Editor’s note: The following is a guest article by Brian Lim, founder and CEO at Emazing Group Brands, and Ben Oliveri, writer at QuickBooks Enterprise.
In this article, Brian will reveal how intentional networking and joining an entrepreneur support group helped him take Emazing Group Brands from fast food parking lots to a $40 million annual run rate.
When I launched EmazingLights 10 years ago, I was basically running it by myself. I had bootstrapped the company using In-N-Out Burger parking lots as my first marketing channel. I felt like I could continue to grow on my own, hire the talent I needed, and contract consultants for anything else.
Today, my team and I have grown EmazingLights, started a new line called iHeartRaves, and acquired INTO THE AM, to form Emazing Group, a business with a $40 million annual run rate. Through this journey, I have learned that networking and entrepreneur support groups are a much better option than going it alone.
Looking back, growing a business through product market fit and profitable growth by myself was at times isolating and overwhelming.
Whether you are building a manufacturing business, an e-commerce company, or a marketing agency, networking to build stronger connections and joining entrepreneur groups can provide a key support mechanism and supplement to your existing abilities.
Entrepreneurs need to engage in intentional networking
Business networking encompasses any number of activities, such as joining online communities or going to local entrepreneur networking events.
But when it comes to networking to grow your business, chatting online and going to happy hours isn’t going to cut it. To cultivate a network that can really support you and your unique business, you’ll need to be a bit more intentional.
Know your goals
To get the ball rolling in the right direction, ask yourself some questions:
- What are the biggest challenges you’re facing now?
- What are the challenges you are likely to confront in the future?
- Where do you want your business to be in 5 years?
Once you’ve answered these questions for yourself, start to identify who has tread this path before—who has knowledge that may be useful for your challenges? Whose brain do you want to pick?
Find a way to reach out to them. People are most likely to be receptive to contact requests via LinkedIn, email, or most preferably, through a personal introduction from a common connection.
Years ago, a friend visited my store and our conversation drifted to finances. She went on to introduce me to her family’s financial advisor, Scott Elliott. I wasn’t in the market for a consultant at the time, but I met up with Scott and learned about his e-commerce background. I enlisted him to consult with me in the early days of my business. I eventually brought Scott on as my company’s COO and President.
Through Scott, I found networking with financial advisors, insurance brokers, and accountants could be incredibly useful. These are people that basically network for a living and provide their services to businesses in all different verticals. As a result, they know a lot of different business leaders. Being able to tap into a colleague’s or friend’s network can be a direct source to the relationship you’re looking to develop.
As you begin to connect with more like-minded people, put some parameters on who you want to reach out to. What industry should they be in? What should their revenue level be? Why are you interested in them?
When I make new connections, I like meetings (or calls) to be relaxed and conversations to flow freely. As I share my experiences, I try to extract some golden nuggets to learn from my counterparts.
It can take a bit of time and effort to build a stronger network, but if you don’t start reaching out now, you’re not going to expand your opportunities to learn and grow.
To recap, follow these steps to grow your personal network:
- Know your goals and consider your challenges
- Identify people who have experience in your field or experience overcoming your challenges
- Tap into the networks of well-connected people you already know. Better yet, make connections for them first and foremost, before requesting from them
- Start by reaching out
Joining a structured entrepreneur support group
I like to think of entrepreneur groups like business school on steroids. At each meeting, you are receiving live case studies with real business problems that you can actually get hands-on with and help formulate solutions to. What better way is there to learn?
Groups also offer the opportunity to exchange ideas with leaders from a variety of business backgrounds. You are likely to hear different perspectives on the same fundamental pillars that support every business: people, leadership, and profit. You can learn a lot from people growing businesses outside of your own vertical, and it can be difficult to get the same level of diversity from your own personal network.
Support groups for startups and first-timers
The first group I joined and found to be extremely useful was Vistage. Vistage, along with Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), are good groups for business leaders joining a support group for the first time. Both groups are based on peer-to-peer guidance and offer one-on-one coaching from experienced CEOs. For startup leaders already trying to manage multiple job functions at their company, the structure provided in groups like these reduces the burden of networking or building your own entrepreneur support group.
