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7 steps to success (without the need for formal networking!)

The lack of “networking” won’t stop you from building a great business – but you will need to be totally honest with yourself and develop a series of ground rules to make things work.

Networking groups just simply aren’t for me. Someone once told me that “networking is just like dating” – the problem is I wasn’t great at that either. I only met my wife because a good friend was dating her sister and we met by chance while they were together – so she was a “warm referral”, so to speak!

It’s not stopped me building a great business – but I’ve needed to be totally honest with myself and develop a series of ground rules to make things work. I’m not a salesperson or a sales trainer, and I found it very hard to find one who could help me with the development of our business without techniques, which to be honest, simply weren’t working for us.

I tend to find that there are a lot of sales trainers are a lot like accountants and IP lawyers – they’re bloody amazing at what they do (teaching you sales skills), but they often can’t tell you if you’re selling the RIGHT thing. There are a few exceptions who I know well, so apologies to you guys in advance… But generally, you can become the best salesperson in the world, but if people don’t want what you’re selling, you’re screwed.

“The recent Coronavirus pandemic is going to change the way a lot of people operate. Those in competitive markets and around the breakeven fringe will have to reassess how they find clients.”

So if you’re into your networking and get a good return on your time invested (be totally honest with yourself!) then this blog probably isn’t for you. In fact, you’ll probably hate it. But, if you’re having the problems I was having, then I hope you will find this useful.



Taking the dating analogy further, there are a lot of commonalities. I’m no dating expert, but I’ve heard that the longest lasting relationships come from introductions from people you know. Sure, people live for and from the proverbial one night stands (in commercial terms this would be a transactional sale as opposed to a consultative sale), but they’re not for everyone. This is why, before embarking on your business journey, it’s worth knowing more about you, your offering and what you’re seeking from business – and who can really help you

Back to my circumstances, I’m not great socially with people I don’t know. If I’ve been introduced to someone or we’ve got an arranged meeting, I’m comfortable (possibly because I know they have agreed to meet me and I’m the focus of their attention). But in a group – or if I have to approach an individual I don’t yet know – I wither. I’m the one who wanders around at big events, not knowing who to speak to.

“I tried a few networking groups and met a few great people, but the whole scene just wasn’t for me. I thought I was just a “social freak” and terrible at speaking to people – but the truth was I just wasn’t in the right place.”


Why did I feel comfortable around 150 people networking at Daresbury Science & Innovation Centre but alienated around 20 at BNI? We’ll come to this later. I made a few friends, but my commercial return on investment over time was probably about zero. Honestly. But that’s not just down to me – it was more down to having a product / service that the other people I was speaking to either didn’t understand, or didn’t want. It simply wasn’t working for me.

So enough of the background and on to the content. I’m going to present the 7 points that led to us developing a successful business.


Point 1: Pick your hunting ground – Red or Blue.

The first point is based on the Blue Ocean Strategy. In a nutshell, you’ve got to choose a strategy based on your product / service. Blue Ocean Strategy is a marketing philosophy devised in 2004 by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. It’s pretty simple, and the only “right or wrong” is selecting the wrong ocean for your offering.

The red ocean is full of competition. If you decide to swim here, you have decided to compete in a crowded marketplace and beat the competition through (for example) a slight differentiation in your offering, a superior quality, better value or simply a lower cost. It’s called “Red Ocean” because cutthroat completion makes the water a bloody red colour. Those who thrive in the Red Ocean are either brilliant at what they do, or very good in making people think they’re brilliant at what they do – and the latter isn’t a good long term strategy. More about this later, too.

The blue ocean is an empty sea. It is an uncontested marketplace where the competition is irrelevant with respect to your offering. You can create and capture new demand where the cost-quality trade off (value) is less relevant due to the lack of alternative options – clients naturally expect quality, but superior profit margins are more achievable. The blue ocean is vast and deep with opportunity.

“The obvious solution is to aim for the blue ocean – but not everybody has an offering which is sufficiently unique in the marketplace. This results in them having to swim in the red ocean, and fight for leads and business.”


There’s always someone calling their client offering an alternative option, lower price or something else to turn their eye.

This is also where the majority of networking groups find their perfect clientele – people searching for that competitive advantage, that extra referral which will make a difference. Many of these networking groups don’t survive on quality – it’s a “first through the door” system, where 2 people offering the same solutions are not permitted to be in the same group.

That’s not for me – I’m not in it to get lost in a race to the bottom. I needed to develop an offering which was so unique that it had little competition. We could then focus on blowing our competition away by offering something which was better than what they had. The last bit was the easiest – rather than selling what we had, we spent time learning what the client wanted and developed that as our core proposition.

