The Ecology of Networking and Referrals

How to Grow Your Business Through Meaningful One-on-One Conversations

Guest post by Julie Wolk.


Networking gets a bad rap. Especially if you’re not naturally inclined toward floating around events chatting with everyone, even the thought of a networking event might exhaust you or make you cringe.

But here’s the thing…

Our lives and our businesses are made up of and totally dependent on the networks that we are a part of and create.

And, networking can be deeply meaningful and beneficial to ourselves and to everyone we touch.

So let’s look at networking from a different perspective . . .

Take a few steps back and imagine the system you and your business are a part of.

Think of it as an ecological habitat with many different points or hub . . . fruit trees, small mammals, edible plants, pollinators, soil microbes, all exchanging food, oxygen, minerals, water, pollen . . . They are all in relationship with one another. Your business is like one of these hubs.

And likewise, in your business web of life you relate and connect with other hubs (people, businesses, organizations), and you also exchange things, learn things, buy things, consume things, and you offer other things back out to other hubs. You also hire people, collaborate with people, refer clients to people, and vice versa.

In all of these relationships, there is an exchange of energy that can benefit both people, however some of these relationships are particularly mutually beneficial. In ecology, this is called mutualistic symbiosis: a close, long-term interaction between two different species where both species benefit.

Just like an ecosystem, your business thrives in a diverse web of interrelated beings helping each other out.

And the more each hub is playing its right role (or filling its niche), helping some people and calling on help from others, the more smoothly the system works. Community at its best!

In fact, each person or organization in your business web of life has a specific role, or a niche, just like each animal or plant in the ecological system has its role (the word niche comes from the ecological sciences).

Hopefully you have clarity or are moving toward clarity on your business’ niche (read my blog post here about niching or for a more in-depth exploration check out Tad Hargrave’s Niching Spiral). As Tad says, your niche is your role in the community, the gift that you offer to your people.

True networking looks at everybody’s roles and asks:

How can we help each other create a stronger, trustful, more intimately woven web for the mutual benefit of all?

And how can we go beyond traditional networking to what the Interaction Institute for Social Change calls “network building,” where we actually connect other people in our network to generate even more good, like a spider weaving its web.


Getting Practical: How to Strengthen Your Web and Generate More Business for Everyone

*Start this project today if you want to quickly generate some new leads, opportunities, and energy for your business.*

So how do we do this on a practical level? How do we deepen and strengthen our business’ web through meaningful networking?

First, you do NOT have to go to networking events (unless you want to). The strategy outlined here is a one-on-one networking strategy, and requires a phone and perhaps a coffee shop.

This is a simple marketing strategy aimed at building a genuine referral network (and seeding other potential collaborations) that I have all my clients do, especially if they are just starting out, adding a new service, or reinventing their business (which is pretty much everyone).

It’s probably the most simple, old-school marketing method out there, but it’s worth explaining because in this digital age, we actually forget the power of picking up the phone and having one-on-one conversations, let alone face-to-face meetings.

It can also be done before you even have a website, and it will generate new opportunities faster than most other marketing methods.

(Note: It’s important that you are clear on your own business and niche before doing this. See the articles above on niching.)

Step One – Make a List

Make a list of 20 people that you could help and that could help you. List the people you already know first, but it’s also great to create a new hub in your web by reaching out to people you don’t yet know! Try to think of people for whom there is a clear mutual benefit. The most obvious example is someone who could refer people they know to you and you to them.

For example, I have made intentional connections with life and career coaches so that if a client comes to me for help who’s not quite ready to start a business, I have people I can send them to help them figure out their next steps. On the flipside, these coaches know that if a client decides in the course of coaching that they want to start a business, they can send that person over to me.

Other mutually beneficial relationships might include people you could co-sponsor an event or program with, package up your work with, co-teach with, market each others programs, or collaborate in some other way that sounds fun to you.

Once you have this list, use your own version of the short script below to guide you in your first calls (it will become more natural the more you do it).

Again, you need to be uber clear on your offering and audience so that the person you’re speaking with can understand where they might fit in.

The Initial Phone Call Sample Script:

Hi So and So,

I’m not sure if you know about my business, but I help X kind of people do Y kind of thing (state your niche).

