Your network plays a vital role in your small business. Not only does it help you reach more prospective customers, but you can also make connections and unlock opportunities that push your business ahead.
That’s why we should think of networking as a great form of business marketing and an investment in your long-term success.
DIY manufacturing shop owner April Wilkerson attributes the power of networking to everything from finding new business to hiring employees. "I hardly ever leave a conversation where I'm not spreading the word on 'hey, this is what I'm doing,' or 'this is what I'm looking for,'" she says.
As Wilkerson shares, you also don't need to be an aggressive salesperson to get the word out about your business. You can casually share what you do at your business to make contacts.
But how do you build a professional network beyond your existing contacts? Small business networking groups can bridge the gap, bringing together entrepreneurs eager to move their businesses forward.
Naturally, not all networking groups are the same, and not every group is right for every small business. Here’s a closer look at nine of the best networking organizations for small business owners, both on- and offline.
1. Chamber of Commerce
Your local Chamber of Commerce is a great place to start. Most cities have one, allowing you to start networking regardless of where you live.
The Chamber of Commerce helps push for community policies that help small businesses thrive. They also offer small business networking events, mentoring opportunities and other tools to help your business grow.
While each Chamber of Commerce is different, many small business owners say that getting involved is a great way to build a community that will be there for you and your business in the long run.
2. Business Networking International
Business Networking International (BNI) is a referral-based networking group.
Every member in a local chapter must work in a different industry — for example, one restaurant owner, one accountant, one construction manager and so on. The key benefit of BNI is that members refer business to each other.
This organization works best if you can afford the fees and the time commitment. But many small business owners say they’ve gained great referrals and built strong relationships through this group.
LinkedIn is far more than an online resume. This social media platform has become a great place to connect with other business professionals online, with more than 810 million users worldwide and more than 66 million monthly active users in the U.S. alone.
With a free LinkedIn account, you can connect with other entrepreneurs, join groups of like-minded small business owners, follow news in your industry, publish articles and much more.
One of its best features is the ability to seek out new connections using several filters, including job type, location and industry.
Similar to other social platforms, there is a feed where you can share content related to your business and interact with others’ updates.
That gives you opportunities to grow your network, establish authority in your industry, meet new people and build meaningful business relationships.
4. Facebook Groups
While you may typically use Facebook to get updates from family and friends, it’s a great way to find business-oriented Facebook groups.
You can search Facebook for groups related to your industry, location, and profession. Some groups are public; others require you to submit a request to join.
You’ll usually find daily posts and conversations related to the group’s purpose when you join. Here, you can ask questions, give advice, search for collaborators and even find work — although outright advertising is often prohibited.
For example, the Small Business Networking Facebook group aims to connect businesses and share knowledge. It currently boasts over 200,000 members, with hundreds of new posts every month.
Another example is the Small Business Support Group group, with more than 20,000 members. It describes itself as a positive, non-promotional space to help fellow small business owners through challenging situations.
Meetup.com is a massive platform for building local community groups based on shared interests. An entire section of the site is dedicated to small business networking, which lists groups around the world that meet for the sole or primary purpose of networking.
Each group is free to set its own agenda, schedule, membership requirements and other details, so you may need to try a few to find the one that feels like the right fit.
SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, has been a valuable resource for small businesses for over half a century. The organization is a resource partner with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and offers free business education and mentoring.
You can connect with a mentor through the website (remote or in-person), find small business networking opportunities, and take part in local workshops, live webinars, recorded webinars and courses on-demand.
If you want to share your expertise, you can also volunteer.
7. Local trade associations
Depending on where you live and what line of business you are in, you may find a local trade, merchant or industry-related association in your community. For example, if you are a general contractor, there may be a local association that focuses on your trade.
Many of these groups host monthly or weekly seminars; attendees often choose to go out for dinner or drinks afterward.
If you’re looking for a low-key way to grow your network without the pressure of some professional networking groups, your local trade association may be the right place to start.
8. Local development associations
Many cities have development associations that focus on growing business districts in different neighborhoods or towns. If you have a downtown storefront, your local business development association can be an excellent place to find local networking opportunities.
Depending on your location and the nature of your business, a local development authority might be able to help you develop partnerships or join an event like a Friday night art walk or a monthly farmers market.
9. Rotary Club International
Founded in 1909, Rotary Club International isn’t a traditional networking group. Instead, it’s a global service organization focusing on hyperlocal projects.
However, it tends to attract a lot of entrepreneurs who want to give back to their community, so it can be an excellent place to meet like-minded small business owners, as well as retired entrepreneurs who can offer advice and mentorship.
If you prefer to build your own network while helping your community thrive, Rotary could be a great choice for you.
10. Kiwanis Club
Kiwanis Club was founded in 1915 by a group of Detroit businessmen. Like the Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club is a service organization that can be a great small business networking opportunity. Kiwanis is more focused on projects serving children and is somewhat smaller than Rotary Club.
Many entrepreneurs say they’ve made great business connections while giving back to their communities.
11. Women in Business
If you’re a woman who owns a small business, you might want to join the Women in Business community. This international organization offers training workshops and digital and in-person conventions designed to help women succeed.
The highly active community offers numerous networking opportunities for finding referrals and gaining valuable support as you build your business.
How to find the right small business networking group
Networking is crucial to building any small business, but it can also feel intimidating, especially if you’re not a natural extrovert or your existing contacts don’t include any small business owners. Fortunately, you don’t have to figure it out on your own.
By joining a small business networking group, you can tap into the group’s collective wisdom and experience to help your business grow. The internet makes networking even easier than ever before.
No single group is right for everyone, and your needs may change over time. Start by figuring out where your business seems to “fit,” and join an organization or two that you believe can help grow your company.
You will soon discover which groups resonate with you. At that point, start looking into how you can get more deeply involved with your chosen groups.
Like anything else, the more time and effort you put into networking, the more you will get out of it.
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