Celebrating Knowledge-sharing Networks!

As the first month of 2011 comes to a close, I am delighted to say it has been a very busy one for Dangerous Marketing as we get close to celebrating our 10th trading anniversary – and this gave me a chance to reflect on the main approaches we used to getting the business off the ground.

I was fortunate to win a long term contract that gave me the impetus to resign from a full time (well paid!) role to go it alone, which is what brought me down to Plymouth in May 2001. And my good fortune continued when this contract came to an end, as it had enabled me to meet my business partner and a number of associates. All we needed then were contracts to work on! Analysing how we developed our business so quickly, I can put it down to one major factor: networking.

With the business in true start-up mode (ie no clients, contacts or suppliers!), my main role was to get out and meet people! This translated into attending as many networks as possible – and this is what made the vital difference to the rate we won new contracts. However, looking back, it wasn’t simply attending these networks that made the difference: it was the taking of an alternative approach to the intentions of the networks that was the main reason our business grew!

It isn’t rocket science that to develop a meaningful relationship with another human being, you need shared interests and knowledge – you find out what you have in common and build the relationship from there. This is what these networks wanted, but it was HOW they did it that often didn’t achieve the results they wanted. As an example, one of the earliest networks I joined was BNI with its very active sales approach, based on an American networking model (developed by Ivan Misner). It has been so successful, it has spawned countless imitators that adapt the concept to a “more British way” of networking! As a start-up, BNI was the perfect learning arena. However, as we grew, I noted that the value of this type of networking diminished.

In my view, the key weakness of this style of networking is to ‘force’ business people together, based on the ‘common factor’ of having paid to participate. This means you have no control or choice over who you can network with in a closed environment. There has to be similar/shared approaches for the basis of relationships to be sustainable. And as I have continued to network through the years, I notice this element becomes more crucial.

Dangerous Marketing will only provide referrals/recommendations for suppliers or associates that we have seen in action – after all, it is our business reputation that is at stake if the recommendation doesn’t work! Many networks try to short-circuit this referrals mechanism, which often leaves members disillusioned as the ‘promised’ new business they expected doesn’t materialise. Key to successful networking is the freedom to make up your own mind about the contacts you meet.

So now the vast majority of my ‘networking’ now is done on-line through social media, where you have the freedom to choose who to get to know better, based on mutual interests and knowledge sharing (and which has definitely contributed to the business having a very busy January!). However, there are still some very special networks ‘in the real world’ that grab my attention: The Women’s Business Club (TWBC) is one.

Led by founder and MD Kelly Stevens, who is passionate about supporting women in business and encouraging entrepreneurship, the TWBC enables business women to 1) learn from each other; 2) promote their businesses; 3) find inspiration and 4) make important business contacts. Primarily this network is about sharing knowledge and learning amongst its members, which captures the essence of how people (and women in particular!) want to network with each other. The vital component isn’t about forcing individuals to sell/promote their services to people they’ve only just met – each person is in control of the rate at which the mutually beneficial business relationship can develop – which leads to much stronger ties (and greater likelihood of doing business together in the future!).

TWBC is clever in that it gives individuals the choice of networking on line or in person. The Premier Clubs meet monthly over a lunch-time to enable members to pool resources, share experience, contacts and expertise, and look for ways to collaborate to help grow each others’ businesses. Typically the group is a great mix of business types and sizes – from start ups to partners and directors of large organisations.  Although informal in style, the network recognises the value of the time given by the members to attend, so they are conducted as a business meeting, to a timed agenda. Another key factor is that each group size is capped at a number where all the members can gain the most from their participation and collaboration.

I’m delighted to see this approach has been so successful that in the year our Plymouth group has been running, many more groups have been set up around the country, including several in the south west (take a look here at the latest locations).  As the Plymouth group heads to its first anniversary, I also have the honour of hosting the newly set up club in Taunton and I look forward to generating more valuable relationships here.

If you would like to experience this type of truly effective networking for yourself, you are very welcome to come along a guest and help us celebrate the value of knowledge sharing networks!

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