Broadening your network of business contacts and seeking out additional referral partners is an excellent way to let your friends build your business for you. Just make sure you return the favor


By Max Berry


You can never have too many people in your corner. That goes double for a small business owner. Without the resources for a massive advertising campaign, an entrepreneur needs to rely on a little help from his friends to spread the word. Seeking out a fellow entrepreneur-or several-to help spread the word about your product or service can help you get new business the old fashioned way: through word of mouth.



The Power of Diversity
"Diversity is key," says Dr. Ivan Misner, Founder and Chairman of global business networking organization BNI ( "I mean diversity in every sense of the word. Most networks are clumpy, they're cluster-like, and they become insular." An entrepreneur may have the tendency to seek referral partnerships with small business owners solely from his or her own field. After all, how much help, for instance, could a Mary Kay consultant be to a film producer? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Misner recounts the story of a Mary Kay consultant visiting a client's home to perform a facial. When the client's husband, a film producer, came home disgruntled about something at work, his wife asked him what was wrong. A graphic designer he'd lined up for an important film project had just backed out and he found himself in the lurch. But the Mary Kay consultant, on hand to perform her own business, happened to be carrying the card of a graphic designer she knew. She gave it to her client's husband, who called the designer and struck up what turned into a long-term, and exceptionally lucrative, working relationship with the designer.


The story illustrates the reasoning behind Misner's belief that an entrepreneur should never rule out a helping-hand partnership with anyone. As he puts it, you never know "whose house someone might be in."


"A powerful network has people who are connectors, those who connect you to people you never would have met otherwise," says Misner. "The more connectors you have, the better off you are."


When looking to connect with a fellow entrepreneur, there is one key mistake every small business owner should steer clear of. "Too many people are looking to close a deal," says Misner. "It's a huge mistake to build a business that way." People, especially small business owners with their own bottom line to think about, often resent an unsolicited pitch, especially when the pitch is couched in a disingenuous affability.

To build a strong partnership, a small business owner must first build trust. And the only sure way to trust is through sincerity. "You have to find an opportunity to help someone in some simple way," says Misner. "And help doesn't mean ‘sell a product.' Help means ‘help.' When you meet a like-minded small business owner, talk to them. Ask questions. If rapport builds, ask them what the biggest challenges are in their line of work and, if possible, show them a route they may not have been aware of. Refer them to someone in your network who may be able to lend a hand. The broader and more diverse your network of referral partners becomes, the more readily you'll be able to do this-and the more likely your partners will be to refer someone to you if they find themselves in a similar position. As Misner likes to say, "Networking is more about farming than it is about hunting."


Come Prepared
"The problem is we don't teach networking in schools and colleges," says Misner. "Schools teach advertising as if every college graduate, in their first job, gets to run a multi-million dollar advertising campaign." Of course, few small business owners, let alone recent college graduates, get to do that. Instead, you need to rely on some basic, day-to-day practices to increase your chances of forming a valuable referral partnership.


Always carrying a business card is rule number one, but Misner recommends taking the practice one step further. Not only should you carry your own business cards, but also-remember the Mary Kay consultant-the cards of your referral partners. This is an instant means of spreading the word about the people in your network. Once you do so, they'll be more than happy to return the favor.


There are also established services, like Misner's own BNI, that will provide referrals for you and put you in touch with other entrepreneurs looking for referral partners. The Referral Institute ( is another organization that gets Misner's endorsement.


"You can network any time, anywhere, any place," he says. The key is to keep your eyes open for the right person and be ready to make contact. As Misner puts it, "Networking is a contact sport. You've got to get belly to belly."