Industry vs. Non-industry Alliances

Networking is essential to the success of a small business. As an entrepreneur, you wear many hats: one for production, one for sales, one for customer relations, one for vendor relations, one for accounting and probably one for marketing as well. For some business owners, networking and talking about their business comes naturally. Some people are natural-born communicators and can strike up a conversation with someone next to them in line at the coffee shop without thinking twice. If the topic turns to business, they welcome the opportunity to share their story. Others shy away from networking functions and find it difficult to talk about themselves and their business. Some are afraid of coming across like a salesman and some are just too modest to give themselves credit where it’s due! No matter where you fit on the continuum, networking is critical to your survival.

Industry alliances are those with whom you meet weekly or monthly (or periodically) to discuss industry-related topics. Interior designers have associations like the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and handmade tile artists have organizations like the Handmade Tile Association. Being part of groups like these gives you access to education, events, and other resources to help your business grow. While you probably won’t get much business from your participation in industry-related groups, they will help you get your name on the map and will keep you in the loop.

Non-industry alliances are groups in which you are one of the few businesses in your industry. Your college alumni association, the Better Business Bureau or your city’s Chamber of Commerce are good examples. These groups are important because they provide a viable pool of potential customers. Say you’re a tile artist and you attend a networking event put on by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce. You might meet a lawyer, an accountant, a real estate agent and a landscape designer. Think of how each of these people could use your services.

Maybe the lawyer tells you how she just bought a new home and is looking to re-do the kitchen. Here’s your opportunity to share a story about the tile work you do and how you just sold your work to a friend who was re-doing her kitchen as well! Then let’s pretend the real estate agent is telling you about a home she’s listing on Lake of the Isles. Let’s also pretend that you have an installation piece in a home nearby that you tell her about. Perhaps your specific type of work fits in nicely with the types of homes on Lake of the Isles.

Whatever the case may be, the goal is to find common ground with whomever you end up talking to and gradually bring the conversation back around to your business. Look at each situation and ask yourself how your services can help that person. If you feel comfortable making the “hard sell” then go for it, but if you don’t, just try and find something in common and go from there until you get more comfortable.

Importance of Variety

If you only participate in industry-related groups, you probably won’t get much new business. Think outside your comfort zone and try to join groups where you will be the only one of your “kind”. Then you have the opportunity to become the “expert” in your field and can reach out to many more potential customers. If you don’t feel comfortable attending functions on your own, recruit a friend to be your “sidekick” to talk you up. Just make sure they stay focused on the task at hand: to meet new people and talk about your business!


Most networking groups have a fee to attend or join so they can cover their own costs of putting on the events or meetings. Depending on your budget and type of group you join, these fees range from reasonable to extreme, so be sure you choose wisely. Many groups allow you to attend one time free, so take advantage! Scope out the scene and see if it feels like a good fit before putting any money down. Ask your friends if they are part of any organizations and if they could bring you once at no charge.

If you decide to join a group and are disappointed that you don’t find any solid leads after one meeting, keep at it! Make small goals for yourself, like handing out at least 5 business cards at each event. (Of course you already know that you should have plenty of cards with you at all times, right?) You never know where new opportunities might arise.

That said, if you try a non-industry networking group for six months to a year and have not seen your efforts bear any fruit, it may be time to try a different group, especially if you’re spending money to be a member. There are countless opportunities and groups that exist out there. If you’re not sure where to start, ask friends if they’re members of any good groups or simply google something like “entrepreneur networking group Minneapolis” on the Internet and go from there.

© 2010 Trebuchet Communications

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