Creating a vibrant small business environment

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on May 3, 2018.  Entrepreneurship doesn’t flourish by happenstance. Centers of innovation – like Silicon Valley in California; Austin, Texas and Seattle, Washington – seem to have found the mix of characteristics and attractions that lure… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on May 3, 2018. 

Entrepreneurship doesn’t flourish by happenstance. Centers of innovation – like Silicon Valley in California; Austin, Texas and Seattle, Washington – seem to have found the mix of characteristics and attractions that lure the country’s most innovative entrepreneurs. Even though they are known as tech hubs, these examples have also become hubs for creative retail and great food. Businesses of all kinds tend to be attracted to innovation hubs and places that are “Top Ten” in other categories.

Businesses like to cluster with other like businesses. Old Town has a concentration of independent boutiques and shops in part because they like to be located near other similar types of stores. New, creative restaurants often pop up near each other, like the explosion of new eateries along U Street and around Union Market in D.C.

The reasons for such clustering are well known. Entrepreneurs like to be near other energetic entrepreneurs and are attracted to vibrant communities. Innovators that consistently push the envelope are attracted to welcoming communities. These are places where the threshold for startups is modest, people are accepting of diversity and new ideas can be developed, launched and refined without ridicule.Retail

Alexandria should fare pretty well as an entrepreneurial destination. We have many winning attributes. We’re inside the beltway. We have historic authenticity that other places try to replicate. And we’re already a top-rated tourist destination, just to name a few. The city is also the right scale – small enough to build meaningful connections and know your neighbors, yet large enough to have the amenities and vibrancy of a big city. All those things position Alexandria to be attractive to innovative businesses.

However, innovators are not just looking at the city in a vacuum. They’re reading media coverage of the city and, frankly, may not be getting the best impression. Creative entrepreneurs are turned off by sentiments like, “We don’t want anything that attracts more people,” or, “Alexandria already has too many restaurants.” This rhetoric implies that Alexandria is not welcoming to opportunities to grow its tax base and be a destination for innovative businesses.

The harsh reality is that our local economy is either growing or declining. Economies don’t just mark time, especially in an era of dramatic market shifts. We, as a city, need to recognize the impact of our words and our deeds and how they might be interpreted by entrepreneurs evaluating Alexandria as an option. We cannot afford to be seen as a city that has disdain for innovation.

Our city would become very different if we cease to nurture a vibrant small business community. To maximize our potential, we must constantly focus on ways to retain and attract the brightest and best small businesses that will add value, build diversity and stimulate vitality.

All of us have a role to play in making Alexandria an attractive destination for the most promising businesses and creative entrepreneurs who enhance our economy and quality of life. Who could be against that as we enter Small Business Month?

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Finally, spring is here

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on April 6, 2018.  This year’s annual column on making the most of our springtime is not going to require much convincing. It wasn’t a particularly cold or snowy winter, but it was drab, and everyone I… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on April 6, 2018. 

This year’s annual column on making the most of our springtime is not going to require much convincing. It wasn’t a particularly cold or snowy winter, but it was drab, and everyone I know is beyond ready to get out and enjoy the spring weather.

Alexandrians are blessed with an abundance of ways to celebrate the warming season. Just getting outdoors will feel plenty good, but what incredible options we have. First, we can simply stroll our beautiful and historic neighborhoods.

This time of year, our neighbors are planting in their flowerbeds, window boxes, or pots on their sidewalks and hanging new door wreaths. For a closer look inside and a peek behind garden walls, don’t miss the Historic Homes & Garden Tour on April 21.

Baseball season is finally here and there’s no easier or more picturesque way to get to and from Nats Park than the Potomac Riverboat Company’s Baseball Boat that boards at our waterfront. And speaking of the river, Alexandria has access to incredible waterfront trails and parks where you can stroll, picnic or bike. For the more ambitious among us, there’s always the George Washington Parkway Classic, a ten mile race along the Potomac from Mount Vernon to Old Town on April 22.

