Starting your own networking group

Whether you’re a well-established figure in your community, starting out in a new town, or just looking to give your business a shot in the arm, leading or taking part in a networking group is a good idea. It’s essentially a group of like-minded business people who meet on a regular basis to strengthen relationships and build professional connections.

The biggest benefit of leading a networking group is self-evident: You’re seen as a leader. That perception means that, rather than asking for the referrals, the referrals will come to you. I feel strongly that someone building their business should belong to or lead at least four groups. The question is never “why network?” The question is “why aren’t you networking, and why aren’t you leading?”

Reduce the Excuse! If you’re driven enough to want to read this and improve yourself, you may also be the sort of person who puts in a lot of overtime and needs to be prodded to get out and socialize a bit. Excuses like “There’s not enough time” and “I’m too busy” are pretty common, but they are only excuses. Take charge! “Reduce the excuse” for yourself and your peers by exhibiting leadership; there are many successful professionals out there just like you, and they might be ideal participants for your group.

Of course, networking these days means Social Media. There’s a reason they called that movie about Facebook “The Social Network.” While LinkedIn, Facebook, or just regular emails are no substitute for events or meetings, they can be a way to keep everyone thinking about the group throughout the month, not to mention update everyone on event locations and important personal updates (births, deaths, and other major changes). Make use of these standard social media options, but there’s another site I want you to check out, if you aren’t using it already.

MeetUp.com is a great resource for creating and joining networks. The site is very simple to use. The moment I loaded the main page, I was given a number of “MeetUps” in my immediate area to consider. From there you can search for particular types of groups, ranging from Arts and Culture to Sports and Outdoor Activities and everything in between. While there is a fee to start a “MeetUp Group,” it‘s a very reasonable expense; normally $12 per month, they are running a starting special (as of this posting) for $6.00 a month. Simply signing up and joining groups is free. You can even sign up with your Facebook account. MeetUp.com is growing and becoming more nationally known, so do yourself a favor and get familiar with it today.

How many people should be in your group? Where should you meet? What should you talk about? For one thing, a networking group is not like professional football, where you have rules and regulations and can only have so many players on the field. A networking group can start as simply as two people in a coffee shop, or five people having lunch. Invite each member to make a mini-presentation, or, if you have the resources, invite one of the members to give a longer talk. In these early days, you can be thinking about how to grow your network and, more importantly, the best ways to enhance the experience for your fellow networkers. Over time, you can build your friendly neighborhood touch football get-together into a full-fledged stadium game.

Like so many things in life, you must give in order to receive. As I mentioned earlier, the big prize in networking is referrals. While membership has its privileges, leadership is an advantage; the whole point of networking is pooling resources and making things happen. To that end, I suggest making the point of giving referrals as quickly as is sensible. You’re not just playing Santa Claus, though: tell your fellow networkers a story about the person you are referring and help them get to know the person with whom they will be speaking. When you are given referrals, always thank the person who is sharing the information with you. And don’t forget to follow up, preferably within 24 hours. Being the example others follow, in many regards, is the definition of leadership.

In terms of organization, identify the roles different participants can take on. Leaders plan the events and recruit other attendees. Members who can sponsor the meetings and events can help belay the costs involved, especially as you grow into the sort of group that might need larger accommodation. Other supporters foster the growth by inviting their contacts. It’s also important to keep in mind that some attendees are merely there to participate in the events and aren’t looking to take organizational roles, even if they would be suited to them.

Stay focused, but not TOO focused. Not every networking group will be solely business oriented. Feel free to get inventive, but also keep in mind that while too wide a focus can be a problem, too narrow a focus can be excluding. For example, I know plenty of people who have no interest in golf, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy fine dining with good company. Another thing to keep in mind is that you can do good for others while doing good for each other; networking and charity work go together like bacon and eggs, so organizing around a cause can be rewarding on many levels.

Leading a networking group has the potential to enhance anyone’s career. It’s also just a natural part of being a human being; you may have read over this piece and realized that you network all the time, whether you are aware of it or not! However, a conscious effort focusing on this all-important practice may prove to be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of your professional life.

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