Events: This might sound trite, but it isn’t. Too many people go to a networking event and sit at a table alone or immediately glom onto people they know. They spend an hour or so doing this and then walk out disappointed, saying it was a waste of time. Of course, it will be a waste of time if you don’t meet new people and network while you are there. When I attend, I might spend a few minutes reconnecting with people I know, but I don’t stick to them like glue for the entire event. I move on and meet new people.
- Set Networking Goals: I am a big goal-setter, which also applies to networking. Before I attend a networking event, I set a goal. I might want to meet two new CPAs or one new potential power team member. I will try and stay until I accomplish this goal. If you set a goal before each event, you will find the events are more productive.
- Be a Good Conversationalist: I have repeatedly said you don’t go to networking functions to score a new sales lead. Be a good conversationalist. Be willing and able to talk about various topics, current events, and sports. If all you do is meet people and barf all over them about your business, you will be boring and not accomplish much. Instead, be willing and able to talk about other stuff than just business. I read a lot of books, newspapers, online sites, and magazines to have material to talk about. As I am talking to someone else if they express interest in a topic I (or they) brought up I will ask follow up questions or expand on it. It is good to be naturally curious. Let the conversation lead itself. One note here, you might want to stay away from politics and religion. Those are two topics people have strong opinions on that could damage a relationship before it gets started. Once you know people better *maybe* you can have a political or religious discussion if you share similar beliefs but be careful with this one.
- Be a Good Listener: The number one secret about being a good conversationalist is being a good listener. People love to talk about their interests and themselves. Let them, and encourage them to keep talking and truly listen. Please don’t stand there missing everything they say because you are looking for your opportunity to speak. When I meet people, I try and practice a minimum of 3 to 1 listening to talking. In other words, I let them talk three times longer than I talk. The more they talk, the more I can spot opportunities to help them and offer value or a way they might be able to assist me. I can’t do that if I don’t know enough about them.
- Ask Open-Ended Questions: When talking to people, try asking open-ended questions rather than questions that can be answered with yes or no. Here are some open-ended questions to ask people when you meet them:
- How did you get into this field?
- What do you like best about your job?
- What is one thing you would change about your business or career?
- What do you like least about your job?
- What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
One quick note about open ended questions, I really love, love, question 5. The reason is people are often passionate about the things they do outside of work. Sometimes I find the way I can help them quickly is to help them with something they are passionate about. For example, say they tell me their favorite thing is boating. I don’t own a boat, but I know several people that do. I know people that belong to various boating groups. I might be able to introduce them to someone that shares their passion in boating. People will remember acts of generosity like this. I can’t always find a way to help someone with a business issue, but I can almost always find a way, even a small way, to help them with something they are passionate about outside of work, even if that only involves listening to them talk about something they love.
Networking is the surest and best way to build a business, solve problems, open doors, find investments, meet potential partners, and learn new things, but it is a process. Networking takes a lifetime, and it is something you are always doing.
You need to genuinely care about other people, be patient enough to build relationships over time, be curious, practice givers gain, and do things without expecting an immediate return. If you try and rush this process or think every new person you meet is an opportunity to shove some sales literature into their hand, you are missing a great opportunity and hurting your efforts over the long run.
Be a good conversationalist and listener. Read a lot of diverse subjects and materials so you can converse on a variety of topics outside of your business. You want to be an interesting person to talk to and being a lifelong learner is a way of doing that. Allow other people to talk more about themselves than you do. Finally, use open ended questions when talking to people to give them opportunities to expand their answers.
A good network is something you build over time and is invaluable to your success. My network is one of my most valuable possessions, and I work hard to maintain and add to it over time. I try and always offer value first and don’t pitch people unless they specifically ask for information about my services.
The Money Outlaw lifestyle is very dependent on networking and relationships. I use it in every area of my trifecta, from building my freelance business to finding alternative investments and tapping into experts for my economic systems. I couldn’t do what I do without an extensive, robust network of people I genuinely care about and want to help succeed. By doing this, I find abundance flows back to me, sometimes through people and channels, I never expected.
The information contained within this website is provided for informational and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for obtaining legal, accounting, tax, or financial advice from a professional tax planner or financial planner. Full disclosure
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