Keep an eye out for festivals and events where you can sip spirits at galleries, brew houses or gardens or even historic sites such as the Mt. Vernon lawn. On Saturdays in May, enjoy Attics and Alleys, a three-hour walking tour of rarely seen historic sites in Old Town. Afterwards, check out one of the many new restaurants opening this spring, like Mia’s Italian Kitchen or Smoking Kow BBQ.

We should never take our treasures for granted – they’re not just for tourists.

Speaking of tourists, I’m sure you’ve heard that Money Magazine just selected Alexandria as the #1 best travel destination in the United States for 2018. What a confirmation that we live in an incredible place.

This calls on us to be gracious hosts for the visitors that designation is certain to bring. We know from Visit Alexandria studies that tourism generates hundreds of millions of dollars for local businesses and supports thousands of Alexandria jobs.

Tourism also reduces the tax burden on our households. Cities that are tourist destinations tend to also spur creative economies. The charm and vitality that lures tourists also attracts entrepreneurs and helps businesses recruit skilled workers.

The snowball effect adds to the diversity and strength of Alexandria. What can we do to enhance the visitor experience? First, be welcoming in every way, such as helping someone who’s struggling with a map or looking lost. You know how such help has made you feel in strange places. Second, be ready to suggest great places for them to visit, shop or dine. We all value recommendations from locals when we travel.

Spring has sprung and it’s a great time to get out and enjoy our community – and let our enthusiasm become contagious to visitors.

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Blockchain Is in the Future for Small Business

This article was written by Ray Sidney-Smith, facilitator for Alexandria Small Business Development Center’s monthly Business Development Roundtable. You may join us every third Tuesday of the month for different topic-based discussions for Small Business in the City of Alexandria, Virginia. He will also be presenting a workshop on April 17th: “Blockchain for Small Business: What… Read more »

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This article was written by Ray Sidney-Smith, facilitator for Alexandria Small Business Development Center’s monthly Business Development Roundtable. You may join us every third Tuesday of the month for different topic-based discussions for Small Business in the City of Alexandria, Virginia. He will also be presenting a workshop on April 17th: “Blockchain for Small Business: What it is/Marketing/Management Opportunities”. Register here.

Few times in my career as a technologist have I so clearly seen the proverbial writing on the wall regarding a technology that will change the world. And, a technology that is so powerful that it will change the way we do (almost if not) every type of business transaction. But, it’s not the kind of change that you’ll notice on the surface. It’s the type of change that’s subtle. It’s in the way we produce and use the software that is all around us. It’s the way we manage trust among our vendors, suppliers, customers and other parties to business transactions. It’s the way we secure ourselves from the growing concerns of cyber-attacks on our Small Business data and systems. That technology is blockchain and here I explain what blockchain is (in as simple terms as I can).

Invented by Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym used by the unknown inventor(s) of the method behind how it works, in 2008, blockchain is discussed most frequently and popularly as synonymous with the wildly popular and speculative investments in digital currencies today. This is because Nakamoto’s application of the blockchain was used for the cryptocurrency coined Bitcoin in 2009. But, don’t mistake blockchain technology for being only Bitcoin. It’s so much more.

Blockchain is a highly complex way of dealing with digital assets. Thankfully, all of the complicated workings of blockchain happens in the background. Essentially, it is a way of securely validating and sharing data (e.g., digital currency, health records, and contracts) for all parties involved. The way in which you once centralized your data and managed your security, blockchain changes that with the use of many locations where you data is held and some powerful cryptography techniques applied.

If you want to learn more about how blockchain works (and how Small Business opportunities to use blockchain today), attend my upcoming seminar on April 17th. At the seminar, we talk about the real potential for this new technology is to improve security, reliability and validity of data, plus a few innovative ways Small Business can take advantage of this technology today and in the near future.

It’s difficult to fathom but mathematics and algorithms (running atop massive computer power today) has a profound impact on our daily lives. It’s only logical that each iteration of newly-minted, competent technology will also affect business operations and marketing. It’s imperative that you continue to learn about major groundswell changes like that which blockchain brings.

