THE PROBLEM: Acquiring clients and finding employees on a limited budget
THE PRACTICE: Relentless networking and community involvement
THE PAYOFF: Referrals aplenty

We've all heard it or said it: "It's not what you know, it's who you know." But for some smart company builders, the key to success actually lies in both whom they know and what they know.

Take Caroline Drakeley, for instance. Cofounder of InfoPros (#165), an IT-consulting firm based in Citrus Heights, Calif., Drakeley had two good reasons for wanting to join the board of the International Association of Business Communicators in Sacramento (IABC-Sacramento). She thought it would not only give her a chance to share her expertise with members of her business community but also help her build her network of business contacts in ways that mere membership in the IABC-Sacramento couldn't.

She was right on both counts. Once voted in as the association's Webmaster, Drakeley redesigned the IABC-Sacramento Web site -- thereby assisting the association as well as her own company, which reaped more than $300,000 in business from referrals and from board members in need of similar services.

"From every speaking engagement we get at least one client. That's a given. Sometimes we'll get five."

--Caroline Drakeley

Drakeley and her business partner, Anne Marie Smith, adopted a networking strategy early in their cash-strapped start-up days. Whereas many CEOs join associations, and others speak or teach to build credibility in their fields, the cofounders felt they had little choice but to do it all. "We didn't have money to spend on buying ads," Smith recalls.

Drakeley and Smith belong to only five associations, including the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), the Society for Technical Communication (STC), and the aforementioned IABC-Sacramento. But of those, they are the president of one and past-president of another, and together they have spent at least nine years on the board of STC. The payoff? More than $1 million in business last year from STC contacts alone.

The partners also teach Internet- or business-related classes at two university extension schools -- the University of California, Davis, and California State University Sacramento -- and at least one of them will speak at a conference or association meeting each month. "From every speaking engagement we get at least one client," Drakeley says. "That's a given. Sometimes we'll get five." The point is, she says, "we're hitting our target market. Within 45 minutes we reach more people than we could ever hit by sending out a direct mail or cold calling."

Drakeley and Smith don't network and teach just to find new clients. More than 11% of InfoPros' employees are culled from the partners' classes and the presentations they make; and they have met important consultants, such as their labor lawyer and financial planner, through their affiliations with organizations such as NAWBO.

Attracting business the Smith-Drakeley way, however, is nothing if not time-consuming. Preparing for and presenting monthly speaking engagements, creating new course material, preparing for classroom teaching, attending board meetings, and pitching associations and conferences can require as many as 20 hours a month for each partner, on top of her regular work schedule.

"We definitely put a lot of time into all of these things, but that's because we do see a big payoff," Drakeley says -- a payoff Smith estimates is worth at least 50% of their business.


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