I really admire what you do/am interested in what you do, and I would love to hear more about your business and tell you some more about mine, so that we can help each other, either by referring to one another, collaborating, or through other means we haven’t even discovered yet!

Do you have few minutes to chat right now?

If yes, great! If not, then set up another time. If it’s someone who you feel there is a lot of resonance and potential with, take the time for an in-person coffee date.

Then . . . you get have a meaningful and useful conversation with this person about your work and their work, and how you might help one another . . .

Tips for Meaningful and Useful Networking Conversations:

The basic gist of this conversation is:

“Here’s my role in the community, what’s your role in the community, and how can we help each other?”


  • Speak clearly about your work . . . what exactly you do, who you serve, how you do it, and why you do it.
  • Speak from your heart. You authenticity is even more important than the perfect words.
  • Be curious and ask lots of questions about this person’s role in the community, so you can more fully understand how you can help one another.
  • Give generously and genuinely trusting that people have something to offer you too.
  • At the end, if it’s a potential referral partner, say something like, “I keep a list of people that I trust that I can refer people to. I’m going to add you to that list.” (And then of course, make a list of these people). This encourages them to think about you as a serious referral partner and do the same.

Give yourself a deadline for finishing all 20 calls or meetings. I suggest one month or less. Doing it in a condensed period can generate a lot of energy and opportunities for your business in a short amount of time.

Very Important Networking Follow-Up Tips

True networking requires repeated connection with the people in your network over time so that you may deepen trust and relationships.

So how do we do this? Follow up! Building a strong network of mutualistic symbiotic relationships must go beyond the first meeting into long-term community building:

  1. After you have a conversation with someone, follow up with an email thanking them for their time, the deepening connection, and any future referrals to one another (or follow up on any other collaboration next steps that are needed). Clearly write: Here’s a link to my website in case you meet someone who could use my help.
  2. Add them to your email list. I don’t care if it has six people on it – create an email list (go to Mailchimp and get a free account). Your email list is the simplest way to stay in touch with your growing community, maintain your connections, and remind them that you exist (so they can send clients to you!). All you need is a short monthly newsletter with one or two valuable bits of information in it.

It’s time to embrace meaningful networking as a foundation of a thriving business.

In the end, the more we can all find ways to support one another, the more successful and impactful we will all be.

If you’re interested in creating or growing your business through the lens of the Natural Business Cycle, please get in touch for a free 30-minute consultation to see if we’re a fit for individual coaching.


About the Author:

JulieWolk_Hollyhock15Julie Wolk, Business Coach, CPCC, helps purpose-driven entrepreneurs (coaches, consultants, teachers, healers) who are excellent at their craft but struggling on the business side, get super clear on their vision, strategy, and action plan so they can make more money and a bigger impact. She developed the Natural Business Cycle, a unique and overwhelm-reducing business development model based on the natural world.


The Four Stages of Business Growth

wood-outdoor-stairs-landscaping-steps-1Business is like a staircase which it’s best not to skip any steps.

One of the things that can put us squarely and repeatedly into what I call The Meantime is not understanding what stage of business we are at (or even that there are different stages of business). A classic blunder is for people to try and skip a stage. They are working a job and quit it to start their business hoping to land right in Stage Three when they’ve barely begun Stage One. And, the reality is that it takes a year and a half (at the very fastest) to three years to develop a solid business – and that’s with consistent focus. All due credit to my dear friend and colleague Mark Silver for introducing me to this idea. 

So, let’s look at the stage of business growth and see if we can’t find where you are.

Stage Four: Independence – At this level, you could go on vacation for six months and your business would still be making money for you. You likely have many people working for you and airtight systems in place.

Stage Three: Momentum – At this stage, you likely have a full time employee or two and your business is generating enough revenue that everyone is getting paid a fair amount. You are thriving. Your have a solid niche and business model. In momentum, there’s a firming up of your business just as plants get that woody growth that prepares them to bear fruit later.