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Small Biz Nightmares: Employees and Security

In the last few years we have seen several news accounts of major data breaches involving big businesses, nonprofit organizations, banking institutions, and even government entities.  While this is a major issue for these organizations, they generally have the expertise and means to fix the issue and ensure that the breach does not continue.  But… Read more »

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In the last few years we have seen several news accounts of major data breaches involving big businesses, nonprofit organizations, banking institutions, and even government entities.  While this is a major issue for these organizations, they generally have the expertise and means to fix the issue and ensure that the breach does not continue.  But what about small businesses?  Studies have shown that 90% of small businesses do not use any data protection at all for company information.  However, last year 61% of cyberattacks were aimed at small businesses, and 60% of small companies that experience a breach go out of business within six months of a cyber attack.

What is a small business owner to do?  The Alexandria SBDC recently presented a webinar with two experts to address what small businesses can do to minimize their cyber threats, particularly the very real threats involved with hiring employees, contractors and vendors.  Patra Frame of Strategies for Human Resources, and Elizabeth Moon of Focus Data Solutions set forth in this webinar some concrete and simple steps that all business owners can take today to protect their company data.  It should be viewed by all small business owners and their employees.

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Be Prepared… You Never Know…

We received the following notice last evening from SBDC friend, colleague, and social media guru, Ray Sidney-Smith.  It is important information on being prepared for any emergency, and how being prepared can save your business.  All small businesses and organizations should take note: Dear Clients and Colleagues, As some of you have heard, our office… Read more »

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We received the following notice last evening from SBDC friend, colleague, and social media guru, Ray Sidney-Smith.  It is important information on being prepared for any emergency, and how being prepared can save your business.  All small businesses and organizations should take note:

Dear Clients and Colleagues,

As some of you have heard, our office building, located across from the GMU Arlington campus, experienced a fire last evening. I wanted to send this (hopefully) brief message to explain a few things that will be useful to everyone.

First, the fire was on the fourth floor and so our office suite was not directly in the blaze. Unfortunately, water and smoke we are presuming did the worst it could. It’s an active investigation so we’re unable to enter the building or office suite to see the extent of the damage. No one died or was injured during this ordeal, thank goodness.

That said, thanks to my sometimes manic imperative that everything be done in our Web-based infrastructure, no data was lost or is compromised. Our business operations will continue to function as normal, perhaps with a few delays in responding as we manage around the situation. We thank you for your understanding.

Finally, I cannot impress upon everyone the importance that these “acts of God” (or, acts of arsonists, hackers and other criminals) can and will happen…it’s simply a matter of time. Please make sure you have backups (cloud and offsite) and disaster response and recovery plans in place, as we did. These are always emotional experiences, but knowing what to do and how in writing was a gift from my past self to my present self. I really hope that this experience sparks some of you to do what’s needed to be prepared.

Best regards,
Ray Sidney-Smith
W3 Consulting

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Who Are Your Customers? Where are They From?

This blogpost was written by Vito Fiore, Director of Marketing and Research for Visit Alexandria.  It provides some very valuable marketing research information for Alexandria’s small business community. As the tourism marketing agency for the City of Alexandria, we at Visit Alexandria are always trying to better understand questions such as: “Who is visiting Alexandria?”… Read more »

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This blogpost was written by Vito Fiore, Director of Marketing and Research for Visit Alexandria.  It provides some very valuable marketing research information for Alexandria’s small business community.

As the tourism marketing agency for the City of Alexandria, we at Visit Alexandria are always trying to better understand questions such as: “Who is visiting Alexandria?” “How much money are they spending?” “On what are they spending their money?” and “How important is visitor spending to the Alexandria economy?”. In the past, we answered these questions by relying on data sources like website analytics, advertising tracking pixels, visitor center traffic, and survey data.

Out of all these methods, survey data provides the most detail on how money is spent, but it is imprecise and reliant on human recall. Let’s say we ask someone if they’ve visited Alexandria in the past year. They respond, “Yes, I visited 8 months ago.”  We can ask them what they spent on lodging, restaurants, shopping, etc., and they almost certainly won’t be able to do better than a rough estimate. Furthermore, this method is subject to sampling error.

