We’ve written before about making the most of traditional networking events, but there are alternatives to hotel ballroom panels or restaurant patio mixers that every business owner should explore. In more varied environments, you’ll make different kind of connections that grow your network organically and with intention.
When investigating less-structured business networking opportunities, you must ask yourself what your goal is in putting yourself or your business out there. If you’re trying to find partners, you might choose a different type of event than someone doing business development or looking for a mentor. Here are some good alternatives to traditional networking, and how each can support different business goals.
Meetup.com is one of the most popular websites dedicated to connecting people of similar interests in the same geographic area. Websites like Eventbrite and even Facebook can serve similar purposes, so if you’re looking for an event relevant to a hobby or personal passion, there are many sources to explore. One strategy is to look up Meetups that are relevant to the individuals you want to network with. Looking for a potential partner? See if there’s a Meetup for them in your area. The same strategy applies to partners or vendors—if you know you need a graphic designer, see if there’s an event for those professionals coming up soon, and make a point to go.
While Meetups can be attended by anyone, the site’s demographics indicate it’s a good choice for professional networking. People without a college degree use Meetup.com less than the average website, and users are mostly browsing it at school or work, not home. Also, more women visit Meetup than the average Internet site, meaning female small business owners may have more success meeting peers here than at other types of events.1 For anyone trying to use the site to network, the true key is in picking the right Meetup. Look for events that push you outside your comfort zone, yet are still in line with your industry, passions, or values.
Outside Meetups, there are likely to be other events going on in your community where you can make new connections that support your goals. For instance, if a new small business is opening near where you work or live, see if they’re having an open house and go to promote your own business and welcome them to the area.
Another great way to connect with the business community is to join the Chamber of Commerce. Not only is it a key way to meet other business owners, it also comes with the potential of a boost to your bottom line. According to a research study by The Shapiro Group and Market Street Services, if consumers know a small business is an active, engaged member of the local Chamber of Commerce, its favorability rating among consumers rises by as much as 44%. This awareness also spikes as much as a 57% increase in a business’ local reputation, and a 63% increase in the likelihood that consumers will patronize the business in the future. The outcomes differ across industries, with restaurants, insurance companies, and automobile manufacturers reaping the biggest returns.
You won’t find opportunity in every new person you meet, but when it does come knocking, being prepared to answer is a large part of the success that follows.
However, all these boosts only occur when your customers know about your chamber membership.2 This can be handled through something as simple as a sign near the entrance to your establishment, a badge on your website, or your company’s Twitter handle sharing pics and updates from Chamber events like awards ceremonies or panel luncheons.
If you’re looking for a mentor, partner, or vendor who shares your values, volunteering is an alternative to traditional networking events that you should definitely consider. During the years from 2002 to 2012, The Corporation for National and Community Service tracked more than 70,000 jobless Americans, and found that those who volunteered had a 27% better chance of finding a job.3 While small business owners are usually doing the hiring, this is proof that volunteering can grow your professional network. Even if the volunteer activity isn’t related to your industry in any way, you know your fellow volunteers have at least some of the same ideals and priorities as you, and that’s a benefit no matter what kind of connections you’re seeking.
Not only have long-term studies shown significant health and wellness benefits to volunteers over a lifetime,4 spending time helping others has also been proven to make volunteers feel like they have more spare time, leading to a sense of increased efficiency that extends beyond your day of service.5 If you’re searching for a mentor or peers in your industry to connect with, volunteering at industry-relevant nonprofits, local universities or colleges, or even at events like professional conferences can help you focus your efforts while still empowering you to give back.
Beyond being a source of information about alternative ways to grow your network, the Internet forums can also be a great way to grow your network. Online forums can be a great way to pose questions to peers and get answers from different perspectives in real-time. Sites like Small Business Forums, Quora, and BizWarriors allow entrepreneurs and small business owners to network with like-minded peers around the world from the comfort of their own offices or favorite coffee shops. This type of connection can be a great supplement to a mentor-mentee relationship, but may be even more useful for finding vendors or investors. However, before entering into any agreement, make sure you’ve vetted those individuals carefully and know who they are on the other side of the screen.
The last alternative to networking events that all small business owners should be mindful of is really more of a catch-all for all daily interactions. Whether it’s the person in front of you in line at the grocery, the person at the gym who needs a spotter, or someone you’re sharing a seat with on the train, chance meetings have the potential to be life-changing. For instance, Arthur Gensler, founder of Gensler Architecture, tells the story of getting to meet JetBlue CEO David Neeleman on a flight he scheduled last-minute. Gensler shared that his firm designed airports, a timely act of self-promotion that eventually led to his firm winning the bid to design a terminal at JFK. Today, Gensler has grown from a three-person mom and pop business to an organization that employs over 5,000 people at 46 locations.6 You won’t find opportunity in every new person you meet, but when it does come knocking, being prepared to answer is a large part of the success that follows.
All these alternatives to networking events have one thing in common with each other, and with more traditional networking events: You still have to bring your authentic, best self to the table. By entering network-growing conversations with a clear sense of what their business goals are and what they need to achieve them—mentorship, a partner, an investor, or just a listening ear—small business owners have a better chance of getting value out of every interaction.