“Don’t walk in and look at it as making a sale — look at it as making friends.”

That was some of the advice about networking through local organizations panelist Melanie Matthews shared with attendees at Tuesday’s Northeast Connection and Small Business Breakout meeting. Several dozen small business owners convened at the virtual meeting sponsored by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce to learn tips on building their businesses by building relationships.

“I don’t join organizations to get business, I go to learn,” agreed panelist Glenn Matthews, who owns Modern Exterminating with his wife, Melanie. “I like to surround myself with successful people.”

Stepping outside your comfort zone helps, too, added panelist Adam Vance, owner of Sound & Images, a commercial audiovisual installation company. “I make sure I don’t know everyone there. If I already know 99% of the people in the organization, there’s no opportunity for growth," he said.

Networking by joining professional, civic and charitable organizations is like building a secondary sales force, Vance said. “Your contacts who are in different organizations can refer you. When you hire me, you’re hiring me and all my relationships.”

But don’t expect an immediate payoff from networking organizations, Vance cautioned. “You can’t quantify it immediately — it doesn’t work that way. I once had a customer who only bought 10 folding chairs a year, but years later came back to me and spent $30,000 on a wedding," he said.

You can’t join every group, but you can’t do nothing at all, advised meeting moderator Jared Clary — and once you join, you have to become active.

“It’s all about getting involved,” Clary said. It’s like joining a gym. Just because you join doesn’t mean you’re suddenly in shape. You have to do the pushups. Get involved for the right reason. Be sure you have the ability to add value to others in the group.”

The Northeast Connection and Small Business Breakout group meets the third Tuesday of every month to network, share ideas and offer encouragement in a tough economy. Participation is free and open to anyone. Learn more about free online sessions for small businesspeople and other services on the chamber’s website.

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