Small Business Builder: Networking

ByMary Campbell

June 27, 2001 -- Networking, or meeting and mingling with people, is the thing to do for almost everybody — from business owners to managers to salespeople to job seekers to parents to the new folks in town.

That's because who you know often is as important as what you know in today's economy.

In the best of all possible worlds, you could do your business networking and socializing at the same backyard barbecue. But in our less-than-perfect society, especially in big cities, business and personal relationships are sometimes a long subway ride apart.

To network effectively without seeming phony, there are a few simple rules to follow:

Don't fake it. If you're not absolutely sold on your business and its benefits, then networking can seem contrived and uncomfortable. But if you believe in your business and yourself, networking is effortless and fun, and you'll come across as enthusiastic rather than opportunistic. Whether you're the quiet type or a social whirlwind, take time to cultivate confidence, courtesy and poise.

Don't force it. Concentrate on listening with interest to what others are saying. Learn all you can about how they'd benefit from doing business with you before pitching your product.

Honor thy business contact. In the book I and Thou, 20th-century philosopher Martin Buber denounces "I-It" relationships (which are manipulative) in favor of "I-Thou" relationships (based on respect). A relationship may be useful without being exploitative.

Carry your card. At nonbusiness social events, your role is to enjoy yourself and contribute to others' enjoyment. If another guest shows interest in your product, take a few minutes to exchange basic information, make an appointment and then rejoin the gathering.

Draw the line. If you are a dedicated business owner, the line between work and everything else can get blurry. Make it definite if you want to keep your life in balance.

I know a plumber who rarely enters another person's home without being asked to "just take a look at this leaky faucet." Doctors and lawyers complain about the free-advice seekers who assail them at cocktail parties. One strategy: Listen attentively, respond with polite concern ("I can certainly understand your confusion"), and urge your questioner to call your office for an appointment or a referral. Or promise to call him, but only if you can do so without seeming presumptuous.

Practice leveraged networking. Make the most of your networking opportunities by choosing those that meet multiple (but not conflicting) objectives.

Do join an organization that serves the community in a way you'd enjoy and that offers potential business benefits. Attend luncheons and meetings that offer not only useful contacts but speakers or topics you're interested in.

But do not choose an after-hours get-together that offers both useful contacts and Monday Night Football.

Lighten up. If you accomplish nothing else at a networking event, relax and enjoy yourself. Fun needn't wait till you cross the finish line.

All the Right Places

When Linda Spradley Dunn was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, she turned to the relationships she had developed during 13 years at IBM.

Dunn got the networking ball rolling early, and it's never stopped. Now IDAMAR Enterprises, the company she started six years ago, has earned the No. 3 spot in the 2001 Inc. Inner City 100 after showing sales growth of 5,066 percent from 1995 to 1999.

IDAMAR, named after Dunn's "heroes," her grandmothers, Ida and Martha, and her great-aunt Mary, began as a "telephone triage" operation called Health Telemanagement Services. The business grew quickly and now addresses two distinct markets, with "health and wellness" as a common theme — Fortune 500 companies and well-to-do women of color with professional or executive careers.

As a provider of managed-care claims processing, administration and customer service for corporations, IDAMAR has 100 employees. Training is a key IDAMAR objective, says Dunn, who is dedicated to preparing people "for careers, not work."

IDAMAR serves its other clientele with programs such as the recent Odyssey Network 2001 in Scottsdale, Ariz. At this annual conference "for affluent and influential women of color," participants combine business (networking and taking executive education courses) with pleasure (relaxation, exercise or such adventures as ballooning and whitewater rafting.

Back home in Newark, N.J., Dunn changes hats, slipping into her community-activist role. Right now she's forming a minority-owned-business council to advise the Newark Alliance, a group of major corporations currently putting together a $100 million venture-capital fund for new businesses. Dunn has also served on the boards of directors for several area nonprofit groups.

One kind of network, Dunn maintains, is absolutely essential. "You have to have a support network," she says. "Whether it's tears or mentoring, you need that network in place."

An editor since the age of 6, when she returned a love letter with corrections marked in red, Mary Campbell founded Zero Gravity in 1984 to provide writing, editing and marketing services. Small Business Builder is published on Wednesdays.

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