The owner of a public relations company extols the virtues of networking in the world of small business.
network. n. interconnecting group of people.
That's what it says in the dictionary, and in four words I couldn't put it better myself. But like any brief statement, it needs further explanation.
The business of which I'm a partner - a PR and media consultancy called Red Alert Media, based in Northampton - was set up two and a half years ago.
Networking could win clients
We were confident we had both the know-how and the authority to provide to the highest standard of service; we were - still are - full of vigour and determination, and duly followed the usual procedure of turning a good idea into an enthusiastic new venture.
We just needed some clients!
We considered advertising, telemarketing and mail shots - all of which have merit, but of course, cost money too.
Then we were introduced to networking. And with experience, I now have no doubt that this is the difference between success and failure.
Round the clock
There are no limits to the networking you can do. You can network morning, noon and night. You can even network online.
But don't just take my word for it. Kettering-based Duncan Webster launched his web-design company 1PCS 18 months ago, and his is now, without doubt, one of the busiest and high-profile of its kind in the region.
He puts it all down to networking - and has turned it into an art form.
"However good you might think you are, whatever the merit of your product, you have to get out there and sell yourself and your business," said Duncan. "Networking is definitely the way to do it."
Duncan and I met through BNI - Business Network International. The format is simple: every member stands up for a minute and talks about their business, and, possibly, what companies they might be looking for a lead into.
They also hand out referrals to fellow members, which - hopefully - lead to new business for them.
You can sit and listen to everyone, and target who you need or would like to talk to after the meeting.
"Initially, that one-minute presentation can be very intimidating," said Duncan. "I was terrified the first time I did it - I was very raw and new to the business community.
"But the second time I came away with five referrals, thinking 'wow, this is powerful stuff'. I joined immediately."
But as a networker, you need a broad portfolio, and of course BNI doesn't work for everyone.
That said, if you tried to attend every networking opportunity you'd never actually get any work done.
Breakfast seems a popular time to network - it sets many people up for the rest of the day, but of course not everyone's an early starter.
Perhaps that's why the Chamber of Commerce organise their networking at lunchtime. The format at their events is to swap tables with each course.
Hopefully, by doing so, you meet as many people as possible - though the problem I've found is that by sitting around a large table, you actually miss far more than you meet.
I think structure's important. You can go to all kinds of networking events, but the best ones allow you to play the room.
I've just come back from one breakfast club where I only met the people sitting on my table. That's five people in a room of over 100. It started promptly and finished late, so most of us had to rush off.
That said, I have made a very good contact, and I'm optimistic that I could have a very good lead into the company she was representing.
Of course, attending exhibitions, seminars and conferences is another way of networking. You can network indirectly - at the golf course, or by supporting charity events.
But if you really don't have the time to spare for breakfast, lunch or evening networking, then there is an alternative. Go online.
One such online organisation is Magenta Circle, launched by Milton Keynes-based Nigel Wyatt three years ago.
From an original group of 15, more than 1,400 consultants and small businesses have now joined - among them Richard France, a financial consultant based in Staffordshire.
"After just one week's membership I made a contact which turned into a commitment for work worth up to £3,000 over the next 12 to 36 months," he said.
Networking as an art form
The art of good networking is to work out what form of it best suits your needs.
Be selective, because networking does cost money.
Do, however, weigh up the investment of an annual subscription of an organisation such as BNI against the cost of a one-off advertisement in your local newspaper.
Networking has given me confidence, contacts, friendship and fantastic advice that would otherwise have cost a fortune.
Most importantly, it's given me business and helped raise the profile of my company. Hopefully, I've given something back in return, too.