Ties That Bind -- and Build a Business

Talk about a challenging way to get a business started (see BW Online, "Tips on Getting Started"). Kitty Li, the founder and president of LIK Group, a small firm that helps U.S.-based businesses and architects outsource to China, started her company just a few months after relocating to Boston from Toronto. To be successful, she needed to network -- and fast.

Now three years into her entrepreneurial venture, Li says business is booming, and her contact list is still growing. After moving away from all of the contacts she'd made over the past seven years, how did she develop her new business model and clientele at the same time? To build her initial momentum, Li took advantage of the network she had already built through seven years working at a large real estate developer in Toronto. Li says the toughest part was finding the right balance to benefit her business while she kept some time for herself.

Building a network is important for any small business owner, but it doesn't have to become the most important thing. Here are a few tips on how to network effectively, without gutting your day:

For starters, do like Li did and take advantage of the network you already have. Li asked former co-workers in Toronto for contacts they had in Boston and expanded from there. Effective networking requires forming and nursing relationships, so why not nurse the ones you already have? But think outside the people you interact with every day. That includes associates from your pre-entrepreneurial employment and old friends you've lost touch with, high school and college classmates, and friends of your parents and family.

Here are some more tips:

GOOD AT GAMES.

  Open your eyes to your day to day activities as networking opportunities. Even your spare time and social activities can produce a potential partnership if you make the effort. For example, if you're going to play tennis or golf with a friend, ask him to bring a couple of other friends along. But remember to be genuine (see BW Online, 12/15/05, "Networking for the Right Reasons"). "The idea isn't to be cynical or mercenary or false -- just keep it in the back of your mind that the person you're talking to might be a connection," says Pamela Laird, author of Pull: Networking and Success Since Benjamin Franklin.

If you're like most business owners, you probably recognize that your existing network isn't bolstering your business fast enough, or perhaps it's not offering access to the right people. Professional organizations can fill that void. But beware: not all professional organizations are created equal, so make sure to research any organization before joining. Do they require membership fees? How much of a time commitment does the club ask of its members? Do they hold conferences? How active are its members? How industry-focused is the organization? Are there opportunities for cross-pollination with your industry?

For an entrepreneur starting a software company, for example, joining the Rotary Club may not be the best option if he is looking to form a deep relationship with a potential investor or client. "It's best to join those organizations where you can have meaningful relationships -- not just those based on exchanging business cards," says Toby Stuart, professor of entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School.

CONFERENCE CENTER.

  Another way to get beyond the business card trading level quickly is to attend focused events. Professional organizations often hold yearly conferences where a greater community comes to share information and best practices. "I strongly urge people to go to conferences, because you learn about what's new in the field -- and it's extremely important for entrepreneurs to be up to date on the latest technology and tools," says Laird.

Besides choosing the organizations with the best conferences, it's also important to consider the types of networks to which you need access (see BW Online, 9/18/03, "Making a Network Connection"). Who are your potential clients, and where do they go to network? Even more important: Are your competitors there? Li says a venue where your clients and competitors hang out is invaluable, because you have the opportunity to understand them both better, and in a different setting from what you're used to.

For women and minority business owners, who have access to a greater number of professional organizations, joining several groups might be worth the extra time. Aside from the support and shared perspective of a group like the National Association of Minority Contractors (NAMC), a professional organization for construction and contracting that's only open to minorities, joining a broader organization can spread a business's reach even farther, says Owen Tonkins, national executive director for the NAMC.

BIG AND SMALL.

  In the world of construction and contracting, for example, members of Tonkins' group get together to discuss challenges and opportunities unique to being a minority. But when they join a larger organization like the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) that is open to everyone, Tonkins says that additional interaction helps foster goodwill among different types of people, but more importantly, it facilitates bigger partnerships that can secure more lucrative contracts.

There's no formula for how much is too much (or too little) networking. Each business owner must decide that on his own. But make no mistake: To get a business off the ground, networking is an absolute necessity. And even for those companies which aren't building a Rolodex from scratch, it's important to network before you actually need something.

DO IT YOURSELF.

  And through it all, remember that networking is a two-way street, so look out for opportunities to help others. "If you're a connector and are going out to help others, then you're just building a better and stronger network," Li says. And that's the best way to form lasting and meaningful relationships.

Li's last bit of advice: Realize that networking takes time. Although there are ways to save time and avoid reinventing the wheel, each business owner has to get in the game alone. And don't panic if you can't see the fruits of your labor right away. Li says she's still seeing her networking pay off three years after she started. Perhaps that's the greatest lesson of all: Recognizing that networking is the gift that keeps on giving. And if done well, any networking is good networking.