Networking our way back

While we all keep our fingers crossed that our economy is bouncing back and more prosperous times are on the near horizon, one thing I am confident of is that this difficult economy has dramatically changed the way we do business. As I look across northern Nevada, I see businesses that are leaner and smarter. I see women and men that are working harder and more efficiently, doing far more with much less. For better or worse, I'm convinced that this is the business model of the future.

Business experts estimate the current recession started toward the end of 2007. Comparatively speaking, that's when the Titanic started taking on water. By last year, business owners were basically in a survival state just trying to stay afloat in the life raft and see where it was headed. Well now, people are starting to paddle, swim to shore and get their businesses back on track. I am so energized and inspired by proactive folks like these. They have adjusted to a new way of doing business and continue moving forward, despite the economic challenges that we are all facing.

At the beginning of 2010, we were expecting a slow enrollment year at the Sparks Chamber of Commerce. The exact opposite has happened we are signing up new members at a record-setting pace! As of the 56th day of the year, we had already enrolled 60 new members. On top of that, we are seeing the biggest turnouts ever at our events. At first, this had us scratching our heads. After all, in an economy like this, wouldn't small business owners and entrepreneurs be more likely to scale back? Wouldn't business networking be considered a luxury? Apparently, the answer is no.

I have observed that as the quality of the economy goes down, the quality of business networking goes up. Think about it. In an economy like this, people who are shelling out dues to join networking organizations and those who are proactively showing up at events are obviously invested in growing their business. Let's face it. In a flourishing economy it can be easier to make a business work. You even have the luxury of being lazy about basic fundamentals such as networking. A bad economy, on the other hand, reminds you of things you should have been doing the whole time (networking, budgets, business plans, marketing plans, etc.). Therefore, the businesses that are joining networking groups, trade organizations, and other business associations, along with the folks who are consistently showing up at business events and expos, are serious about getting their name out there, making quality connections, and making their business work. People are recognizing that they need to get more bang for their buck and they're utilizing all the opportunities they can find.

The quality and approach that savvy business owners are taking in terms of their interactions at networking events also appears to be improving. The conversations I'm observing are longer, more focused and have a clearer set of outcomes. For instance, I have seen one too many "networking" conversations that were over before they started. The two participants exchange cards, briefly describe their services and move on. What I am seeing now is the initiating of long-term business relationships. Participants are spending real time together, having real conversations about what each person is looking for, what inspires them in their business and what their ideal referral would be. People are taking intentional action to learn how they can help grow each other's businesses. This is how networking should be and I am excited to see it unfolding before me.

Oftentimes, it seems that the biggest casualties of hard economic times are advertising and marketing budgets. While cutting these areas might help with short-term viability, it can make long-term growth and sustainability very difficult. This makes it imperative to be creative and make sure you get the most out of every dollar spent. Every business person is looking for good investments and ways to grow their business. There are networking opportunities out there that every smart business person should take advantage of. Just like those people who have decided to stop floating and start paddling to shore, the people successfully doing business in this economy are savvy survivors.

As the executive director of the Sparks Chamber for more than seven years, I have been constantly awed by the tenacity, ingenuity and commitment of this region's business community. And, I have been completely motivated by watching the steely resolve shown by many of the area's business women and men towards making northern Nevada a great place to work and live. With this in mind, if you're not already, I would encourage you to get out and seize opportunities to meet like-minded professionals that can inspire you and help build relationships that can grow your business.

Len Stevens is executive director of the Sparks Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at 358-1976 or through the chamber's Web site,


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