My key point if you are stuck in the Red Ocean, is to prepare yourself for a fight which is never going to ease up. Some people relish this – but not me.


Point 2: Confidence is NOT a substitute for competence. 

Confidence trainers are great for those who lack a little confidence in talking, meeting, presenting or need a little more self belief. What what gets my wick is when these people tell you that “they can turn around your business in x days”. Want to know my little secret? That’s one of the most bullshitty things I’ve ever heard. They can’t.

At least, it is in many cases. How can someone turn around your business without knowing what you do, what your competition is doing, and what your prospective clients want? That’s got absolutely nothing to do with confidence – it’s to do with competence, or how good your offering is.

“A while back, someone called me to offer their services. He told me “I make people think that you’re THE best there is”. In all honesty, if people chose to believe that, it should be because it’s correct.”


It might be the honest truth that you’re not selling, because your offering isn’t good enough. If that is the case, selling a sub-standard product by telling people it’s better than it is, is little more than fraud. How would you feel if you bought something that was different to what was shown on the box?

Rather than spending time and money learning how to market yourself as the best, firstly develop your proposition to become unique and the best. Or at least, align it perfectly with what your client base wants, and then sell it to them by telling them the truth.

Confidence IS important, as long as it sits alongside a competent offering.


Point 3: Understand your client types

Who do you sell to? Who can you help? Who wants something that you offer? Do you sell straight to your end user or can you access them via intermediaries with less effort?

Points 2 and 3 are a bit chickeny – eggy. Do you develop something and then search for your clients, or find clients and satisfy their needs? The truth here is that they’re pretty much simultaneous. In the early days, you’ve going to have an offering which you THINK is right for a specific target marketplace. Then, as you speak to more people and undertones their needs you’re going to adapt, develop and evolve your offering so it does meet that unmet requirement which hopefully directs you to bluer waters.

The key thing here is that as you develop your client base, you may find that you have several “set of clients”. Let’s assume that your offering is perfectly suited to company (or person) “A”. You may choose to market directly to “A”, but equally, you may find places that are awash with people and companies like “A”s, and all you need to do is develop a relationship to work with them.

To coin a really simple example, if you had an airport taxi service, would you be better off targeting holidaymakers directly or working through a travel agent who refers your services? That’s not an either / or answer. You may target holidaymakers directly and keep a higher profit (as you won’t have referral fees for the travel agent) but equally you can develop a “bread and butter service” through travel agents who act as referral parties. They want your services for a lower cost (as they often need to top-skim a profit too) but it’s good basic business. It may even be the case that if you can upsell their holidays to your standard clients, you’ll receive a referral payment in return.

Capturing information like this is best done on a Business Model Canvas – if you’ve never heard about this, stop now, google it (or use youtube – plenty of examples…), learn a little about it and then come back. You won’t regret it.


Point 4: Identify the different relationships you need with your clients

Again, this is where your Business Model Canvas comes in handy. Define the types of relationship that you’ll have with your customers in order to optimise the energy you put in to developing these relationships.

Another thing that frustrates the hell out of me (yes, there’s a long list…) is people comparing a sales message to a request for sex. If I tell you what I do, I’m not trying to sleep with you. Sure, I get that the point that you shouldn’t “just jump straight in with the sell in the same way you wouldn’t propose on a first date” – but equally, not every product is based on having a strong relationship. For example, do you demand intimate details of your local shop assistant before you buy a loaf of bread?

“Sales trainers and LinkedIn trainers have created an environment where people are scared to just ask for what they want.”


The best LinkedIn invite I received simply said “Hi, I looked at your profile and I think I have something that can help you. Do you mind if I send you details?”. Polite yet straight to the point. Didn’t ask me for a slot in my diary for a phone call (I REALLY hate that!), and didn’t pretend to want to be my best buddy before dropping the sales pitch.

WIth respect to our main clients (i.e. the “end users”), they come to us. We simply tell them the deal and they either purchase or they don’t. Bearing that in mind, I don’t need to invest great amounts of time developing a relationship with them (yet) – I’ll do that once they’re on board. I do spend time with them before “the sell” if I like their proposition but it needs a little development. That shows I WANT this person as a client, and I’m giving them a little help (at no cost) to get them to the point where our offerings are right for each other.

I have a totally different relationship with the people who refer in to us. I spend time talking to them to help them understand what we’re looking for in a client, and to help their clients get to the point where we can be of assistance to them. This way we have a small number of close relationships where we have a constant stream of high quality applicants for our programme.

