Oh the pain. The stress. The drama. I set aside productive time, billable hours, personal time, family time, and what could have been hobby time for these business get-togethers. You may pay to be part of a networking group like BNI (which I don’t, but I’ve thought about it), in which case you have no choice but to attend or lose your seat. Personally, I’m a member of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce and attend Ribbon Cuttings, Business After Hours events, Training Events and Monthly Meetings. You may be part of a civic group or non-profit, which I’ve thought about doing myself but I just don’t have any more time to spare. No matter what the Networking event is, who sponsors it, or who puts it on, it’s always the same:

  • I spend time wishing I didn’t have to go because the last one was such a waste of time.
  • I pull myself up by the bootstraps and force myself to go, telling myself that this will be the one that brings in the really important new client.
  • I go to the event, and because I’m not good with introducing myself to people I don’t know I gravitate towards the same people I already know.
  • Sometimes I get introduced to somebody that could be an important contact and I get excited about it, only to never hear from that person again.
  • Sometimes I just force myself to introduce myself to somebody in the room but it’s always fairly random, and there’s  no real reason why I pick that person other than they are in my line of sight and within a few feet of distance.
  • Once in a while, maybe 1 time in 5 or 6, I leave feeling like I made some really good contacts. But most of the time I leave feeling like I just wasted 60-90 minutes.
  • On those rare occasions where I feel like I met somebody important for my business, I go back to the office and put their contact information into my computer and send them an email letting them know I was happy to have met them.
  • Then days go by and now even those meetings start to feel like a dismal waste of time to me that I could have spent…. doing…. something else. Anything else

Does this sound familiar? I know for a fact from my conversations with others that regularly go to these events that I’m not the only one who feels like I’m excruciatingly out of place in large groups of strangers (unless it’s a big concert or something like that), especially when there is the low hum of urgency underlying the event: You MUST meet new contacts if your business is to grow. But I’m not a salesperson, I’m a technologist and for me selling means talking until you say Yes. I’m working on that, by the way (for anybody who knows me and is grinning right now). I don’t feel comfortable with approaching strangers. I can never remember my elevator pitch (which is just a bunch of vaguely patched together sound bites describing what my business does ), and I always feel disingenuous when I recite some memorized lines, as if I’m in a play and nobody else is in it, and there’s no audience. It’s awkward.

But I, like most of the other small business owners I know, keep on doing this same thing, over and over and over. Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was to keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting the same results. So why don’t we all agree that networking is an exercise in self indulgent insanity and move on?

Because it’s not. It’s no more insane than gardening.

Gardening? Really, now, how does Gardening enter into this discussion? Simple. Gardening is a visible, tangible model for business networking.

  • You decide to plant a garden (decide on a business)
  • You pick a location (figure out what space you’ll need, where is the best physical location to rent)
  • You till and fertilize the soil (purchase your equipment and supplies, and inventory, and furniture, and fixtures, create some graphics for branding, create printed materials, etc.)
  • You put up a fence to protect it from wild animals (you get a security system, you purchase liability insurance, etc.)
  • You plant the seeds (you announce your business to the world, you have a ribbon cutting or grand opening)
  • Then you water the soil and weed the garden every day, day after day (you go to networking event after networking event, passing out cards, shaking hands, telling everyone you meet about what you can do for them).

Watering the soil and weeding the garden. Absolutely PERFECT analogues for networking. What is networking anyway if it isn’t nourishing your existing relationships and weeding out those businesses that would never be your customer in the first place?

What would happen if you went through all of the work of creating your garden and planting your seeds, only to look at the soil after a week of watering and give up? What if you told yourself “I can’t see anything growing so this garden must be a failure!”? There would be tiny little plants pushing up from under the soil and you would kill them before they had a chance to thrive.

The growing cycle of a garden really represents the first two or three years of your business. The first year is the hardest. It’s like watering and weeding every day for a month. But you don’t give up on your garden because you don’t see immediate results, so why is it such a temptation to throw in the towel after attending a dozen or two networking events in a year and the business isn’t pouring in? After a year, the seeds you planted and have been nurturing start to come to the surface, just like your garden will, and then that tiny little sapling will grow, and grow, exponentially faster and faster until you have nurtured a bunch of tiny seeds into a miraculous amount of life sustaining food.

