We’ve all been there. Walking into a room of complete strangers, business cards at the ready, with a feeling vaguely reminiscent of stepping onto a used car lot. Welcome to the monthly Chamber of Commerce networking luncheon: a hellscape of desperate Realtors, indifferent bank managers, and the guy who just quit his job at the car wash to become a personal trainer.
Early in my career, I didn’t understand why people do this to themselves. After a few false starts with local networking, my wife and I decided that it wasn’t for us and then carried on for the next ten years avoiding it at all costs. We were too young, hip, and broke to put the money and effort in. My background in I.T. enabled us to grow our business pretty well using less traditional means like SEO and social media, so networking groups just remained, in our minds, a relic of the past that millennials like us didn’t need.
Then something changed. A lot changed, actually.
About four years ago, a friend of mine came to give a presentation at our local professional photography group. Over drinks afterward, she asked me if I was a member of my local Chamber of Commerce. When I said no, I could see on her face the wordless, open-mouthed “are you a total idiot” expression that only good friends can share.
Keep in mind, this is a colleague and friend whose business and marketing skills I really admired, the type of person who, when they are giving out business advice, has my complete attention.
After a very long ten seconds of silence, she said, “…why not?!” Not much else was needed to convince me to give it another look, but she was gracious enough to break down for me how I was completely and totally dropping the ball. I listened. Let me tell you what I learned.
You’re Doing It Wrong
First thing, networking events are terrible because most people do networking wrong. They go in with the wrong mindset. What can I get? What do my membership dollars get me? How much can I take? Who among these fine professionals is my next target? Talk about putting the cart before the horse!
As a new business owner, I walked into a room full of established professionals thinking how lucky they were to have me. My intention was always to gain an advantage, and you know what? They smelled it on me. I failed to make any meaningful connections as a young professional because the people who ran the joint had seen hundreds of people like me before come in trying to take from them without any intention to become a part of the community. No wonder I failed.
The Right Time for Your Business
Next, I learned that there is a right time financially and mentally to be a part of a business networking group. In the beginning, a $300 annual membership fee to a Chamber seemed like a lot more money than it does now. When you fork over what, to you, is a large amount of money for something, you expect to get something out of it right? The trouble is, that the value of a dollar is relative to the person’s income and experience.
For me at the time, $300 meant giving up eating out for three months. To the investment banker next to me at the luncheon, it meant less than nothing. Your membership isn’t a magic ticket to financial success, it buys you a seat at the table for one year. That’s it. You get to be in the room where it happens. The rest is up to you.
When our business was new, when we were pretty much focused on survival, we were not in the right frame of mind to be a part of a community. Both my wife and I had just been laid off and were desperate to try and make our photography side hustle into something that could sustain us both financially. We were barely any good at taking care of ourselves, how were we going to be any good to anyone else?
Over the years of building a sustainable business, buying a home, and having children, we had talked quite a bit about finding ways to get more involved in our community. The timing of drinks with the aforementioned smart friend couldn’t have been more perfect. When she asked me “why not?!”, it was then that all the tumblers fell into place. We were ready to be a part of our professional community. Not just because we’re no longer desperate 22-year-olds trying to survive, but because we had developed something more important: a desire to be part of our local community in a significant way.
Instead of just needing to survive, we had something to offer. Instead of wanting to take, we wanted to enter into being a part of the symbiotic circle of local businesses and the families that run them. Fueled by a genuine desire to be a part of something and help our community thrive, I did a little homework and signed up as a new member of our local Chamber of Commerce that very night.
Financial Gain is the Byproduct
Let’s press pause here for a second and talk about the elephant in the room. Profit. Filthy, evil, sexy, beautiful profit. I may be making it sound as if, in my heart of hearts, I had only the purest of intentions to serve my community. In reality, I like making money just as much as the next person.
The thing about professional networking groups is, that if you do things the right way, financial gain is the byproduct. Every person in that meeting knows you are all there to make money, you don’t have to talk about it. It’s literally the whole point. Going to a professional networking meeting and being pushy about making contacts and selling your services is like going to speed dating and opening with, “I came here for sex!”
Yeah, we know.
So, being in the right place financially, understanding the place of professional business groups in communities, and armed with the right intentions, I set out to make the most of our brand-new Chamber membership. The next day, the group’s membership director called me to thank me for signing up and chat with me about my business. What she said next is important.
“You’re a headshot photographer? Wow, we don’t have anyone like that in our group, where have you been all these years?!”
Here’s the trick, you see: I already knew that. Do you remember that I mentioned “doing my homework” before I joined?
Our business is located in an area that has a dozen different Chambers within a quick drive and innumerable other types of professional groups. First, my homework was to find one where I would be a good fit and a valuable asset. Let me repeat the importance of that point. Where I would be an asset to them.
Here’s the rest of my checklist:
- Good website.
- Lots of events on the calendar.
- Active on social media.
- Healthy membership.
- Few to no other headshot specialists.
- Underwhelming headshots of the staff on the website.
The group I joined ticked every single box. I couldn’t whip out my credit card and join fast enough.
The membership director invited me to the next networking luncheon and my plan was in motion. Not only did I show up to the luncheon, but I brought my little travel camera with me. Nothing says “I’m a photographer” like having a camera in your hand, right? But that wasn’t actually the point. I grabbed about two dozen photos of the restaurant, the decor, the menus, and the members in attendance, keeping it low-key.
I didn’t make any good connections that day, but I wasn’t really trying to. The next day, I emailed the membership director with a link to about 12 photos of the event and told her that she was welcome to use them for marketing purposes and that I had enjoyed myself. I came, I gave, I waited.
The next phone call is where it really gets good. She called me again and asked to hire me to photograph another event and to do headshots for the staff. Victory, right? Wrong. I declined.
“Why don’t we do this:”, I said. “I want to donate the staff headshots to the Chamber (12 people) as well as 20 hours per year of event photography. I think our missions line up and this is a great way for my wife and me to give back to the community.” She. Was. Floored.
Over the next year, I participated in a number of incredible events, learned a ton about my community, and connected with a large number of inspiring business leaders, all with the enthusiastic endorsement of the Chamber staff telling anyone and everyone about me at every opportunity. In the following years, we have become the official headshot photographer of the city and the city commission as well as booked tens of thousands of dollars in photo and video work with great local businesses.
What’s more important, though, is that we have become a known and trusted local merchant who knows people by name at every parade and grand opening. We have cheered on our fellow entrepreneurs, had insights and a voice in big changes in the community, and learned to feel well and truly at home in a city that we are now proud to be a part of.
Not every story ends this way, for sure. Networking is often a trial-and-error proposition, but what you can take home from all of that is this:
- It is entirely possible to run a successful business without joining any kind of professional networking group. It might not be for you right now and that’s okay.
- Networking is a long-term marketing strategy. If you are going in with the wrong mindset, you are very likely to fail.
- It’s important to be in a good position to contribute when you network. Ask yourself if you are ready to give as good as you get.
- Don’t expect to be showered in cash just because you paid a membership fee and showed up for free donuts. Your membership is just a seat at the table.
- Networking is about community, financial gain is the byproduct. Everyone wants to make money, that’s a given. So set that aside and make your efforts about something else.
- Your camera is a valuable tool, you have something that every business needs. You don’t need to sell it, you need to be present, interesting, and fun to be around.
- When looking for a group to join, do your homework and make sure that you are a good fit. Networking is like serious dating, you are looking for a good partner, not a fling.
Good luck, and happy shooting!
About the author: Gary Hughes is a commercial photographer based in Florida. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website.
Image credits: Header illustrations from Depositphotos, and photographs by Gary Hughes.