Much of this goes back to the Red Ocean – Blue Ocean conundrum. How hard do you have to fight to secure a client? What’s your competition? As we chose the Blue Ocean, we don’t have to push hard – the client makes a quick decision to purchase from us without any pressure, as we’ve spent time making the decision easy for them by designing a programme which directly fits their needs.


Point 5: Understand clustering. Where do your clients hang out?

This one took a while to sink in, and only came to me as I’ve had experience working in, and with, companies from sole traders to multi-national manufacturers.

“Have you noticed that you never (or at least, very rarely) get big multinational companies at networking sessions? The reason for this is simple – businesses cluster in similar groupings.” 


Imagine 4 pots. In one, place the companies with 1-10 people. In the second, place your companies with 10-50 people. In the third, place your companies with 50-250 people. Finally, in the last pot place all of the companies with 250 people+. What you’ve just done is sort your businesses into the standard categories recognised within business – micro, small, medium and large.

Now here’s the key point – most of them network with each other. So, micro companies tend to (most often) intermingle with each other, and try to do business with each other. The challenge is that budgets tend to be low and there’s an extremely high amount of competition. You really are deep in the Red Ocean. The secret to success here, is to try and creep into the next pot up. You may be out of your depth, but if your skill and will is right, you can crack it.

There is an alternative strategy – stop swimming where all of the other predators are. Can you find a way to target clients who aren’t targeted by the other fish in your pond? Where do the quiet clients hang out?

The last point here is to make sure you’re swimming in the RIGHT pool. As well as the traditional Blue Ocean and Red Ocean, I often talk about an ocean that I’ve found exists – the Grey Ocean.

“The Grey Ocean is where fish may be unique, but are also lost – they just don’t know it yet. They’re swimming around looking for food, but they’re in the wrong place. No one wants what they have (maybe others simply don’t – or don’t want to – understand what they’re offering), and they become irrelevant.” 


If you’re in the Grey Ocean, get out now. I’ve been there, which is why I left the main networking groups I was in. You have to put yourself in the right place at the right time. Don’t waste time being in the wrong places – there is no right time to be there. You’ll die of commercial starvation.


Point 6: Find your personal sales strengths 

While I may have slated sales trainers a little, I’ve also said before many are damn good at what they do. While they may or may not change or save your business, you should learn the basic skills from a good one because they will come in handy whichever path you choose to take.

Everyone needs to know the basics of “selling” – and work around their strengths and weaknesses. I was terrified of lead generation – I hated phoning people I didn’t know, emailing people I didn’t know and having to have a potential “sales conversation”. Prospective trainers kept saying “You’re not selling to them, you’re just talking to them to find out how you can help them” – but that didn’t help me. I knew that they knew a sales message would come sooner or later, and this was the real reason I was phoning them.

“Sales trainers would say to me “you’re just thinking about it the wrong way” – and they were right – but a lot of us can’t change the way we think.”


Everyone has a personality type, a lot of which is pretty much set in stone. There’s stuff you excel at, stuff you can develop and learn, but some stuff that you’ll never be comfortable with. Sales trainers often take for granted the skills they have in training, as it is an art. They have a mindset and a resilience that not everybody has.

You’ve got a choice – live with the fact that you have to do stuff you’re not comfortable with, or do what I did – find another way to make it happen.

We were “lucky” enough to come across a great opportunity, thought a combination of serendipity and being in the right place, at the right time, with the right person (again, I’ll talk about this later). We still had to work for it – but we saw the opportunity, researched the marketplace, found an unmet need and developed a proposition to meet that need. We’re now at a point where with little marketing budget and effort, clients come to us.

We do invest a little in marketing (primarily our own networking events) but these are OUR events pitching what WE want at WHO we want, aimed at helping develop relationship with our referral partners. This is because their support is so valuable to us, and vice versa.

I learned that what I hated wasn’t sales, but lead generation. Now I’ve cracked that nut, I love our “sales process”. All we do is send our prospective clients information about what we do, answer any questions they have, and help them develop an application for our programme if they need help. Again, the secret was in developing a flexible programme which fits their precise needs.

Occasionally we get a question asking if we’ll lower our price. The answer is always “No, sorry” (as we see it as disrespectful to our clients who are paying the standard price) – but we often negotiate. This may involve changing the payment terms over a different time period, or exchanging some of the fee for equity.

It’s important to think about your pricing strategy. We don’t reduce our price because we’ve pitched it at a point where it’s fair to our clients, and we know the benefit they receive will way exceed the cost. Sadly, we can’t satisfy everyone who wants to come on the programme – so we put our total effort into carefully selecting the right clients and totally satisfy them.