I can’t think of a better analogy to business networking than gardening, really.

So how important is networking, really?

Right now, as I write this article, I’m extremely blessed with having a full plate of work to do. I just obtained two new clients this week. One of those is a small business struggling to stay alive in the face of the Internet Reality of Smart Phones and Google. I got this client from a referral that told them there wasn’t anybody else they would want to refer them to. Nice, huh? I’ve known the referrer for a year and a half and that person is one of those people that I gravitated towards at networking events so I could just hang out with someone I know and avoid making new connections. Remember all that wasted time? Was it really wasted? This relationship I cultivated with someone that I knew would never ever ever have the need for my services has become an important referral source for me. This is not the first referral this person has given me.

I said I obtained two new clients this week. The second is very important. I can’t begin to tell you how important. This new client is someone I met a year ago at a networking event and haven’t talked to since. At the event I introduced myself and told them about what I do, and how my skills as a software and database architect differentiate me from your average web developer. After he decided to hire me this week he told me about how he always knew that I would be the guy for the job. And it’s true. I have to architect a complex data transformation plan to get data from one database to another, where the two databases aren’t really compatible and neither are most of the data elements. I got a call from another business person I met over a year ago who was looking for me to participate in something, and I told her about my referral program. She went back to this new client of mine and referred them to me, because she knew they were looking for someone for this project and when she mentioned my name, well, it was the prior meeting with this new client that he had remembered, and he recognized my name and what I do immediately. He started asking around and he told me that my name kept coming up as “the guy” for this job. How is that possible? Well, simple. It’s because of all of those “waste of time” networking events I attended, which created the most important element of every business relationship: recognition.

All of those people who told him I was “the guy” are people who I’ve gotten to know over the last couple of years by attending networking meetings. Aside from a handful of clients I’ve picked up here and there over the last 2 years, most of the people I have gotten to know would really either never have a need to hire me or haven’t come to the realization that hiring me would be a good investment in their business. The point is, all of these people are either referring, or recommending me to others who meet me and ask if I’m a good candidate for their project.

I have three new proposals out on top of these two new clients I signed this week. One is someone I met at a networking event who had the opportunity to talk to a happy client of mine who was also at the event. I gave her my card and she called me the next day with two website projects she needed done. I created proposals for her and I’m hoping to hear back from her soon. Another is a friend of mine that used to be a Corporate Client several years ago. He moved on and we kept in touch. We’re good friends now. When i told him a few weeks back that I had a long list of small businesses in my local area that had web sites that needed help, and that I really am not good with cold calling, he offered to do it for me for a commission on sales. Imagine that, a relationship that isn’t going to hire me, but is going to try and get me more work so I can grow my business in exchange for a commission. It’s a win-win situation.

The bottom line is that I have a lot of relationships I’ve cultivated over the last couple of years at all of those “waste of time” networking meetings and just like with a garden, I’m starting to see the fruits of my labor. It’s an incredibly exciting time for me. And for my wife, who also has a new business, all this networking and relationship building has finally started to bear fruit. For about a year we thought maybe nobody was interested in what she has to offer: Personal Training Services geared towards women in midlife that are performed in the privacy of their homes. But now she’s fully booked up. There wasn’t any parade or fanfare. It just kinda happened over a period of about two months – one new client after another after another – and now she’s fully booked. Her new clients love her because they don’t have to be embarrassed when going to a gym or feel inadequate next to a mid twenties body builder or super-modelesque female trainer. My wife is 50 years old and she’s going through the same things they are. She is starting to have to turn work away.

So the next time you find yourself getting ready for a networking event, you need to raise your hands up in the air and exude gratitude for this opportunity to plant a couple more seeds in the garden of your prosperity. When somebody tells you to keep on doing what you are doing and never give up because the people you meet today will grow to be the prosperity you experience tomorrow, resist the urge to say “it doesn’t work” or “it’s a waste of time” or “I keep going to these things and nobody hires me” because just like your garden, you wouldn’t plant a seed today and tomorrow give up because you don’t have any tomatoes to eat. Just keep watering and feeding it, and you’ll have so many tomatoes you’ll have to give them away.