Stage Two: Concentration – At this stage, you might be beginning to get some part time help but you’re only barely paying the bills in your business. You’re squeezing by and the money is up and down. You focus on your marketing and money comes in but then you focus on delivering your products and services and the business dries up. Back and forth. Feast and famine happens a lot here. But, at this point, you’ve figured out your niche and what your business is about. You’re getting the business model down and developing the systems you need. This phase is like the phase of rapid growth of a plant. There’s a lot of hard work and a lot of learning here.

Stage One: Creation – In stage one, you’re doing a lot of experimenting still. You don’t have a clearly defined niche yet. You likely have no help at at all with your business and you are absolutely not able to sustain yourself financially – you can’t make a living at this level. In creation, things are new. You’ve had the idea to start a business and are full of excitement. The seed germinates and begins to sprout. At this stage the plant is far too soft and flimsy to bear much weight. It’s very flexible but not that sturdy.

Which stage are you at?

The enormous payoff of knowing this is the dissolution of stress when you realize that you are precisely where you’re supposed to be (e.g. If you’re in stage one and confused why you’re not making a living, well… be confused no more! You aren’t supposed to be! You’re supposed to be sorting out your niche). 


And the Winner of our 2014 Niching Contest is . . .

I am so thrilled to announce the winners of the 2014 So You Think You Can Niche? contest!

Backstory: throughout the month of April I invited people to submit 120 character niches (that’s shorter than a tweet!), and if they submitted a niche, then I asked that that they rate at least five other people’s niches from 1-10 and offer feedback to one another.

 The results were staggering. We had 126 entries, over 1000 facebook “likes” and over 2500 comments – amazing! I am blown away by the quality of content and interaction, it’s been a wonderful success.

And the winner is: Audrey Wong!


Audrey received an overall rating of 10, and of the four overall 10’s in this contest, she had the most ratings in comments – thus making her our winner and proving that the amount of rated feedback really did matter! Our sincere congratulations to Audrey – she entered an excellent, clear niche for her company Living Lotus. She will take home the first place prize of a 90-minute coaching session with me ($450 value) + she’ll be featured on my blog in the future + a $100 gift certificate at her favourite locally owned restaurant + a free hardbound copy of The Niching Spiral!

Our 2nd and 3rd place winners are Debra Graff and Ruth Schwartz respectively. Each of these women receive a 10 rating and had the 2nd and 3rd most ratings in comments of all the 10’s. They will each receive a 30-minute coaching session with me + an electronic copy of The Niching Spiral.

DebraGraff RuthSchwartz

The lovely nichers who placed 4th through 10th each wins $100 off my next Niching Spiral Mentorship program (a discount the winner can use or pass onto others). And they are: 4th: Shannon Lagasse [10]; 5th: Kim McNeil [9.75]; 6th: Sudha Devi [9.5]; 7th: Shay Sampson [9.5]; 8th: Jennifer Seitzer [9.5]; 9th: Deborah Epstein [9.5] and 10th: Wei Houng [9.5].

fourth to tenth

Best Photo Awards go to: Yahya BakkarAudrey Wong, Kevin GebertDebra Graff, Ruth SchwartzClaudia Richey and Shellie White Light. Each of these people wins $100 off my next Niching Spiral Mentorship program (a discount the winner can use or pass onto others).

Best Photo

The Best Comments Prize go to the people who gave the best feedback to others, and they each get $300 off my Niching Spiral Mentorship program – because they’re the kind of people I want in it. Thanks for the amazing effort and deeply thoughtful feedback folks, my congratulations go to: Jennifer SteinbachsJoanna FreeLorraine WatsonMonika DenesManal Khalife and Briana Barrett-Squirrel.

And lastly, the Good Comments Award goes to anyone who gave at least five quality pieces of feedback (beyond just a rating number). These good commenters will each get $100 off off the Niching Spiral Mentorship program. I was thrilled to see so much thoughtful feedback offered and gracefully received during the contest. Congrats to: Claudia Richey, Michael Moon, Shannon Lagasse, Jennifer Seitzer, Deborah Epstein, Nicci Tina, Tara Jeanine Gilmaher, Rose De Dan, Kari Pickler-Hughes, Erik Arendonk, Mary Reynolds Thompson, David Jurasek, Aga Wiklo, Barbara Steerman, Lisa Marie Haché-Maguire, Stacye Leanz, Grace Gerry, Chelsea Coghill, Sue Burness, Carolien Oosterhoff and Janet Matthies.