One of the primary benefits of a group is accountability—especially for early-stage leaders who may not have a board of directors or a leadership team. In order to get accountability from your group, you have to be transparent. Don’t hold your cards close to your chest—be upfront up the issues you are having. In Vistage, one way we kept each other accountable is by publicly agreeing to a plan of action to address problems, and reporting back on our progress at each meeting.
Part of accountability is honesty and disagreement. Group members don’t have skin in your business. As such, they are not emotionally attached to your ideas, nor do they rely on you for a paycheck. They will be more inclined to tell you how they see it and are willing to tell you what you may not want to hear. Entrepreneurs should embrace this—consider it an opportunity to filter out unchecked bad ideas. In fact, I’d go as far as to say a measure of a good group is getting advice you don’t like.
When you do receive advice you disagree with, one useful tactic is to articulate why you think the suggestion won’t work. If you are unable to provide a compelling reason, it’s time to check your own personal biases and emotional attachments.
Perhaps the most sought after benefit of a group is strategic business support. For example, when we were having HR compliance problems with EmazingLights, I turned to my group for help. After sharing the issue, group members first asked a round of clarifying questions, which helped both them and me better understand the core of the problem. With a built-in business referral network and seven or eight minds strategizing, I was able to solve 90 percent of my HR issues relatively painlessly.
In addition to EO and Vistage, Startup Grind, Dynamite Club, and the Young Entrepreneur Council are groups with strong reputations you can look into if you are ready to move your business forward with the support of like-minded entrepreneurs. You can also search “entrepreneur groups near me” on meetup.com for local gatherings.
Groups for established companies and leaders
For leaders who have outgrown their starter groups or leaders managing companies at more advanced stages of growth, more advanced groups may be ideal.
With a mandatory minimum of $13 million in turnover for sales and service-centric businesses and an annual membership fee of up to $10,000, the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) is one such group. The barriers to entry mean that as a member, you will be surrounded by some extremely accomplished people. The steep fees will earn you access to local and regional chapters, smaller forum meetups, peer-to-peer mentorships, exclusive events, and interest-based online communities—all composed of very high caliber business personalities.
Masterminds are also extremely popular. These are groups spearheaded by a facilitator around a shared challenge or area of interest. Masterminds are generally invite-only or have rigorous applicant screening processes.
In order to cultivate the highest level of mutual benefit, each Mastermind may have different joining requirements, membership caps, and fees. The most exclusive Masterminds, for example, can have wait lists of up to ten years and annual membership fees of up to six figures or more.
Because established Mastermind groups can be prohibitively expensive, you can also simply build your own. This is a good option for leaders who have been at the helm of their business for at least several years and have experience in other group environments. To get started, decide on a specific purpose for the group and reach out to five or six entrepreneurs you respect and would like to be founding members.
Receive emotional support
Too often, business leaders are isolated. Even if you hold transparency as a team value (you should), you have a duty to empower your team to perform their jobs at the highest level possible. At times, this means you have to walk a very fine line in terms of how candidly you can speak with your team members.
For example, many early-stage business leaders go through a trying time when they struggle to get everyone paid on time. This is not something they are going to tell their team. Otherwise, they won’t have one for long!
Additionally, as a leader, you don’t want to bring personal problems to work. At the same time, many leaders prefer not to burden friends and family with work issues. This can leave entrepreneurs without an outlet to discuss stressors and how to deal with them.
That’s where you can count on a support group to hear you out, dry your eyes, and help you come up with a solution. (Yes, people have cried in our group!)
The top benefits of a support group
Over the years of growing my business, I have found entrepreneur support groups to be invaluable. Here are some of the top draws of participating in a successful entrepreneur group:
- Learning opportunities through live case studies
- A diversity of backgrounds and perspectives
- A dose of (often much needed) honesty and accountability
- Built-in business referral networks
- An outlet to express burdens and receive emotional support
As an entrepreneur, you will undoubtedly encounter obstacles and be blindsided by unexpected setbacks. One of the best tools to confront these challenges is the collective knowledge and experience that can be gleaned from personal networks and business support groups.
Purposeful business networking will not only help you solve problems more quickly, but the insights, experiences, and support you gain will enable you to take your day-to-day performance to the next level.
This article was written by Brian Lim, founder and CEO at Emazing Group Brands, and Ben Oliveri, writer at QuickBooks Enterprise.