Point 7: Eliminate, Reduce, Raise, Create

This, for me, is the key takeaway point. It’s obvious – but many of us simply don’t do it. It’s a derivative of W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strateagy which allows you to optimise your working time.

“A lot of people pay lip service to time management, but it really is the golden nugget which drives your productivity.”


Put simply, think about what you do in a day – it’s probably a mix of client work, prospective meetings, occasional coffee meetings with other business people, travel, maybe networking sessions (if that’s your thing), a bit of social media, and so on. Be honest with yourself too – do you flip on social media for non-work purposes? Do you grab a coffee with old friends and colleagues for nothing more than a natter?

If that rings a bell, then around 50% (or less) of your week is probably bringing money in, or lining us prospective clients. The other 50%, in harsh business terms, is wasted. You may call it prospecting – but is it really making a return on your time investment?

At the start of a week, list everything you’d like to achieve in that week. Then, as the week goes on keep a diary of what you’ve spent your working time doing. When you get to the end of the week, sort everything you did under the following headings:

Eliminate: These are the tasks which do not contribute to your revenue or strong prospects. It’s the stuff that you’ve got to STOP immediately. You’re stealing time – and hence money – from yourself.

Reduce: These are the tasks which you cannot eliminate, but you can certainly do less of. For example, do you really need to go to meet that person, or would a phone call do?

Raise: What worked well for you, and you think you should do more of? I’m not talking about what you enjoyed, but what delivered a return in terms of what matters – new clients, revenue, better profit, etc.

Create: What did you want to do, but find that you were unable to do altogether? These are the things that you need to start doing. If it’s not happening or you can make it better / faster, then make it happen.

While it sounds obvious, this is the impact that it had on us:

  • There was a time when I went to 3 or 4 networking meetings a week. This took 3 hours a day from my diary. While many are early hours, lunchtime or promoted as “minimising time outside the working day”, it’s till time where you can be doing other things. This saved me around 10 hours a week.
  • If someone wanted a meeting, I’d meet them in the hope that it would (ultimately) lead to business. They often had the same objective. I was having 2 or 3 such meetings a week, which tended to take half a day (including travel). I eliminated the totally speculative meetings, reduced the “more dubious” ones and replaced many with phone calls. This saved me another 10 hours+ a week.
  • I spent a little time investigating our RoI on social media time. As a result, I significantly reduced my time on social media marketing – while it’s ideal for some, it wasn’t our best route to market. This saved me around 10 hours a week.
  • This gave me around 30 hours a week to re-invest in the things that mattered. Many nights I was working until silly times in the morning as I was desperate to make things work, so the first think I raised was my sleep and family time. That made me sharper in my working hours.
  • I then focused on the “meetings that matter”, and this is what changed our business. It took us from a place where around 90% of our time was on lead generation, to a place where we now spend around 10% on lead generation.
  • We needed to get a group of people together to identify and engage with new referral partners. We realised that our main business was not in the North West, but in London so we arranged a networking and information session. It was well attended, and we now have a greater source of effective, high quality lead generation.

It’s important to still meet the people who you don’t currently work with – but pick your meetings wisely. There are 3 moments which changed our business, all of which have come from such meetings. In one case we were made aware of funding for training which helped us launch our training offering into the marketplace. In the second case, a meeting with an old colleague led to us developing a new service which bridged the gap from where we were, to where we are now. More recently, another chance meeting with someone (initially to discuss training) led to a whole new service which has rocketed our business forward.

Sometimes, I think how lucky we were to have agreed to go to those meetings at that time – and then I realise it’s more than luck. It’s about choosing your meetings wisely – you’re more likely to be “lucky” if you put yourself in the right place at the right time. The chance of this increases if you stop wasting valuable time being in the wrong place, and remember, there’s NO right time to be there.



You do need to network, but this doesn’t necessarily mean networking meetings.

You do need to sell, but this doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a top salesperson.

The world is going to change, and the Red Ocean is going to become a lot redder. The strongest will feed from the weakest, and there will be hard times ahead. But now is the time to think about what you do, define your path ahead, and drive forward.

Remember our 6 key points:

Point 1: Pick your hunting ground – Red or Blue.

Point 2: Confidence is NOT a substitute for competence. 

Point 3: Understand your client types

Point 4: Identify the different relationships you need with your clients

Point 5: Understand clustering. Where do your clients hang out?

Point 6: Find your personal sales strengths 

Point 7: Eliminate, Reduce, Raise, Create

This maximises your chance of success. Create a plan, check it’s appropriate and get out there and do it. The thing that I’ve got out it is a better business, more family time and a better sleep – which is pretty much what I define as success.

Richard Harrison