Networking Resources for Far-Flung Entrepreneurs

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Question: In a real and serious way, where do entrepreneurs and innovators hook up to exchange ideas and make connections? I’m in Idaho Falls, Idaho, so I’m looking for websites or U.S. cities.

Answer: There are so many ways for entrepreneurs to get together, both online and off, that an exhaustive list would be almost impossible. Instead, here are a few suggestions from a variety of sources.

Trade shows and conferences: From the highly specialized to the high-tech, to broader national small business gatherings, most small business owners have at least one or two must-attend annual events. These are places to show off your company and products, learn what’s new in your industry, and meet potential partners, employees, and investors. They’re also a good chance to get a look at what your competitors are doing and how you measure up.

Find lists of events online, or seek them through your specific industry organization. Don’t be afraid to ask other business owners which shows they’ve attended and how helpful they’ve been. Jonathan Hirshon, principal at Silicon Valley-based Horizon Communications, strongly recommends local TEDx conferences. Rob Jensen, who owns a Las Vegas real estate business, has enjoyed conferences hosted by business coach Tom Ferry. “They have speakers in the industry who are doing well, and they come out on stage and share their insights on what is working,” Jensen says. “One of the great things also is you meet people outside your local area, so they’re not your competitors and they’re more likely to talk to you about tips and sales techniques.”

Steer clear of “free” motivational and sales seminars that are really high-pressure sales pitches. Heavily promoted and often held in airport-area hotels and conference centers, these events are nearly always scams designed to separate would-be entrepreneurs from their precious startup capital.

Networking organizations: Depending on how large your business and your budget are, you could join a structured networking group like Vistage, the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, or BNI. Some groups form spontaneously and meet independently. Reno-based sales coach Alice Heiman is part of a mastermind group that grew out of a conference and now meets around the country twice a year with monthly Web chats in between. “We also each have an accountability partner we call every week to discuss progress on our goals and get ideas for anything we are working on,” she says.

If there’s nothing offered in your area, meet with your local Chamber of Commerce and ask if they will put out a call for entrepreneurs and innovators to attend a get-acquainted event. Many cities are now encouraging startup communities as a way to revitalize local economies, so you might find that something is already under way once you ask around. If not, “Reno [Nev.] has a burgeoning start up community and we welcome entrepreneurs. It’s a short plane ride from Idaho,” Heiman says.

Online resources: Even if you can’t travel, it’s impossible to miss the networking opportunities online. After all, the heart of every social media platform is just that: social. Private business groups on Facebook “share advice like we’re old friends, even though we’re all over the country so we’ve never actually met,” says Ellen Manus, who organizes business networking events in Jacksonville, Fla. She runs multiple Meetup groups focused on small business. The group events are organized online but held face-to-face, providing a way to meet business owners outside of your circle. “I continually get new, fascinating people from all walks of life who find they can help each other,” Manus says.

Hirshon recommends LinkedIn forums. “There is literally one for every imaginable market and business. I find it to be a great place to network amongst one’s peers on a worldwide basis,” he says.

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