Networking: More important than I thought

  • By: Scott Miller, Fresno Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman and Owner of Gazebo Gardens

I have many times been guilty of ‘famous last words’.  Like when I told my brother he was crazy to invest in a solar business ten years ago.  Or the time I said Twitter was the dumbest idea I had ever heard. Frankly, an honest accounting of the times I’ve been embarrassingly wrong would look like a stack of phone books, but rarely have I been more wrong than the time I told someone I was too busy and too broke to network.

It was almost twenty years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.  A well-dressed older lady came into my little nursery onOlive Avenueand said a number of complimentary things about our selection, prices and display skills.  Always the type to accept compliments, I was flattered and charmed.  Then came the line: “Your place is so nice, how come nobody knows about it?”

The twenty-something version of Scott Miller moved directly into the Danger Zone-  I responded defensively, with standard lame excuses: new business, no money for advertising, no time, blah, blah, blah.  At that point, my wise customer recommended I join a business group like the Chamber, saying it didn’t cost much, and I’d get the chance to learn from others while spreading the word about my business.  I told her I didn’t think it would help.  After all, I was selling plants, not life insurance.   Then, for good measure, I restated the part about not having enough money or time to do it anyway.  I never got this woman’s name, and she never came back into my little store.

There’s more than one lesson here.  The most obvious one is that you should never get defensive with a good customer who is trying to help you.  What the heck was I thinking?  The other lesson is that destiny plays jokes on people who say dumb things – I’m now the Chair of the Chamber that I was too knuckleheaded to join back then.   Needless to say, these days I’m a big believer in the essential nature of networking (especially through the Chamber), even for overworked, underfunded small businesses.

In the years since the nameless lady came into my shop, I’ve really benefitted from getting active in my community.  I’ve become a committed volunteer; I’m involved in several non-profits and I’m active in local politics.  Through this process, I’ve met amazing people who have shared their wisdom and helped me transform my business.  I’ve met people who became customers and people who I became a customer of.   And, most importantly, this has all happened with people who were working together on various projects, focusing on benefitting the community as a whole.  Kind of a win-win-win-win situation.

I’ve learned it’s not uncommon for new business owners to think networking is unimportant, but most people learn pretty quickly that “If you build they will come,” is only a line from a movie.  Networking is an amazing business tool – one of the most important available.  But, like any other tool, it won’t do anything for you if you never pick it up.  It’s not fair to say you didn’t get any new business out of your Chamber membership if you never show up.  Getting involved is the biggest part of how his thing works.

For only the price of a Chamber membership (to be fair, I admit that other community benefit organizations are great too – but hopefully, my bias is understandable) you get to spend time with other business owners. Some of these people will have answers to the problems that have been driving you crazy.  Some of them will need your product or service.  Others will have products or services you need.  Many will become great friends, because they understand what it’s like to be in your shoes.

I keep hoping that if I go to enough mixers, ribbon cuttings, fund raisers, and committee meetings, I’ll run into the nameless lady so I can apologize for my youthful hubris and tell her how right she was.  Until then I’ll keep showing up just to improve the community with my future customers, suppliers, and friends.


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