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Monday, March 29, 1999
 
Your network could make the difference between failure and success

by Daneen Skube
Special to the Seattle Times

A small-business owner must have invented the quote, "It's not what you know, but who you know."

In the early years of running a business, who you know can be the difference between survival and failure. As time goes on, who you know can determine whether you survive or thrive. Once your business fully matures, the connections you have made will provide new ideas, referrals, visibility and even deep friendships.

Keep in mind that your networking needs will change as your business grows and changes. But no matter what stage you're in, the time you take to seek out professional contacts will have a lasting effect on your success and satisfaction.

If you're a new business owner, chances are you have more technical expertise than business management experience. What you need most at this stage are people who can help you gain expertise in marketing, accounting, staff management, hiring, firing and strategic planning. Professional contacts may also end up referring valuable business to you.

Jerry Barkley, owner of Crown Hill Automotive in Seattle for two years, is typical.

"I got into this business because I spent all my free time fixing cars. Finding mentors meant I had help learning my business," he said. "By getting good business advice, I now get to do my hobby for a living. Networking has been essential in helping my shop get referrals for European cars - my specialty."

Before Barkley opened his business, he made an effort to get to know others with experience in the automotive business. In addition, he joined trade associations and subscribed to industry publications.

Getting started in business takes all your time. But try not to bury your head in work. If you isolate yourself, you won't be able to build a professional community that will sustain your business in the coming years.

A critical step that most new business owners miss is connecting with experienced business owners who can serve as mentors even before they start their businesses.

Whatever you do, avoid spreading yourself too thin. Don't gravitate to people you don't like or respect just because they can help you. As your business matures, your best contacts also will become friends.

When you approach people, be aware that their time is valuable. Lunch or coffee may not be an adequate reimbursement. You might want to consider offering to pay for an hour or two of someone's time, or find another way to compensate them.

In the early years, a business owner mostly takes from professional relationships. Longtime business owners enjoy helping others succeed, but they are apt to avoid people who approach them expecting help without giving anything back.

Be grateful to those who have helped you. Refer them appropriate business, introduce them to people who can help them, keep your eye out for books, ideas or other resources you can recommend.

As your business grows, you will have developed mentoring relationships with a few key senior professionals. You'll have your peer network established. This is the time to work on expanding those contacts.

"In the beginning, my main concern was building my practice," said Andrew Kim, a Seattle attorney in his sixth year of practice. "I looked to older, experienced attorneys as mentors for emotional support and technical advice. Now I feel on more equal footing. By attending continuing-education seminars and being in associations, I expand my peer community and mentors. Other young attorneys are starting to call me. . . . It lets me know how far I've come."

By the time your business matures, many of your professional contacts will have become your friends. You may find that you spend less time networking, but these relationships are still important. You also will be in a position to give back more than you were in the past.

"The mature networker understands the importance of reciprocal help with referrals," said Randi Freidig, a Seattle business consultant for 18 years. "You realize your professional relationships are a privilege and involve give and take."

Networking needs to be for more than personal gain," said Freidig. "Putting effort into nonprofits and community activity gives back to the community and is a wonderful way to build contacts. It's more (about) nurturing relationships with people now than networking."

Begin looking for ways to mentor other professionals. Boards and advisory positions are great opportunities to get to know other small-business owners.

"My network helps me maintain visibility and find resources," Freidig says. "Everyone at late-stage business has rich contacts and a wealth of information. . . . Being isolated in an office, old business colleagues are a touchstone. They bring me back to reality and let me know how far I've come."

Daneen Skube, Ph.D., a speaker and psychotherapist, coaches local companies and executives in interpersonal communications. Readers can write to Skube in care of No. 2845, 1420 N.W. Gilman Blvd., Issaquah, WA 98027-7001; e-mail: dr.skube@home.com or fax: 206-382-8879. Include a daytime phone number.

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