SME Special: Talk is cheap, but can be invaluable

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The Independent Online

New businesses often find that getting clients is one of the hardest tasks they face. Once you've been up and running for a while and you have a track record, you can get work through referrals and repeat business (if you are good), but it's getting those first clients that can be such a hurdle. While advertising, PR and marketing can go a long way to getting the word out, as a method of building a client base and making useful business contacts, networking clubs take a lot of beating – if you work them right.

New businesses often find that getting clients is one of the hardest tasks they face. Once you've been up and running for a while and you have a track record, you can get work through referrals and repeat business (if you are good), but it's getting those first clients that can be such a hurdle. While advertising, PR and marketing can go a long way to getting the word out, as a method of building a client base and making useful business contacts, networking clubs take a lot of beating – if you work them right.

There are hundreds of networking organisations around the country. There are Government-sponsored local business clubs, Chambers of Commerce, Junior Chambers of Commerce, industry-specific groups such as IT, media, publishing, sales and the like, gender-specific clubs (mainly female), industry and gender-specific groups (Women in IT, Women in Banking, Women in Shoes – well not that one, but you get the point), and more general ones for entrepreneurs, young entrepreneurs, high-flying executives and so on.

Networking events take place in any given region, every night of the week. One Wednesday evening recently, I found myself at an event run by the Glasshouse, a club for entrepreneurs set up in 1998 by Judith Clegg, currently joint CEO of natural health products company Ancient Roots. The event, held at an upmarket Mayfair club, had a friendly and lively atmosphere. In fact the presence of so many intelligent and creative people in one room meant that the experience was more enjoyable than many house-parties I've attended.

"I set Glasshouse up because some friends and I were starting our own businesses, and we wanted to get together once a month, share experiences and meet other people," says Clegg. "It took off from the start with 60 people at our first meeting."

There are rules, however. "We have excluded consultants who clearly saw our events as an easy way to get more clients," adds Clegg. "People do sometimes do business together after meeting here, but that's a by-product. The main point is to get entrepreneurs together to meet like-minded people, get inspired, be supported and have a good time."

The "like-minded" bit is important too. Although events are mostly open to anyone, the cost can sift the dabblers from the serious go-getters. The monthly networking event at Glasshouse costs £25 to enter and the members' nights and members' dinners can cost between £40-£75. But the type of people at this event clearly believe that getting ideas and making useful contacts justified the cost.

One member, Xavier Adam, a 25-year-old owner of an international PR business, has largely built his company on networking. "I'd meet people at an event then set up a business meeting later on." he explains. "Sometimes I'd meet the same people for a year or more before doing business with them but that's how it works. It's about developing relationships." It's clear that anyone serious about developing their business will network wherever they can, whenever they can.

As if to prove his point, we leave Glasshouse and drop in at a technology/new media group named Boob, the acronym for Buy Our Own Beer. Meeting in a small Soho club, Boob is a good indicator of the state of the dotcom market at the moment. "When we started three or four years ago," says co-founder Julian Marszalek ruefully, "we'd have hundreds of people at the events and queues round the block trying to get in. Now look." He gestures at the 20 or 30 people chatting over drinks. "The rationale for Boob was that you turn up because you want to meet people and network, and you don't mind buying your own drinks," he adds. Back in the boom times that worked very well with hundreds of young new media execs excitedly talking shop. Now, they come to commiserate with each other.

But it is those who understand the point of networking clubs who really benefit from them. Xavier Adam explains that some international networking clubs can fail in certain countries. "The Germans don't understand networking," he says. "They want to know exactly why they're there and what they're going to get from it. The idea of just being friendly and laid-back about it is not something they can handle."

However, for those who do understand the point, international networking groups can be exceptionally helpful for new entrepreneurs as they can provide a point of contact when you are doing business abroad. TiE-UK is the UK chapter of the American-based international organisation TiE. It is open to entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs in any sector and offers a free mentoring service as well as networking.

"Many of our events are free," says TiE director Geeta Srivastava, "but we often find that the meetings where people have to pay have a little more seriousness about them!" Paid events cost a very reasonable £10-20 a time and Srivastava says they attract people of all ages but tend to have a majority of Asian business people.

On the other hand, local or very specific networking groups can offer different, but no less useful, ideas and contacts for new businesses. Women in business, for example, are particularly well-served by networking clubs, partly because of their perceived need to combat the "old boy network". The two-year-old Busygirl network is probably the biggest and best-known group specifically for women entrepreneurs and corporate women, although as its founder Glenda Stone explains, 10 per cent of their membership are men in order to represent the business environment.

"Women want comparison as well as comfort," says Stone, "so we need men around too, and they enjoy the meetings because there's a fast-paced buzz about them."

The network, which has more than 7,000 members, has relatively high-powered networking events and members' meetings. It is free to join, all information is on the website, and is open to women from all business sectors.

"The secret of life is that if you just change the way you approach people you can make an impact on what you're doing," says Carole Stone, the author of Networking – The Art of Making Friends. "Make the most of any networking event by targeting people you want to meet, giving your business cards out and seizing the moment with people. And why not set up your own group? It doesn't matter if you live in a small village in Northumbria, just find a time and a place where you can have a get-together each month, invite some friends and get them to bring other people. Have something that everyone knows is happening each week or month and they know they can go there. Don't just wait for someone else to start something up."



Information



Glasshouse: www.theglasshouse.net

Boob: 020-7385 3876

TiE-UK: 020-7280 0095; www.tie-uk.org

Busygirl: 020-7908 8002; www.busygirl.com

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