 Below is a list of the final ratings for everyone who entered the contest.

The calculation was made by finding the average score of your ratings and averaging that total with Tad’s rating. Congrats and thanks to all to contestants!

First NameLast NameOverall Average Rating
JenniferSeitzer (fruit picture)9.5
JenniferSeitzer (forest photo)8.75
ManalKhalife (photo)8.5
Rev. FayeThornton. M.Msc.8.5
JanetMatthies (“unique 1 on 1”)8
ShellieWhite Light8
MichaelMoon (music)8
MaryReynolds Thompson7.5
DavidJurasek (for men)7.5
MichaelMoon (astrology)7.5
JanetMatthies (Asian-inspired imagery)7
BrianaBarrett (Squirrel)7
RoseDe Dan7
ManalKhalife (flowers painting)6.5
JanetMatthies (girl stretching photo)6
LaraNarayani Golland5.5
JanetMatthies (flowers photo)3.5
D. ScottBrown3.5

Six Social Media Lessons From Our 2014 Niching Contest

Screen Shot 100Throughout the month of April we ran a contest called So You Think You Can Niche? 2014 inviting people to submit 120 character (yes, that’s 120 characters, not words!) niches in a meme format, laid over a photo of themselves – extra points for non-selfies. Because … too many selfies! 
Participation in the contest far exceeded our expectations with 126 entries (we thought 75 would be awesome!), over 1000 “likes” and more than 2600 comments – what?! And, though I made the blunder of not noticing how many “likes” my facebook page had before the contest, I am pretty sure the contest added 200 people there too.
We’re almost done the exhaustive job of tabulating results from this spectacularly successful adventure, but before we do our last review, confirm all the numbers and announce the winners, we thought we’d share some of the things we’ve learned from this process.
There is much that I learned from the contest about niching but I wanted to share some of what we learned about the technical side of things.
1) Facebook Pages are a terrible promotional platform but an excellent conversational platform.
For me, this was the biggest lesson.
For all of the reasons laid out in the following video, facebook pages are a terrible marketing platform. You are much better off building your email list, using youtube, twitter, instagram, pinterest or other forms of social media that your people follow. Facebook shows everything you post to a fraction of your followers and only shows it to more if people actually interact with it. And, if you want to make sure everyone sees it? You need to pay them. It’s a brutal set up. So, while I recommend having a facebook page so people can find you easily online, I don’t recommend them as a core marketing strategy in the same way I would with other forms of social media. 
Having said that, facebook pages provide an excellent forum for people to have conversations about things. Why? Well, for this contest in particular there are a few reasons that standout.
  1. Most people are already on facebook so that eliminates the barrier to entry of having to sign into a new forum and remember their username and password. 
  2. People know how facebook works. It’s not a whole new interface to learn. This is a big deal. If you try to get people to use a new system and they have to think about it at all, most people will just drop off. 
  3. You can tag people on facebook to draw their attention to things. In this case, when I gave people feedback on their niche, I could tag them most of the time to let them know I’d done that.
  4. Facebook has photo albums built in and you can comment on photos. This is so huge. Last year, when I ran this contest for the first time, I just used my blog and invited people to post their niche statement in 120 characters in the comments below. And then you could comment on people’s niches right there. It worked but it kind of broke wordpress. Over 1000 comments later it was incredibly hard to find what you’d posted or that person you’d been meaning to comment on. I knew that, this year, I wanted to make the contest image based so it would be easy to organize the submissions into a single album (making them easy to find and link to) and easy to comment on.
Facebook is designed for conversations in a way that would be impossible to replicate at this point and the whole goal of this contest was for people to not only post something for my evaluation but to encourage everyone to comment on each other’s work and learn from each other in that way.
This means that the average submission got at least 16 comments on it. 16 pieces of honest and useful feedback from their peers. 
And, if your goal (and I think it should be) is to become a hub then the goal must shift from simply talking at people to engaging in a conversation with them. But if you really, really want to be a hub, then you need to think about ways to make it easier for them to talk with each other. This contest did that. Creating a facebook group on a relevant topic, or for your group program does this. 
Facebook pages suck for marketing but they’re brilliant for creating a space for conversations.
2) Contests can work to engage conversation. This contest is a glowing example of some great community engagement between people who work and offer a wide range of services and products, offering genuine, useful critiques and engaging in useful, respectful, productive conversation. 
