14 May 2014
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I was talking to a small group of other business owners recently at a lunch event, some of us already knew each other and some were meeting for the first time but most seemed to be fairly like minded in their approach to business – pay it forward types with an open mind, really very refreshing. The chat turned to networking events and while opinion varied on the perfect format it seems fair to start with a couple of generally accepted concepts:
> We all saw the potential of meeting new people at events, maybe potential customers or perhaps future introducers, anyway nobody said “I don’t want to make new contacts”.
> We had all been to numerous events over the years, some leading to new contacts that yielded new business (directly or by introduction) and other events that were just tiresome and unproductive.

The ideas voiced today interested me because I am involved in planning a networking event, through being on the committee of FSB’s City Branch, and I’m keen to see if we can produce an event with a difference that would appeal to a wide audience. Ideally we will co-host the event with other one or maybe two other organisations to get a mix of folk who might not otherwise bump into each other. I would like to explore a format that makes the event a success, hence this discussion, to which I would really appreciate your input!

Anyway, coming back to the discussion at lunch today, there were plenty of ideas on what needs to be avoided from experiences we had shared at events in the past, here’s a selection:
> If you need a lawnmower repair man it is a shame to spend the evening being shuffled past every other occupation in creation at a speed networking event only to discover on the inevitable list that’s shared afterwards you missed the lawnmower expert because lady luck started you on the wrong table.
> If a big company sends 10 people, maybe a bank for example, it is a waste of everyone’s time if you meet all 10 of them and almost nobody else because, even if you need a new bank, you would like to meet some folk from other companies.
> There is a networking event “type” and if you go to 10 events in a year you will meet them all at almost every one.
> When we need certain types of professional we will seek one out by asking trusted friends for a recommendation – double glaziers, life coaches and gynecologists are examples of this category. No end of convincing will sell double glazing if we don’t need new windows…
> If you repair diesel engines a room full of hairdressers will be unlikely to fill your order book, a scissor maker would however be delighted to change places with you and escape the room full of haulage contractors and ship builders he finds himself among!
> Companies tend to send sales folk to networking events while their buyers remain more elusive, decision makers can also be a bit thin on the ground at some events.

From my own experience I have met folk at networking events that have commissioned me to do some great work and others that have introduced me to people who booked me for excellent projects. I have also been to some events that were a complete waste of time and after these I tend to give networking a rest for a while to recover my enthusiasm. Going with the expectation of taking orders is probably unrealistic (certainly in commercial photography), while going with the aim of meeting people who hopefully become good connections is more likely and (wisely) trust takes a while to be established. My most common source of new business remains referral business and I feel networking is always going to be secondary to this in my world but with that said I have made some good connections at events, so I will never rule it out as a thing to do if the right event is presented.

So from this I have a few ideas to get the conversation started (please do make this a conversation!):
> You may have to kiss a lot of frogs to meet a prince but can we devise an event to help you find yours sooner / avoid missing out altogether when he may be in the room you’ve taken time to visit?
> If event registration provided the opportunity to say what you’re looking for, as well as what you sell, could the information make for a structured event that streamlines the introduction process?
> On the assumption that you might meet introduces of new business (for me – “my friend needs a commercial photographer“) as well as potential new customers (for me – “I need some commercial photography”) how could these conversations be facilitated? Maybe in less of a buyer / seller format, more of a getting to know you scenario?

So, can you help? All suggestions very welcome and in return I promise to invite everyone who contributes to attend the networking event of the century, if we ever find the recipe…

Thanks for reading,

Stephen Potts

Belfast photographer and filmmaker