Monday, March 24, 2014

Business Net-not-Working

Professional photo - age 22
I used to be shit hot at networking.  Back in the day when I owned Briarhill Massage Therapy in Toronto, Ontario.  I was only 23 years old but I belonged to one of the most prestigious Business Networking groups in the heart of the city - BNI Downtown Chapter.  Once a week a group of 40+ professionals met for breakfast, socialized, listened to each other speak about their business and then help each and every person in the group become a success.

The core members of that group still meet every week and if a space becomes available in a particular profession, it gets snapped up fast.  I miss that group.  I miss business networking in Canada period.

Here's how it works:  You get invited to a Networking Meeting.  Usually you go with the person who invited you and they introduce you to everyone and people are genuinely interested in knowing what you do.  If for some reason you go to these events alone, there is a person at the door greeting visitors who warmly introduces themselves and asks what you do and listens intently at what you tell them.  They then escort you into the room where everyone is already socializing and introduce you to either the most senior member of the group OR someone they think compliment your business who you'd get along with. Later that day, you get an email from the President of the group thanking you for attending and telling you how nice it was that you took the time to come and that they hope to see you again next week.  That's how it's done.  Business Networking was fabulous and friendly and a great way to do business. 

Until I moved to New Zealand...

I have been to a half a dozen different Business Networking groups and a number of Networking functions.  I hate to say this but Kiwis don't know how to network.  Their idea of networking is to meet for drinks with people they know and get "pissed".  I've gone to meetings where I've stood by myself, smiling, trying not to feel out of place as I eves drop on a conversation a group of others are having, pretending that I'm part of the group (which I am clearly not).  Or I've been to daytime groups where there's an element of cattiness, competitiveness and outright snobbery.  If anyone is in the natural health or alternative medicine scene, they don't speak to me.  In fact, I don't think anyone has ever asked me what I do for a living.  I've had to introduce myself and offer a business card stating that I am a massage therapist.  This makes me feel awkward as it's quite forward... but hey if no one is going to ask...  It rarely goes further than that.  No one asks what sort of massage I do or even how long I've been doing it.  I've even been rejected - people saying, "No thank you, I already have a massage therapist."  That is so demoralizing.  It's enough to give a girl a complex.

Let me tell you about the last networking experience I had.  I was invited to an evening where there were going to be some interesting guest speakers who were up my alley.  I was looking forward to it, especially since I had been invited by one of the speakers.  I arrived on my own and I was greeted with a glass of wine and asked to write my name on a sticker.  They were a friendly enough group but they were all pretty busy chatting with their mates.  People smiled but didn't step away from their group to introduce themselves or ask me who I was.  I worked my way to the finger foods.  I made small talk with a few others who were clearly lost too.  No one had any business cards to hand out and I felt awkward offering mine.  No one asked me what I did.  We just had awkward chit chat and then I tried to move on to mingle.  I made eye contact with one of the speakers who was standing on her own and I starting to walk toward her but she turned her back and starting talking to someone else.  So I stood in the middle of two conversations looking really uncomfortable with my nearly empty glass of wine.  I really wanted to leave at this stage.  Thankfully the speakers took the stage, we all took our seats and the rest of the evening was fine.  The speakers were great and I got a lot out of the event.  I sat beside a really friendly Maori lady who made smart remarks while the speakers were talking - she cracked me up.  But as the night ended and it was time to go, they handed out forms to join their group.  I couldn't bring myself to do it.  I don't want to be part of that sort of "clique".

I'm lucky to have a network of friends and a really good network of professionals OUTSIDE of the "social business networking" scene instead.  Some people in this town are so threatened by newcomers or people who are skilled at their craft.  I've spoken to a number of small business owners who have had to move to another larger city because they were literally pushed out by their competition.  There's no friendly support.  New Zealand is a small country, people seem to feel that they need to keep the business to themselves in fear that someone might take it from them.  Businesses don't really "refer" to each other here - unless they are completely different from their own profession.  But if anyone works in the healing industry for example, they don't often refer their clients to someone who might better serve their needs.  Instead they keep trying to treat them and in the worst case scenerio they lock them in to a treatment plan over many months just to ensure they don't leave.  This is of course a broad generalization... there are those who do refer and often are the type of people who understand the whole law of attraction.

I love living here.  I love my life.  I love my job.  I love the freedom I have.  I know I need to just keep doing what I love and give up on the wish that social networking is going to work for me here.  It feels more like a way for nosy people to see what you're up to so that they can try to copy your ideas because they haven't had enough worldly experience to come up with their own.  Harsh.  Maybe.  True though.  But in the end, only the strong survive.  It feels so cut throat. 

It's been a lesson for me to learn.  I'm so open about everything I do and what I want to achieve.  I wouldn't hesitate to share my ideas with friends.  I never once thought one of them would take my long term goals, add her own flavour to them and then start up her own business.  I wish her well, I really do.  But I wouldn't trust her as far as I could throw her.  

She would come over with a bottle of wine and eagerly listen while I shared my ideas.  One day I saw a link to a website on facebook that she was somehow involved in.  I was gobsmacked when I realized it was her new business with all my ideas!  She hadn't even hinted to me that she was looking to start up a business.  She had no skills in the field whatsoever.  But she is an Accountant so she knows how to create a business and convince people to buy her service, regardless of her lack of knowledge about it.  So it's no wonder I'm happy to stay in my bubble right?

Living in the big city had it's perks.  In a place of 8 million, there was enough business for everyone.  I just wish people here could see that too.  Let's all help each other succeed.  That's what networking is all about. 

***  I wrote this article in 2011 but I never had the guts to publish it because I was afraid of what people might think and that I would be ostracized from the professional industry even more.  But since then many of the people and businesses I was talking about have left town (apart from the girl who stole my business ideas but she's targeting a completely different market).  I'm also happy to report that networking is improving here in New Zealand.  It may have to do with the fact that I'm socializing with an "older and more sophisticated" crowd but there's still an element of competition and tall poppy syndrome.  I guess that's what happens when you live in a small country.  I wouldn't go back to the big city for all the money in the world.  So I don't care if I don't network in a professional sense anymore!   Now I do personal networking which is much nicer anyway.  

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