For several years, Visit Alexandria has been looking at ways to gather more reliable information.  We discovered that the nation’s largest credit card provider, Visa, has a “big data” product known as VisaVue. This product provides spending data for a given location in 24 different merchant categories. Perhaps most interestingly, the spending is broken down by the cardholder’s source location (at the metropolitan statistical area level). By partnering with Virginia Tourism Corporation and Visit Virginia Beach, Visit Alexandria was able to purchase the VisaVue product recently at an affordable price.

Visit Alexandria breaks its marketing campaign into two broad categories: 1) Destination, targeting those overnight guests from outside of the DC region, and 2) Regional, targeting those daytrippers that live outside of Alexandria but within the DC region. Our destination campaign is by far the larger effort, as our primary mission is to drive overnight stays in Alexandria and increase visitor spending. According to a 2014 survey-based study conducted by Destination Analysts, on a per person basis, overnight visitors to Alexandria spend about 3 times as much per trip as day visitors. That said, we were excited because the VisaVue data could give us a better understanding of how big the spending (and thereby tax revenue) impact is in key sectors from locals, regional visitors, and destination visitors.

The VisaVue data represents all domestic Visa credit and debit transactions, which were over $1 billion in City of Alexandria spending in calendar year 2016. This represents about 1/3 of all spending in lodging, restaurant, and retail categories.  Because Visa is widely used for both business and consumer spending at many income levels, we feel that this data is generally reflective of spending in Alexandria as a whole. And, because it is an accounting of ACTUAL consumer spending, it does not have the limitations discussed earlier that relate to self-reported data from surveys.

By determining Visa spending patterns according to source location, we can then extrapolate these patterns out to all spending (under the assumption that Visa spending in Alexandria is generally reflective of all spending behavior). Then we can apply these patterns to tax collection data from the City of Alexandria in order to determine the estimated share of local taxes that are paid by Destination visitors (from outside the region), Regional visitors (people from the DC region but outside of Alexandria), and those local to Alexandria. The results are below:

The headline here is that 71% of consumption taxes (restaurant, lodging, and sales) paid to the City of Alexandria come directly from people who are non-residents.  That $44 million translates to a savings of about $590 per Alexandria household. The revenue generated by visitor spending reduces the pressure on other taxes on residents like property taxes. You’ll notice that the consumption spending by destination visitors is roughly the same as that by all Alexandria residents.  And perhaps most surprisingly, spending from regional visitors have the largest impact, with 43% of all spending in these categories.

As you might expect, when it comes to lodging, destination visitors do the vast majority of the spending. However, there is still a share of spending that comes from within the region, presumably for staycations, business travel booked by companies within the region for those travelling to Alexandria, or locals booking a hotel for friends and relatives staying in Alexandria.

For the meals tax, which includes spending at both full-service restaurants and quick-service establishments, half is paid by regional visitors and 19% is paid by those visiting from outside the DC region.  Remember that this data is citywide; we would expect that the share of destination visitor spending would likely be much greater than the chart above in Old Town, and smaller than the chart above in locally-driven neighborhoods (e.g., Potomac Yard, West End).

The story is similar when it comes to the sales tax. Since the sales tax is applied to a wide range of spending, we combined VisaVue data from a whole host of retail and restaurant categories for this calculation.  This chart shows us that while retail is a bit more locally driven than lodging and dining, it still owes the majority of economic activity to non-Alexandrians.  That’s remarkable given that a huge portion of this tax is paid at places like supermarkets where spending is predominantly locally-driven.

There’s much more to learn from this rich data set. In the coming months, we’ll be doing a more detailed analysis at the metropolitan area level to inform our advertising marketing selection for the upcoming year.  Does Norfolk provide more visitor spending per capita than Philadelphia? Once they arrive, do people from New York City spend more per trip than people from Atlanta?  How much of our visitation comes from a closer, smaller city like Richmond versus a more distant, large metropolis like Chicago? We’ll be using the VisaVue data, among other sources, to better understand the answers to these questions.