Contests have a lifespan. There’s a day they will end. There are prizes. These thing encourage people to actually go and get involved in commenting. A note: make sure you offer prizes for not only the best submissions but the best and most comments. If the goal is to encourage conversation, then you need to reward that too.
Of course, you can simply do the kinds of contests where the person with the most ‘likes’ on their photo wins, but I’d invite you to consider the potential power of not just making it a popularity contest but, also, a learning experience. 
3) Images/memes work well. This is, in many ways, no surprise. While words matter and a well crafted niche will enlighten a reader as to what you do or offer, a great image helps to grab attention. Adding your niche over a colourful, happy, striking, appropriate (etc) photo can really help with face and business recognition.
And you no longer have to be a Photoshop professional. There are many apps that allow you to pop some text over a a photo, as you can see in the variety of niches submitted. Here are just a few (of the many out there) that allow you to add frames of different shapes and dimensions, to overlay text, to use photo effects, to edit images and to collage more than one image together: DipticBeFunky and Frametastic.
I judged 100% of my scores on the words entirely though I couldn’t help but notice the power of the right image and the right design to help bring the words to life. 
But don’t just think of memes for contests. More and more businesses are getting on this whole notion of creating memes for their business as a whole. Simply a great quote followed by the name and website. If they’re good, they get shared far and wide and can act as a path to your website. 
Speaking of which – this also means that headshots matter. Getting a professionally done headshot is, in my mind, a must. You can trade services for it, but get it done. And this photo must capture, somehow, as much of your platform as possible. If your business is about inner peace – can the photo capture that in you? If you have a rebellious, spunky vibe – then your photo can capture that. If you work with herbs, the photo can be of you at a table with some plants and tincture making material etc. 
4) An integrated social media approach works best. This contest lived in an album on my facebook page. But if I’d relied only on that page to promote it I would have had maybe five entries instead of 126. This is crucial. I think the future of social media is not necessarily about any new ‘facebook killer’ social media site but, rather, the integration of them all in your marketing approach.
In this case, I wrote a blog post describing the contest. I emailed me list of about 10,000 people with the link to the submission form. The photos were then put up by my assistant Susan. Once enough were up, we’d email the list again with an update on the contest and some of the best examples from the contest to inspire people. Every time we emailed the list, we got more submissions.
My email list was how people heard of the contest, facebook was just the place the conversations happened.
A huge blunder I see people making these days is trying to build up their social media following and ignoring their email list. Your email list is, and will, for the forseeable future be, the workhorse of your marketing. You are not in control of changes that get made to facebook or twitter. And they make changes all of the time. Not always for the better. Facebook events are wonderful but not everyone is going to see them. Your emails are the most likely to be seen. 
Having said that, an integrated approach works best. To promote this contest we:
  • created a blog post for it that notified people subscribed to my blog
  • emailed our list
  • tweeted about it
  • told my colleagues about it
  • created a hashtag for it and gave people prewritten tweets and facebook messages to share that directed folks back to the album or the blog post  
5) The point is to learn, not to win. In a few cases, it seemed like some people had asked their friends to come and give them a 10. Which wasn’t the point of the contest. The point was to get honest feedback on how strong their niche was. 
6) Being kind matters. A simple but import idea. When offering constructive criticism it genuinely helps the receiver to stay open and consider what’s on offer without feeling attacked. There were numerous great examples of this in the comments on the niches. And this matters. If you’re hosting a conversation and it gets unpleasant, people will leave and not come back. That’s not good for your business. It’s bad news for becoming a hub. It’s why clubs have bouncers and a zero tolerance policy on harassment or violence. You want to make sure your home is a safe home for people to be in. If it is, they’ll come back again and again and again.
Stay tuned for the results, we are working as fast as we can. An invitation to resubmit your niche will arrive soon as well, allowing people who are interested to apply their feedback, distilling and clarifying their niches even further.
Tad and the Marketing for Hippies team