I'm often asked these days about how to network and build a referral business as a homebased business owner. Let me start by saying that I ran two homebased businesses for many years. During the eight years I worked from home, I learned a great deal about the pros and cons of working from home and how it related to my networking efforts.
Working from home has its own unique rewards and challenges. And although most of the networking techniques that work for any business work for most homebased businesses, there are at least two important issues that I think apply to a homebased business more than any other.
The first relates to introducing yourself to others in networking environments. One important thing I learned while being a homebased business owner related to how I promoted myself at networking groups or when meeting people one on one.
My opinion in this area rubs some homebased business owners the wrong way, but I feel strongly about it: When networking, I don't recommend you share that you run a homebased business. I believe this characteristic is what I call a "neutral/negative" feature of your business. That is, telling people you meet in networking environments that you "work from home" has either a neutral or a negative impact because it either doesn't matter to them, or they're not impressed that you operate your business out of your house.
When I worked from home, I rarely, if ever, met anyone who said, "Oh, fantastic, you work from home--I must do business with you!" Working from home was just not something that I found made people "want" to do business with me; therefore, why should it be emphasized when meeting people through networking?
I open with this issue because it's something that I see done to this day. Often, when I attend a networking function, I see someone stand, say what they do, how people can refer them and then add at the end that he or she runs a homebased business. I believe that bit of information will generally have no impact or a negative impact on what people think of your potential abilities--it almost never has a positive impact on people wanting to do business with you. (Please note that I never hid that my business was homebased. I simply didn't bring it up until after I had a business relationship with the individual.)
The second issue relating to networking that I think is more important for homebased business owners than the average business owner is that it's important to break out of what I call Cave-Dweller Syndrome.
I find that many homebased business owners seriously suffer from Cave-Dweller Syndrome. (See my article on word of mouth marketing for more advice on this topic.) Here is how the non-homebased business owner suffers from this syndrome:
He gets up each morning in a large cave with a big-screen TV--his home. He goes out to his garage and gets into a little cave with four wheels--his car. He goes to another really big cave with plenty of computers--his office. At the end of the day, he gets back into his little cave with four wheels and drives back to the large cave with the big-screen TV and can't figure out why no one is referring him.
For homebased business owners, it's far worse because they don't even leave their large cave with the big screen TV to go to the cave with the computers. They're one and the same!
And it's even harder for those working from home to get out of their caves. So for you homebased business owners who want to build your business through word of mouth, you have to be visible and active in the community by participating in various networking groups and/or professional associations. It's critical for you to join organized networking groups and professional associations that will get you out of your cave. These kinds of groups include: Casual Contact Networks (like your local chamber of commerce), Business Development Networks (like my own BNI), professional organizations (almost all professions have one), and service clubs (like the Rotary or Lions Clubs).
Look for other ways to be very visible in your circle of influence. For example, be active in your child's school PTA or your church. Keep your eye open for opportunities to be involved in groups of people who come together for a common cause.
These opportunities will afford you the chance to build relationships, and that's what social capital is all about. Visibility leads to credibility which, in turn, leads to profitability. (See my article on building relationships that last for more tips on the topic.)
The bottom line is, networking doesn't change too much whether your business is based from home or a corporate location. But there are a few key points to remember that are specific to working from home. The dynamics of developing a strong word-of-mouth-based business transcend your business location. The caveat for the homebased business owner is that you'll have to be even more diligent and focused about finding those networking opportunities.