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How to Launch a Networking Group

05/15/2014 04:33 pm ET | Updated Jul 15, 2014

If you're a business owner or service provider, it may make perfect sense to start a networking group.

Then again, it may not! It's a lot of work, man!

The process begins with a bunch of meetings with like minded professionals that you hopefully like and respect. (If this isn't the case, hang up the gloves now.) You continue to meet and brainstorm about the vision of the group, guiding principles, the process, people, logistics, timing, frequency, guidelines, financials, scheduling, and all kinds of other strategy and planning that would make your head spin. But if you truly like collaborating with people on a regular basis about work, fun, and growing something from nothing, starting a networking group might make sense for you.

Of course, again, it may not.

I'm in the planning stages of starting a group now which is why this is top of mind. Hey, I had some extra time on my hands. Here are some of the questions I'm in the midst of discussing to get the whole thing started. They might help you get started too!

What will the networking group look like?

How long will each meeting be -- two hours? Five minutes? (Kidding.)

How often will the group meet -- every month, six weeks, quarterly? Is the meeting in the morning or evening? Will there be a lot of people or just a few select attendees? Will there be visitors?

Will people be invited back? Will the format be structured table groups focused on exchanging referrals or will attendees be encouraged to simply meet people on the spot? Will there be a speaker? Master of Ceremonies (emcee)? Host? Ring leader? Figure head? Head of State? Fearless Leader? Commander in Chief? Fishing boat Captain?

What are the Rules of Engagement?

You must have rules. Rule number one -- make some rules! Rules keep the good people good and the bad people out. Well, sometimes. Anyway, if you have well thought out rules to address problems before they become problems, you're ahead of the game. For example, if one of the rules is cash only when paying at the door, you make the whole "do you take checks" thing go away. Also, payment and cash flow won't be an issue. You might also consider rules about attendance, lateness, behavior, profile of attendees, certain industries or professions, years in business, background, body of work, favorite nursery rhyme, etc. What is the process when someone breaks the rules? All of this gets back to the earlier point -- what will the networking group look like?

Where should the event be held?

Will it be at a hotel? Conference center? Assisted Living Community (some of them are very nice), restaurant, bar, country club, someone's place of business? Should the meeting be held at the same place every time or should it vary from meeting to meeting?

What are the financial aspects to consider?

First and foremost, will the networking organization be a profit center? Or a not for profit? Do you want to simply cover expenses? Do attendees pay for each meeting or is there a membership fee? Do all the Board members have equity invested in the venture? How much money will need to be allocated for an initial launch? What kind of operating budget is required? What does each meeting cost the organization? What is the minimum number of attendees required to cover costs? What will the attendance or membership fees be? Is there a cash bar? Will you accept credit cards, checks, Canadian currency, or just cash? Will you set up a business bank account? Who's in charge of the money? What are the guidelines around various expenditures?

How exclusive should the attendees be to one another?

In other words, how many people within the group are competing with one another? Should there only be one of every profession allowed to attend -- for example only one CPA? Does it make more sense to be somewhat exclusive -- more than one financial advisor? Or should the number of professions be controlled and handled on a case by case basis?

What are the operating roles of the board?

By the way, will you have a board? Well, you probably should unless you plan on quitting your job and doing this full time. You'll need a president or fearless leader, a convener or Sergeant of Arms to maintain law and order, treasurer, and someone focused on marketing, membership, and the welcoming committee. Of course, there are the roles behind the scenes (planning, strategy, accountability, decision making) and the roles at the event (greeting attendees, collecting money). All of this has to be well thought out or attendees may not take the group seriously.

How will you know the group is a success?

A sure fired way to measure success is if people come back. And they will if there's value - more business and great fun. In between meetings, you may want to survey a sampling of attendees and learn about what worked best for them. Also ask if they feel anything could be changed for the better. You won't take (or agree with) everyone's feedback but the fact you asked sometimes makes all the difference. Naturally, you'll get great ideas along the way.

If you're serious (and I mean serious, you can't play around with this or attendees will not see the value) about launching some sort of networking organization, the questions above (and the conversations they lead to) could give you an excellent baseline.

Here's how you can get started! Give yourself a timed three minutes and start writing down names of people in your database that you want to see on a regular basis that can provide one another (and you) with more business -- if you're into that sort of thing. Have other board members do the same. If you have more than thirty names, you might be onto something!

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