The Secret to Building a Profitable Business Network

We all know that a strong network is key to business success, but it isn't so clear how to go about building a network.

At the recent AIA National Convention I asked architects why there were there and I generally got one of two answers. The first group was there to fulfill their Continuing Education requirements. The second group was there to build their network and foster existing relationships.

Relationships Must Be Nutured Over Time
Relationships Must Be Nutured Over Time

Fostering Successful Relationships for Fun and For Profit

The importance of having a strong business network is not a new concept, but it is often difficult to clearly see the most effective route to building an effective network. At the outset of a business relationship, personal benefits may not be readily apparent. Often, time and energy must be invested long before any benefits are seen. Additionally, no one wants to be ‘that guy or gal' who networks with an ulterior motive of personal gain. Personal gain is secondary; friendship is primary. True relationships are not built on being fake or insincere.

As solo architects and small firm owners our time is precious and we wear many hats. We may feel hesitant to add relationships that will place more demand on our time, especially if we see no perceived benefit. But successful business people know by experience that by fostering these relationships, unexpected opportunities do come their way.

From the outside these opportunities may look like luck or chance, but successful architects know that these opportunities are the results of relationships that have been nurtured and cultivated over time.

Keys For Building a Profitable and Fulfilling Network

Faced with an enormous event like a National Convention, how do we make the best use of our limited time? There are so many programs to go to, products to see and people to meet. Randy Deutsch, Associate Professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (@RandyDeutsch) shares the networking secret that separates top performing architects from those who feel like they never get any breaks:

“Ever notice all those firm principals hanging out just outside the entry of the conference rooms – or in the lobby – while programs are in session? They know a secret that it has taken them a career to learn and that I will share with you right now: the programs are the least important part of the convention. It is whom you meet or see going in or out of the programs that matters.” (read more here)

But who should you talk to? What events should you attend? How do you strike up a conversation? Here are 4 tips for building your own profitable and fulfilling network that will form the foundation of your successful practice.

  1. Volunteer for a national, state, province, or local committee – the AIA has various committees and knowledge groups that are managed by volunteer architects. These men and women are fun people with deep networks who know the value of relationships. Start by getting to know them and giving them value. If you aren't currently serving on a committee, seek out these people, introduce yourself, and give them value.
  2. Give value to those you meet – there are various ways to give value to those you meet. Think about who else in your network they would like to meet and introduce them. Connect with them on social media and help them build their network. The value you can add will depend on the individual so you need to think deeply about who the person is and how you can help them.
  3. Never eat alone – ask what the people you are meeting are doing throughout the conference to identify the events you should attend. Make each meal count by eating with your new colleagues and friends.
  4. Have a follow-up system – collect the business cards of those you meet (notice I didn't say “hand out cards to those you meet”). When you get back to your hotel room that night send them a little note and connect with them on LinkedIn, Twitter or another social media platform. Put a note in your calendar to follow up with them in a few weeks and be on the look out for ways to add value to their life.

The steps to forming a profitable network are simple but take time and effort. And the rewards will be far beyond financial. The friendships you form will be key in having a long and fulfilling life. A strong network is definitely one of the top keys to having a steady flow of good projects come through the office.




Enoch Bartlett Sears is the founder of the Architect Business Institute, Business of Architecture and co-founder of the Architect Marketing Institute. He helps architects become category leaders in their market. Enoch hosts the #1 rated interview podcast for architects, the Business of Architecture Show where prominent guests like M. Arthur Gensler, Jr. and Thom Mayne share tips and strategies for success in architecture.

7 Responses

  1. While developing industry contacts has a certain amount of value, I’m not sure many of the clients I want to meet go to architects conventions. If I really want to build my business network I should probably be spending my time at the conventions my clients go to. Those are the people I want to add value to.

  2. Great article post about networking. I especially like your #3 point. It’s amazing how many people eat lunch alone – what a perfect opportunity to network. We tweeted your post on our site!

    We recently launched a website in Chicago called Unlike other sites, we promote one-on-one professional networking based on your profile and who you want to meet. We’ll even suggest restaurants to have a coffee, breakfast, or lunch.

  3. This has been at the core of how I’ve developed my business. However, it doesn’t come easy and many of these suggestions are difficult for many of us to do. I find it uncomfortable to be in a large crowd in a social setting, yet I really enjoy talking one on one with a new person. I also feel that the person trying to network with me has an ulterior motive and I wonder if they think I do too.

    I just like to talk to people because their stories and backgrounds are interesting. There needs to be more said about making these connections (especially at a huge setting like a convention) than just “walk up to someone and ask them to lunch” or as Randy put it “strike up a conversation.” “Suck it up” or “just do it” is not sage advice for many who are not gregarious by nature.

    After hours socializing is even worse for some of us. I don’t drink and am uncomfortable being around people who think of alcohol the way they did in college. I’d rather be in a casual restaurant than a bar and I’d rather be with people who happen to have a drink than those who can’t wait to get their fill.

    It is far easier for me to get to know people by working side by side on committees and similar situations where something is connecting us. We can talk confidently about things we know (I.e. the purpose of the committee) and then as we get to know each other from that point of view, when we talk socially, some of the barriers have come down.

    I went to the AIA Convention in 2004 in Chicago and found it to be a miserable experience overall. I kept busy during the day with seminars and the committee for which lead me there. But only one person invited me to go somewhere later and that was …drinking with…strangers. No one offered lunch or coffee or some other sober setting. Perhaps going alone was a mistake.

  4. “The Secret to Building a Profitable Business Network”
    I think that much of what you stated above is true. Though on this side of the Atlantic we have experienced much previously with some of your US peers coming over and trying to use our contacts to advance their business interests. But this is not central to what I wanted to contribute to the discussion.

    I believe the purpose of networks is to try to put people in touch with others of mutual interest in order that they might do business together.

    A few years ago I worked with a younger architect-project manager in a large UK architectural practice. We both moved-on. I bumped into him a few months ago at a London airport. He is now a programme manager for a healthcare Trust. As we discussed his new role, he mentioned the difficulties in trying to interest the bigger UK architectural practices who were chasing him for inclusion on the Trust’s framework contracts, in doing the small scale work that comprises the biggest tranche of his investment work. I was able to put him in touch with another architect in my network who is only interested in the small scale projects – ward refits, new clinical facilities etc.

    He was pleased to discuss this with my other architect colleague, especially as the framework agreements are currently being re-negotiated. I was not looking to gain from this action, just trying to do a good turn for two ex-colleagues with whom I enjoyed working with in the past.

    Now, we can all do this; and I’m looking through my network of contacts many disparate backgrounds, trying to broker new relationships between them. We can all make a difference, however small.

    If you and your AIA colleagues are interested in another initiative taking shape here in the UK, have a look at Gabrielle Omar’s website ‘Tea with an Architect’ and see if it is a formula that could work for you.

    Well, Enoch, it’s always good to share ideas with you and your colleagues in the US. Keep-up the good work of motivating architects to build better business. This world needs us – despite trying to devalue the important contribution we architects make to society.

  5. Dear Enoch,
    The comment area here is using a very small font, 6pix or so. Is there a way to change that? Thanks

  6. I like the small practice group on the AIA site. There are a couple of architecs that are very interesting and practice in similar ways as I do. Check it out. I am also involved with a real estate investment club and BNI in rhinebeck. all valuable for face to face meeting and gathering contacts.

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