Building up contacts can prove vital for growing your business
Adrian Corcoran followed up his PhD in microbiology with a year’s travel.
Whether or not he went to find himself, by the time he returned to Ireland in 2008, what he’d discovered was that he wanted to set up a business instead.
“Up until then I had undertaken web design as a hobby,” he said. “When I came back I decided to do it as a career.”
He moved from Dublin to Mayo — where his then girlfriend had got a job — and she was the only person he knew there.
He started up Attik Designs from a spare room in his new house, and now, four years on, it employs five people, has offices in Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, and enjoys 30% growth yearly.
Corcoran reckons networking was the key.
“By chance, the woman who let us the house suggested I come along to a local business networking meeting, and I did,” he said. “From that day on I started building my networks.”
He reckons that 95% of his work comes from referrals, about 70% of which he attributes to his membership of Business Network International (BNI).
This organisation operates nationwide and Corcoran also works actively to build networks of his own.
“I wouldn’t have been a natural networker but at this stage I’m very strategic about it.”
Networking is widely misunderstood, said Sandra Hart, who runs BNI Ireland South and West, which has more than 700 small business members across Munster and Connacht.
“It is too often confused with direct selling. If you meet a person at an event and take it as an opportunity to sell, you are simply doing the face-to-face equivalent of shoving junk mail through a letterbox. It is not wanted and it won’t generate business,” she said.
Some 25 BNI “chapter” members will meet for breakfast once a week, each chapter consisting of just one representative of a business type or profession (for example, one chapter will only have one solicitor, or one financial services agent), and members must apply to join.
Across the 26 counties, over the past three years, BNI has generated €100m worth of business through referrals, said Hart.
She knows this because all referrals and their outcomes are recorded. In some cases, non-productive members are asked to leave.
“Networking is about developing and building quality relationships,” she said.
“It is about farming for business rather than hunting for it. If you hunt, you eat for a day and then have to start again. If you farm, it takes greater cultivation over a longer term, but it will bear fruit time and time again.”
Research indicates that 98% of people say they get a lot of business through word of mouth, Hart said, but only 3% have a strategy for it.
The network helps members to focus on actively generating business through word of mouth.
BNI has been in Ireland for 15 years and charges €600 for a year’s membership.
Its Irish members seem to have taken to it with gusto — Hart says the Irish typically generate 30% more business per member than any other country in Europe.
The average figure earned by Irish members through BNI referrals is up this year, to €55,000 (from €46,000 last year).
“I think at this stage people are tired of the recession and are starting to think creatively about how to start building their business again, and networking is part of that,” said Hart.
Networking worked for Rani Dabrai, who set up her “virtual assistant” business, Miss Moneypenny, in 2008 in Newcastle West, Co Limerick. For the first six months, though, the business performed poorly.
“When a friend suggested joining a network group I had to raid the coppers jar to do it,” she recalled.
“I was broke, I was dejected and the business was going nowhere.”
Miss Moneypenny now employs six people and has more than 200 regular clients.
“Running a business can be a very isolating experience,” said Dabrai, but “networking both boosted revenues and provided support — it was great to have a circle of people in the same boat, so there is also a valuable social element to it.”
But you must be strategic about how you use events, advised Dabrai. “I will always find out who will be at any event in advance, select my targets and establish what I want to achieve on the night.”
She points out that networking is rarely wasted, as “you never know who the person you meet might know”.
When Sam Rathling moved from the UK to Ireland in 2005 to set up her own recruitment business, recruitmentmagic.com, the only person she knew was her husband.
Today, though, 90% of her business comes through referrals, and she has co-authored a book on the topic, entitled Building the Ultimate Network.
“The key point to remember is that networking and selling don’t mix,” she said.
“Effective networking is not a sales pitch, it is about listening to the other person’s needs and focusing on how you can help them first.”
Face-to-face networking should be backed up by online social networking, as both have their place, she said.
“Face-to-face networking is ideal if you are looking to build a local business, but social networking sites such as LinkedIn give you access to a global audience, if that is what you are after,” said Rathling.
“In both cases the same rules apply. You must first create visibility by putting yourself out there. You must then give yourself credibility by establishing yourself as an expert in your field.
“The two combined will give you trust, which is the vital ingredient in building relationships.”
Referral Institute Ireland is another option for anyone looking to brush up their networking skills.
It was established in Ireland five years ago and offers training, coaching and consulting on referral marketing. Its core programme costs €2,500 to undertake.
“We show people how to custom-design their own referral networks, based on the premise that people already know all the people they need to in order to get all the business they need,” said Alan Bell, who established Ireland’s first regional branch, in Dublin.
“But what they very often don’t know is how to identify and develop productive, reciprocal partnerships from within those networks.”
Make-up artist Aisling Powell completed one of the Referral Institute’s 12-week programmes, which she started last February, and 10 months on her company, too, is expanding.
Through her business, Touch Perfect, Powell provides make-up for consumers and the film and fashion industries.
In December she will launch a second element to the business — Empower Makeup — a combined make-up and photography studio for designers looking to create advertising campaigns.
The best tool in her kit box will be networking.
“Word of mouth is the cheapest form of marketing there is, but it won’t work for you if you aren’t prepared to help your referral partners too,” cautioned Powell.
“There are times when I will spend a day working on initiatives for other people’s businesses rather than my own — which can seem daunting — but if you put the effort in, the benefits will come back to you tenfold.”