What we already have learned, however, is significant. Marketing to destination visitors will always be our primary task, but given the scale of the impact on our tax revenue from regional visitors we are looking for opportunities to increase our efforts there as well. And the broader finding that 71% of retail, restaurant, and lodging spending comes from non-residents tells us that Alexandria’s economy is dependent on being welcoming to all, whether they are from Arlington, Virginia or Arlington, Texas.

Vito Fiore is the Director of Marketing and Research at Visit Alexandria. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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Workshop Recap: Marketing Trends for 2018

Small business owners packed the room at the Alexandria SBDC last week for Maurisa Potts’ annual update of the latest trends in marketing.  As always, content is king, and the focus is on how to connect with customers in a way that the “big box stores” and online sales cannot. The first step, of course,… Read more »

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Small business owners packed the room at the Alexandria SBDC last week for Maurisa Potts’ annual update of the latest trends in marketing.  As always, content is king, and the focus is on how to connect with customers in a way that the “big box stores” and online sales cannot.

The first step, of course, is to really know your customer.  This includes, but goes way beyond their age, gender, and whether they are a tourist or local.  What are their desires, their expectations?  What life-changing events are happening in their lives?  You get to know this by going back to basics – talk to them!  If someone knows that you have taken the time to get to know them and what they are looking for in a shopping experience then your place becomes their place.  In addition, repeat customers talk with their friends, and they will bring in more customers to show off their special place.  Integrated social messaging is enhancing engagement and the customer experience.  There are messaging apps and tools that can help you to communicate one-on-one with customers in real time and specific to that customer.  These tools, such as WeChat, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp can be both scalable and cost effective for small business owners.

Once you have established who your target customer is, it is important to develop a content strategy, and establish a budget to carry out that strategy.  More and more this will be by way of visuals – video, infographics, photos, charts, etc.  Make it authentic to your target audience – what do they want to see?  One of the hottest new platforms for this is virtual and augmented reality.  Customers would love to be able to use their computer screen to see what the fashion piece on the hanger would look like on their body, even if they are not in the store to try it on. While this is not mainstream yet, Maurisa sees it as the next big thing.  She urges those who are already allocating resources to developing more live video (a big trend) to continue to experiment with different formats – including virtual reality – to see which audiences respond best to.

One platform that is increasingly popular is Instagram.  In 2017 the platform had 800 million users, who found that it offers better engagement and advertising controls than other platforms.  Maurisa told the story of a beer keg tap maker with a small manufacturing operation.  A short time on Instagram and he was getting orders from breweries all over the country.  Local real estate broker Mike Porterfield said that he has seen the value of Instagram in just a short time using it, and expressed the following:

I have been hearing people talk about its potential in the business world and since I started actively in Jan. of this year I have already received one prospect call from a space user and have been solicited by a possible service provider that I might consider using.  The only cost to Instagram is your time and imagination.  Until I learn otherwise I am going to keep promote my business interests and interacting with other Instagram users.  If that’s where the people are that’s where we need to be.

Continuing the trend to more engagement with customers, the attendees at the workshop discussed ways to create curated special events and experiences – this is what can set small independent businesses apart from the big chains and online shopping.  Partner with complimentary community businesses and nonprofits to expand the reach of all of the organizations.  Think ahead and establish a calendar-year budget for these events, and keep track of the most effective methods of transferring events and experiences into customers goodwill and eventually, sales.  Keep track of who showed up, and whether they became a repeat customer.

With all of these tools it is crucial to keep data on what you have tried, and what worked.  Most tools have analytics built in to their software – learn how to use them!  It is often important to try something a few times to see the patterns of your audience response. Measuring the impact allows you to set targeted goals and measure success. Metrics can take time, but they are important!

On a final note, Maurisa revisited a prediction that she made at the beginning of 2017 – that Twitter was losing its usefulness as an effective tool for small business marketing.  While certainly popular among politicians and journalists, the platform was unable to grow users in 2017. She again predicted its inevitable demise.

