Carey Hepler was comfortable in Corporate America.
He had formed fruitful relationships as he had ascended through giants such as Citibank and Florida Blue—or so he had thought.
Like countless counterparts across corporations nationwide, it was only after he was laid off in 2009 that he realized he concentrated too much on his work to connect with helpful resources outside of his company.
“That was one of the worst decisions I ever made in my career, not becoming part of the community and doing more networking,” said Hepler, who is now director of strategic initiatives for Citra Health Solutions, a Jacksonville-based healthcare services and technology firm.
With no options in the cloistered corporate world that he had left, Hepler started a Fibrenew franchise. As a small business owner, he immersed himself in meeting potential customers for his leather and vinyl repair company.
Though he now works at Citra, his brother continues to run the Fibrenew franchise and it still gets customers that Hepler met through networking years ago. “Sometimes they’ll have my card that I gave them and they held on to it because they thought they would need me,” he said.
Hepler has networked through local groups Southside Business Men’s Club and the West Council of the JAX Chamber, as well as events like Jacksonville Art Walk.
“You’re hanging out, meeting people, seeing old friends and reminding them what you’re doing,” he said. “You end up seeing the same people a lot of times over and over but they’re well-connected people so your network is larger than the people you know, it’s the people that the people in your network know as well.”
Communication consultant Mark Vickers spends 15 to 20 hours a month networking at events and meetings. “Someone from six, 12, 18 months ago will all of a sudden reappear out of nowhere,” at an event or look to reconnect via email, he said.
The first step is creating some visibility and name recognition and the next is brand awareness. Eventually it materializes in people knowing you and trusting you, then doors start to open up.
Pausing even briefly can delay the results by decreasing your visibility, Vickers said. “Networking can be a lot of fun but it’s a lot of work. If people go into it with the right approach and the right perspective it can definitely lead to positive results.”
Hepler compares networking to exercising, which requires similar commitment. “Your business will grow, you’ll feel better and you’ll know more people.”
Devoted networkers respect the process.
“It’s important to get out and be seen so that people know you’re beating the bushes as much as they are,” Hepler said. “People like helping people who are out working hard.”
For someone who once knew no one outside of his bastions in Corporate America, Hepler has come to know many people whom he can call upon for help. When he needed a tree cut down, for example, he hired a networking contact.
“Most businesses are relationship businesses,” whose service you may rarely need, Hepler said. “You want to have someone you like and trust. People want to know you’re in it for the long haul and you’ll be around.”
Hepler admits that starting can be daunting but notes that it does get easier.
“You get nervous when you walk into a room full of strangers but when you see a familiar face it’s comforting and you will each introduce the other to other people,” Hepler said.
“You’re only a stranger once in a room. After that, you’ll know someone when you come in.”
Making Networking Work
Local networkers Carey Hepler and Mark Vickers offer the following advice for generating results.
- Don’t attend every event. Go to the ones you know you can be consistent at because it’s the consistency that’s valuable. Most people won’t remember you by seeing you one time but they’ll remember seeing you over and over.
- Join boards. People will assume that you’re in charge of things if you’re there often enough and will ask you to be on the board sooner or later. People will view you as trustworthy if you’re on the board.
- Commit to causes and carry through on those commitments. Volunteer for charity events and actively support nonprofit organizations.
- If you’re not a lunch person or a breakfast person don’t make commitments at those times.
- Talk less about your business and listen more about someone else’s business.
- Bring a friend to a networking event if you’re nervous.
- Have a plan. Know why you’re attending an event and what you hope to achieve. Determine who you want to meet, how you will approach them and how you will quickly describe you and your services.