Freelance commercial copywriter Dalton Griner moved to Western North Carolina more than two years ago, figuring he’d settle in “these amazing mountains” to inspire and energize his writing. Flush with contract work from a handful of small national firms, Griner envisioned an idyllic life spent working at his computer at night while spending his days exploring the natural wonders surrounding his new home outside Cashiers.
He didn’t stay long.
His contracts eventually dried up for various reasons beyond his control, and new gigs proved scarce—especially the kind that had given him an annual income averaging around $70,000 in good years. Never having had to truly market himself or build a local network of clients, Griner felt lost. Suddenly his mountain home seemed a million miles away from the world that had provided his sustenance. Panic set in.
“So I left—poof, just like that,” he recalled by phone from the Washington, D.C., metro area. “I had to get back where I knew I could find work that I wanted and that paid well,” he added, having escaped from that area when he moved down here, after living there since 1989. “Truthfully, I had usually always gotten by on luck and good timing. A gig with one client usually would lead to another without me having to do too much. Back in North Carolina I was just coasting, and when things went sour I had nobody really to fall back on. And locally, [WNC] just doesn’t have enough corporate clients. Cold-calling in Atlanta and Charlotte didn’t pan out, because I had no network there and both areas are highly competitive for independents like me. I had some contacts in other cities, of course, but I never really had to cultivate them. So aside from them putting in a good word, there really was no good reason for them to really fight for me. The few offers I got required me to relocate to places I just didn’t want to be.”
The lesson: Whether you’re a freelancer, an entrepreneur or a small-business owner, your level of success will always be highly dependent on the network you build, he maintains.
“I spend about three-quarters of my time now on personal marketing,” says Griner, who’s now at work on two decent-paying contracts. “The main thing I’ve learned is to get my name out there wherever I can and build mutually beneficial relationships with people in my field and just generally in the corporate world. I’ve started to join a bunch of groups and organizations to help get recognized. And even though my girlfriend laughs at me, I’m now the proud owner of a sleeve of nifty business cards. I never had them before … believe it or not. Now I never leave home without them, even if I’m just going to the grocery store or something. My next step is to try and start building an online presence for myself. I’ve been old-school, and lazy, long enough.”
What Griner didn’t know when he was here is that there are actually quite a few ways for newbies and others to build a local network. Plus, there’s been an explosion of online networking sites that can give your personal marketing efforts a national reach. In addition to MySpace and Facebook, specific business sites include such dotcoms as Ryze, Biznik, LinkedIn and Fastpitch Networking.
But to help build a face-to-face network, here’s a taste of what’s around locally:
• Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce: Perhaps the granddaddy of all networking opportunities, the Chamber hosts weekly events for members through its Business Before Hours and Business After Hours programs. Information: www.ashevillechamber.org.
• Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council: BREC creates and runs multiple networking and mentoring events year round so members can share ideas and contacts. Speakers at these monthly events have included Matthew Szulik, CEO of Red Hat Software; Tom Fisher, vice president of information technology at Qualcomm and former vice president of technology for both eBay and Gateway; and Kathy White, president of Rural Sourcing Inc. and former CIO of Cardinal Health Inc. BREC also hosts networking events such as Speed Dating for Business, Improve Your Elevator Speech and Demystifying Web Marketing. Information: www.brecnc.com.
• Fletcher Area Business Association: Holds networking events throughout the year, and your business doesn’t even have to be in Fletcher in order to join. “The only requirement is to have fun!” according to the group’s Web site. Information: www.fletcherbusiness.org.
• West Asheville Business Association: You do have to be a West Asheville-based business to join this group. Events alternate between social gatherings, networking dinners and informational programs throughout the year. Information: www.west-asheville.com.
• The Young Professionals of Asheville: The group says it helps members by providing opportunities for business networking, personal growth, leadership development and social interaction. They help the Asheville community by volunteering their time for various projects. YPA members are involved with the ABCCM Men’s Shelter and assorted other civic organizations on a regular basis and have many social functions throughout the year. Meetings and activities are usually held at least twice a month. Information: www.ypasheville.org.
• Asheville Freelance Network: AFN is an informal group of creative, independent professionals in writing, design, photography and related fields. The group’s mission is to provide support and networking opportunities for its members and to promote their services through the Web site. More than 30 writers, editors, photographers, designers and other independent professionals from Buncombe and nearby counties get together on a quarterly basis for informal networking and socializing. Information: main.nc.us/afn/home.htm.
• Business Network International of Carolina: BNI has chapters all over the world, including Asheville. The organization is built upon creating business referrals and has numerous events throughout the year. The only caveat: Each chapter takes only one person per professional specialty, to increase the amount of referrals that person gets. If your specific niche is already represented, you’ll have to find another chapter, or create your own using BNI’s system. Information: www.bniconnection.com/index.php?region_id=2.