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Networking Best Practices

This article was written by Ray Sidney-Smith, facilitator for Alexandria Small Business Development Center’s monthly Business Development Roundtable. You may join us every third Tuesday of the month for different topic-based discussions for Small Business in the City of Alexandria, Virginia. The topic for discussion at the February 20th Roundtable will be “Dealing With Challenging Customers”…. Read more »

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This article was written by Ray Sidney-Smith, facilitator for Alexandria Small Business Development Center’s monthly Business Development Roundtable. You may join us every third Tuesday of the month for different topic-based discussions for Small Business in the City of Alexandria, Virginia. The topic for discussion at the February 20th Roundtable will be “Dealing With Challenging Customers”.

Does this sound familiar to you?

You recognize the value of professional networking for your business. However, you might be a little bit daunted by the idea of going out there and doing sales and professional networking for your business. But, you persevere and register for the next upcoming Chamber of Commerce professional networking happy hour.

You go to the event. You collect a bunch of business cards. You return back to your office and put them in a drawer never to be seen again.

This is a story told to me by business owners time and time again.

At the January Business Development Roundtable at the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we discussed strategies and techniques for better professional networking. I believe many of us can agree that professional networking is tough; as is overcoming the reality that most often you have to be your own salesperson. You have to be likable. You have to be knowledgeable and willing to help people. So, it’s not easy. Over the years, among my many mistakes, I’ve learned some of the practical things you can do to be a successful small business owner through professional networking. Here are three suggestions for establishing an effective professional networking practice within your business for greater profitability and generally feeling good about your business and the community you’re building around it.

  1. Business cards, along with Facebook Page fans, LinkedIn connections, Instagram and Twitter followers, are not collectibles. These are hearts and minds that need to be won over requiring human connection, investment, and interest. Follow-through is the key to building these relationships. When you leave a professional networking event, take the next step of connecting online and offline. Send a LinkedIn connection-request, but also invite people you believe to be valuable new contacts to join you for coffee, or lunch. Get to know them as a person. These are the genuine connections that make you memorable and make them more likely to refer you new business when the appropriate opportunities arise.
  2. Next, make a list of five people you know and five people you don’t know. Then, for those you know, ask yourself whether or not you know what that person currently needs or wants the most in their professional or personal life. These can be customers, clients, vendors, colleagues, students, friends, and family members. For those who you don’t know, why is it that you would like to know them? As well, what is it that you believe is their most important goal currently for themselves professionally or personally?

Now, go out and find out those answers. By doing so, you will truly be developing connections with people who are important to you for professional reasons but approaching them in an angle that reaches their hearts and minds. For better or for worse, people are inherently self-interested when it comes to professional contacts. If you can find out what speaks to them and what they can get out of a relationship with you, that builds authority, credibility, value, and reciprocity in attaining or retaining new or existing business.

  1. Finally, meet people in peer networking opportunities as much as possible as opposed to professional networking opportunities and events. Go to social networking sites and other platforms, such as Meetup.com, in order to create social connections that lead to offline interactions. As much as digital interactions are important for establishing and even maintaining social connections in today’s workaday world, the importance of offline connection (even face-to-face video if in-person is not possible) is to creating human connection and the bonds that allow us to deepen relationships with people cannot be understated.

You’ll be best off if you create a system and use a tool to collect and manage the contacts and the latest time in which you have made contact with a professional or personal contact for professional networking purposes. It’s simply a way of managing what information you know about that person, when the last time is you contacted them, what information would you like to share with them on occasion in order to stay top-of-mind, and perhaps the next time you intend to make contact with that person. People get to know, like and trust you from the repetition of contact with them. So, you need to manage this like you do any other operation within your business. A friendly email with an article that you believe will be of interest to them on occasion can sometimes be enough to keep you top-of-mind. Making the effort to meet someone for coffee or tea a few times a year may be more effective. You need to figure that out based on the person or persons you are attempting to establish within your professional networking community.

With these few suggestions, you can have a stellar professional networking system that brings new and repeat referral business. Don’t simply collect business cards and online contacts, but connect with people genuinely. Find out what makes people tick, what they truly want and need, then go out and find ways to make that happen. Last, meet people in not only professional networking events but also peer networking environments to create lasting, sustainable relationships. This all requires systems and tools in place to support keeping track of your professional networking contacts and opportunities. And, remember, professional networking pays dividends in the long run; don’t expect immediate results.

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