Networking in the 21st Century
It's often cited as the single most important skill business professionals can develop to advance their careers.
But networking – the art of establishing and cultivating relationships – has evolved dramatically over the past decade, thanks to the growing popularity of social media, a shifting emphasis from real world to online business, and the emergence of a new generation of tech-savvy young professionals.
In Traverse City, traditional networking groups and referral clubs still abound. The Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce hosts a popular monthly Business After Hours event at various local venues the third Wednesday of each month. The Rotary Club of Traverse City, Traverse City Kiwanis Club, Traverse City Elks Club and several local chapters of Business Network International all report thriving memberships and active networking events.
Increasingly, however, members of the Traverse City business community are turning to a new crop of venues and events to discover and develop professional contacts. Some have exhausted their pool of contacts at existing clubs in town; others have never attended a networking event and find themselves intimidated by larger groups whose members are already close-knit.
In both scenarios, a host of creative new forums are bridging the gap between old school and new-wave networking models – all while injecting fresh energy into the local business scene.
Erin Monigold launched Social Vision Marketing in 2010 after observing a deluge of businesses seeking help with social media marketing. One of thousands of independent contractors, solo practitioners and start-up entrepreneurs in Traverse City, she also noticed a desire among professionals who work alone – often only conversing with other business contacts online – to network in person.
"Traverse City had such a huge online community," she said. "I thought we had a need for a regular networking event."
In June 2011, she launched Traverse City TweetUp (TraverseCityTweetUp.com), a monthly gathering designed to bring users of the social media platform Twitter face-to-face.
Attendance for the events has grown steadily in the last 18 months, with turnout typically between 60 to 70 people.
In October 2011, Monigold also launched a Traverse City chapter of Geek Breakfast (GeekBreakfast.org), a monthly networking gathering of tech-minded professionals. The group, which averages 20-25 members, meets the third Thursday of every month at The Omelette Shoppe on East Front Street.
"It's an excellent opportunity for people who work at home in the tech industry to meet in person, enjoy some camaraderie, and bounce ideas off each other," she said, adding with a smile, "I'd love to see a combined networking event between these two groups in the future, called Geeks versus Tweeps [Twitter peeps]."
Many self-employed professionals face a unique challenge in developing business contacts: finding the opportunity to interact with others. While a busy workplace offers countless avenues for networking with co-workers, customers and industry partners, a home-based office is significantly more isolated.
Enter a modern solution: co-working spaces. These shared office environments – think hipper versions of hotel business centers – offer table space and meeting rooms, work supplies, phone lines, Wi-Fi and (most importantly) a social atmosphere on a come-and-go-as-you-please basis to freelancers – typically for a modest daily or monthly fee.
A relatively new trend, co-working spaces are taking off rapidly in Traverse City. CoWharf (CoWharf.com), which bills itself as a "casual co-working space," launched in December on Front Street in downtown Traverse City. The nascent organization already has a roster of more than 30 graphic designers, writers, programmers and contractors that regularly drop by to rub elbows and share workspace.
SPACE (SpaceCoworking.org), another new co-working spot on Front Street, offers similar office amenities, as well as studio and conference rooms available for daily, monthly and annual rental.
"SPACE appealed to me, because there's a smart concept for putting like-minded creatives and business people under one roof," said local photographer Michael Poehlman, who has a desk reserved with the group. "There's sensible overlap and partnering potential for developing projects together on a larger scale."
the community coffee shop
At least one networking tradition is still proving as popular now as it was decades ago – making a connection over a drink or a meal.
Freelancers and nine-to-fivers alike can often be found these days mingling at downtown Traverse City's restaurants, bars and coffee shops. At the epicenter of the hustle and bustle is Brew (BrewTC.com), an independent coffee shop/bar that has ample seating, free Wi-Fi and early morning to late night hours, attracting a steady flow of clientele all day.
Walk in on any given afternoon at the Front Street cafe, and you'll be greeted by a long procession of open laptops on tables, freelancers sporting headphones, business professionals discussing deals on counter stools and students poring over textbooks on couches.
The coffee shop, like so many other networking venues that bring together a vibrant collective of artistic and business-minded individuals, embodies the new model of building relationships in the modern era. It's no longer just who you know that matters. It's how you meet them – and why, and where.