OK – I’m a small business owner, and I know Networking (yes, you can hear the capital “N”) is more than just a buzzword, it’s important to help further my business.  And after all, how hard can networking be? Everyone seems to be doing it. I hate to give up on something after putting time and energy into it, but I have gone to several “networking meetings” in the last year – and based on those experiences I was at the point of deciding to cut my losses and giving it all up as a waste of time.

Buying a ticket to show up and meet a bunch of strangers who may or may not have anything in common with you and/or your business goals is kind of like a blind date! (And we all know the jokes about blind dates…) Yes, you got a decent lunch or breakfast for the price of your ticket, but it quickly became apparent in every one of those meetings I went to, that the other people were there solely to try to sign up new clients. That’s not networking, that’s marketing.

Sure, picking up a client on the spot would have been wonderful, but that is not what networking is about. I was there to make contacts, share perspectives, get new ideas and hopefully help others understand my business better than they did before they met me. If I was lucky I would go away having met one or maybe two people I’d like to keep in touch with and add to my network. Unfortunately, it was clear that was not going to happen at those meetings

Earlier this week I was invited to another of these events, and even though I really thought it would be a waste of time, I decided to give it one last shot. I am so very glad I did.

The very first difference was that it was free – didn’t have to buy a ticket, a meal, make a donation – nada. The second is that it was held at the organizer’s office, in a conference room, not in a restaurant or a rented space. These differences piqued my curiosity, and went a long way to helping me make up my mind to attend.

I walked into the office building, and heard voices down the hall – animated talking, laughter. A woman approached me, introduced herself as the event organizer, and showed me into a room where there were 8 or 9 women sitting around a table, talking and listening to each other. I was shown to a chair and the woman left to welcome another participant. I listened for a bit to the conversations around me, and then introduced myself and joined in.

These were people who were truly enthusiastic about their businesses, and it came through very clearly in the way they spoke – about their motivation, their commitment, and the pleasure they got from doing what they did. Each and every one had an anecdote about why they got into the field they were in, and told it with passion, wit, and most often a dollop of humour. Most had at least one aspect of their business where they offered their services and/or products on a pro bono basis. These were people who were engaged, enthusiastic, and energetically involved in evolving their businesses in such a way as to be profitable, not at the expense of their clients and community, but rather to their benefit.

People asked lots of questions of each other and often more than one person contributed to the answer. Sounds like chaos, doesn’t it? But no, there was an atmosphere of respect and interest that had been notably absent from any of my previous experiences. Yes, business cards were exchanged, but as a means of giving contact information, not as a ploy to reel in new clients.

The meeting lasted over an hour, and honestly I could have stayed there for the entire morning. This was truly a networking event, and it has become the benchmark by which I will evaluate any such future events that I may attend.

I leave you with two quotes, both of which apply to this experience:

“The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.” – Keith Ferrazzi

“The successful networkers I know, the ones receiving tons of referrals and feeling truly happy about themselves, continually put the other person’s needs ahead of their own.” Bob Burg

How do you network? I’d love to hear about some of your experiences.