Networking is critical for freelancers, but eventually, you will outgrow some networking groups. Learn how to recognize the signs and what to do next.
I came home from back-to-back client meetings exhausted and facing several pending client deadlines. I had a lot of work to do and I didn’t have time to go to a networking event that night, have dinner, and put on my “sales face.” But I did it anyway because that’s what you do when you’re a freelancer, you need clients, and you’re responsible for generating leads.
At the time, I was attending three to five different local networking events every month. While most of the events I attended were at night, two were during the day. Each one took me out of the office for about 5-6 hours, which meant each event cost me the equivalent of 5-6 billable hours. I didn’t mind though because my networking efforts generated leads and new clients.
Or so I thought…
The reality was that my networking efforts were generating a lot of new leads and new clients but over time the return on investment decreased significantly.
I was in denial.
When Networking Is Not Working
I had been attending local networking events for a few years because they were a great fit for my business and my pricing. I credit my early success and quick rise in revenue to the connections made and relationships developed through those events.
The thing is, I’m not one to be happy with the status quo. I invest time, energy, and resources into ongoing learning and improving my skills, which meant that over time, my packages changed, my ideal client persona shifted, and my fees increased. Then they increased again and again.
Fewer and fewer of my clients were coming from local networking. Most of the attendees who could afford me and were a fit had already hired me and were already clients. Most everyone had already heard my elevator pitch, and many new leads generated never converted into paying clients because they didn’t need the level of services I offered and “couldn’t afford me.”
But I kept on doing it.
Not because I was actually networking and expanding my network, but because I had been going to the same events month after month for so long that it became more about spending time with friends than actually doing business. Plus, several attendees at each networking event were past clients or current clients, so it was easy to justify my efforts by making it about “touching base with clients” to stay top of mind and earn more referrals.
I was making decisions based on what was best for me and not what was best for my business.
The Networking Event That Changed Everything
One of my favorite networking events met the first Wednesday night of every month and several of us had standing plans for dinner and drinks before the event (which totally made the entire night way more fun). The event always concluded with hot seats where an attendee could ask for help and feedback with a business challenge.
One night, someone mentioned a well-known “guru” making a large sum of money from a launch of some kind. It’s been so long, I don’t remember the details, but I do remember with perfect clarity the response one member offered…
He replied, “Come on, you know no one in this room will ever make that much money.”
My jaw dropped. I looked at my friend sitting next to me and in shock, we listened to others agree. At that exact moment, the saying “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” popped into my head.
It was a bittersweet moment.
That night, several of us realized that while this networking group had been wonderful as we were starting our businesses, we had now outgrown the group — or at least the collective mindset of the current members. We didn’t want to spend our time surrounded by people who didn’t believe they could achieve great things.
That night everything changed and I knew I had made the right decision upon the realization that I would miss the pre-event dinner and drinks more than the actual event.
To continue to grow my business, I had to get uncomfortable.
Networking had become fun and easy because I already knew almost everyone in the room:
- I rarely had to answer the dreaded question, “What do you do?”
- I rarely had to ever talk about my business or promote myself because everyone already knew me and my successes.
- I rarely had to try (which should have been a signal).
- I wasn’t really meeting anyone new — maybe 1 or 2 people per event, if I was lucky.
- I simply hung out with friends who also happened to be freelancers and business owners.
It was comfortable and it made me lazy. I loved networking because I wasn’t actually networking. I was pretending to network and it was hurting my business.
To Grow Your Business, You Must Get Uncomfortable
The networking groups you participate in when you first start freelancing and are still figuring out your niche may not be the same networking groups you participate in once you’re more established.
As your freelance business grows and evolves, you grow and evolve as a business owner. This means that the people you network with also need to grow and evolve.
- You need to regularly schedule opportunities to walk into a room full of people you don’t know and introduce yourself.
- You need to put yourself in the position of feeling nervous, excited, and slightly out of your element because it will push you to get better.
- You need to talk about your business, about what you do, who you serve, and why you’re a great choice — and you need to do it a lot because the more you do it, the better and more clear your message will become.
- You need to invest in opportunities to surround yourself with like-minded people who traveling a similar path.
- You need to create opportunities to be around people farther down your path or already where you want to be.
The Right Networking Produces The Right Results
When choosing how, where, and when you are going to network, evaluate each event, the attendees, the time it costs you, and the actual cost of the ticket and travel. Look at:
- The make-up of the attendees. How many attendees may fit your ideal client profile?
- Your hourly rate and the costs associated with attending the event.
- How many leads could you generate, how many may convert to paying clients, and how long does it take them to convert on average?
- How many clients would you need to get to break even and how many would you need to come out ahead?
- What type of follow-up strategy would fit these leads best?
An average local networking event with 30-50 attendees costs about $50 and five hours of billable time. At a rate of $100/hour, the event costs $550-$650 to attend. If your average project is $1,000 and it results in even one paying client, the event is a great investment.
An average three-day conference with 500+ attendees costs anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 for the ticket, travel, hotel, and airfare, and three days of billable time. If your average project is $5,000, again, it only takes one new client to break even. Every sale after that is gravy.
Today I am in my 13th year of business and I do very little local networking.
It is more lucrative to attend conferences with 300-500 potential ideal clients in one place than it is to attend a local event with 1-5 potential ideal clients.
At a larger event, you simply meet more people in less time. Meeting more people means more people know who you are, what you do, and what niche you serve. More connections and relationships mean more leads and referrals. More leads and referrals mean more sales and clients.
Successful networking isn’t about doing what works best for you, it’s about doing what works best for your brand and business.
- If a networking group is working great for you, keep doing it.
- If one networking group starts to produce fewer results over time, try a different one.
- If you’re not getting great results at small events, try attending large conferences and workshops.
Remember that networking is all about making connections and building relationships.
To ensure your networking efforts are successful, you can’t show up once, push your business cards at people, never go back again, and expect to see results. You need to keep showing up over time and help people get to know, like, and trust you so they feel comfortable doing business with you and referring their peers, friends, and family to you.
Just be sure to always track your networking expenses and results. That way you know if your efforts are really producing new leads and new clients… or if you’re simply using business as the excuse to hang out with friends.