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Alternative Places to Network Look beyond your standard groups and cocktail receptions for business connections that really work.

By Jessica Chen

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It's been said that there's a time and place for networking--any time and any place.

"Every minute you're around other human beings is a chance to network," writes charisma coach Olivia Fox Cabane in her article titled, "Plane Speaking: In-Flight Networking." "Self-made billionaires are known for their tendency to network everywhere and all the time."

So no matter what the occasion--whether you're at the yoga studio, your child's soccer game or at a religious event--networking is possible. Here are three entrepreneurs who learned the prime venues best suited to their networking needs could sometimes be found under the most extraordinary circumstances.

Start as friends
Co-founders Mike Scher and Dan McCann's random encounter in a hospital is what eventually led them to partner and start Frontline Selling, a sales training and outsourcing company based in New York City.

Scher, 47, and McCann, 36, met on May 24, 1996--they were at the hospital while both their wives were giving birth to their first sons. Their mothers-in-law started talking and introduced them. They first joked about who had the bigger child; then they scheduled dinner for the following week.

"It became pretty obvious early on that we shared a lot of the same value systems," Scher says. The two also shared a common passion for sales, and they clicked during their first meeting. Over the years, Scher mentored McCann in sales, and McCann would suggest potential businesses to start. They developed a trust and friendship--something that's often omitted at formal networking events.

"You see all these forced places where you go to network and expand, and you always wonder what people's real agendas are when you're there," McCann says. "We weren't [at the hospital] for the business networking, but the business networking came out of that."

McCann and Scher both have the perspicacity to make connections anywhere. In fact, it's a mentality they value enough to teach their sales team.

Scher says if you meet someone in a fortuitous encounter, it's wise to follow up with lunch or dinner. It shows you're investing in that person and getting to know his or her needs. And it's that ability to put yourself out there that Scher says allows "life-changing things [to] happen in the most unlikely places."

Network in high places
While Scher and McCann's hospital encounter was rather effortless, Steve Cody, co-founder of Peppercom, a PR firm, had to climb a mountain--literally--to make his entrepreneur connection. Scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro with his son and a group of like-minded adventure-seekers brought Cody together with two corporate lawyers and a CMO from a technology firm.

"I'm somewhat shy and reserved, so I don't necessarily go out of my way to network," Cody says. "But it's interesting that the climbing threw these six or seven strangers together. You had [a] forced, best-of-all-worlds, worst-of-all-worlds experience."

After the seven-day climb, one of the lawyers contacted Cody for PR counsel on a human resources case. It showed Cody that his other extreme hobbies--long-distance bike rides, marathons and even standup comedy--could also be venues to network. He found a niche of entrepreneurs--people like him who enjoyed taking risks in business and risks in their hobbies.

"I think there's something about the shared pain or challenge, the goal that knocks down barriers that I wouldn't be comfortable knocking down [at] a standard cocktail reception," Cody says. "There's some sort of common bond."

Talk to strangers
Rosalind Resnick, founder of Axxess Business Consulting (and a contributor to Entrepreneur magazine) may not have scaled mountains, but the working mom, who works and lives in New York City, is on the John Hopkins University undergraduate advisory board, and owns a second home in Long Island, is a globetrotter on a weekly basis.

"A lot of the best contacts I meet have been with the person sitting in the seat next to me," Resnick says. "Think about it--if you're on a business trip, flying from New York to Chicago or to LA, chances are that most of the other people on the plane are probably going to be business travelers as well."

In fact, Resnick doesn't let a moment go by when she's not scanning her surroundings and the potential peers around her.

"You might think you're getting on that plane to fly to a conference in San Francisco," she says. "[But] maybe at the conference you're not going to meet anybody who's really going to help you. Maybe that person who's going to help you is sitting right next to you on the plane."

A good way to start a conversation on the plane is to ask where someone's going and where he's from. Then, before you talk about yourself and your business, find out his interests and pain points. These conversations create the trust and sincerity that form a strong networking relationship. The bottom line, Resnick says, is simply to take the initiative and talk.

"We're all brought up to believe back in the day to never talk to strangers," she says. "Yet talking to strangers is just about the best networking tip you could have."

Limit your networking activities to networking events and the only thing you'll accomplish is to limit your networking activities. Entrepreneurs don't want to be pushy with their networking attempts, but good things will happen to those who start conversations, listen to other business people and keep their wits about them--even when the oxygen is thin.

How to do it
Charisma coach Cabane knows it's not always easy to strike up conversations with strangers. In her article, "Plane Speaking," she offers a useful step-by-step guide.

  • Select your flight neighbor. If you have a choice in seating, Cabane recommends boarding the flight late and scanning the passengers. Choose to sit next to someone who's dressed in a suit and reading a book, presumably a businessperson who's not buried in his or laptop or hovering over a report.
  • Greet your fellow passenger on first sight--otherwise it makes the conversation "awkward if you haven't acknowledged each other's presence from the outset."
  • Start a conversation by either commenting on the airline service or complimenting something she's wearing, such as a piece of jewelry or a pin. "Ask the story behind it," Cabane says. "The word 'story' is important to use because it has certain associations with the human psyche."
  • Ask questions, and mirror her actions and facial expressions. Cabane says even synchronizing your voice--copying the tone, volume and speed--will help you build rapport with your flight neighbor. According to Cabane, people like people who are like them, and behaving similarly is the best way to achieve this.
  • Most importantly, Cabane writes in the "Art of Mastering Conversation," make that person feel like the most interesting person you've ever met. Not only is this easy to do since it takes the focus off yourself, but also it prolongs the conversation so you can build a quick and easy rapport. "Keep the spotlight on them for as long as possible," Cabane writes. "It's the one subject most people find the most fascinating of all."

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