I happen to think that local networking groups are one of the most effective ways for small businesses with a tight marketing budget to rapidly grow their customer base. It’s certainly been the experience for me, and if growing your business is a goal for you this year, I hope you will consider trying it also.
The group I’m currently a member of is an independent group called Network NRV, serving the New River Valley economic region of Virginia. Rather than simply tell you about my own experiences with Network NRV, I thought it would be a little more interesting if you heard about the group from one of the founding members, Charlie Whitescarver from Whitescarver Photography LLC.
Charlie is one of the top commercial photographers in the area, specializing in Real Estate photography, professional portraits, and event photography. He and two other local business owners started Network NRV several years ago, and since that time it has grown to 28 members. In our interview, Charlie talks about how starting the group has benefited him and gives some tips about how to get a group like this one started.
Use the player below to listen to my interview with Charlie, or scroll down for a complete transcript of the interview.
Charlie, welcome to the podcast.
Charlie: Well, thanks for calling, Kevin. I’m glad to be here.
Kevin: To get started, why don’t you just tell us a little bit about Network NRV, what it is, what’s the format, a little bit of the history and that kind of thing?
Charlie: Well, Network NRV was started by myself and two others, Terri Welch and Sarah B. Jones, and each one of us in our way did … we have our own businesses, we’re independent businesspeople. We work for ourselves, and I guess we were a little bit frustrated with some of the other groups that we had joined. You know, part of that was not seeing a lot of commitment on some people that wanted to be in the groups, and so we got together several times and decided that, well, let’s just start our own group.
Part of that was based on all of our businesses depended on getting customers from a pretty large geographic area, the entire New River Valley. You know, it includes Giles and Pulaski and Floyd, and then Montgomery County. It’s difficult … or I should say it’s expensive … if you wanted to join all those chambers of commerce, so we decided let’s start our own group, and our purpose would be to create opportunities for us to share information that could help us grow our businesses, and at the same time benefit the community.
At first we thought, “Well, let’s just make a group and let’s make it free, there’s no membership,” and then we decided that, well, if people don’t have a little tiny bit of buy-in, they’re not going to take it seriously, so we decided on, hey, 50 bucks a year, which we thought anybody could afford. We also decided that any money we collect will only be spent locally, and if we have any extra money, we’re going to give it to community organizations. If you were a non-profit, there was no membership fee, and we welcomed them all. Every year we give away approximately half of our treasury … which never really amounts to much … to a non-profit that’s decided on by the membership.
Currently we have about 28 members. We meet twice a month, the first and third Thursdays of the month, in the morning at 8:45 at a local coffee shop call Mockingbird Cafe, and our meetings are … well, they last an hour. We realize that everybody’s time is valuable, but we want people to come early, network, meet people. We give everybody an opportunity to go around the table and you get a 30-second introduction, and you can say anything you want. Then we have a member spotlight, where we have a rotation where every member gets to talk for 10 minutes about their business.
Then also every member gets a 10-minute time to talk about some educational topic, which helps them to demonstrate their expertise, and it doesn’t really have to be about their business. It could be something that they’re passionately interested in elsewhere in the community. Then we spend the rest of the time talking about networking opportunities that we can all benefit from. We talk about, okay, what chamber is having a mixer, what organization might be having a fundraiser, where is there an educational opportunity that might be interesting.
That’s what we’re about, and I’ll read to you our objective. “Network NRV is a networking and referral group meeting twice monthly in Christiansburg, following the premise that a rising tide raises all ships. We strive to support New River Valley businesses, businesspeople and non-profit organizations through education and collaboration,” and that’s what we’re about. One of the questions we get is can anybody be a member, and the answer is yes, anybody can be a member. We’re not exclusive at all.
Kevin: I want to make a couple of distinctions … or I guess I should say follow-up questions … about the format of the group, because I think immediately, based on your description, a lot of people might think of say like a BNI or [kepper 04:17], you know, those types of groups, but there’s one key difference between Network NRV and those groups, and that’s that you do allow competing businesses to both be members. What was your decision to not make it exclusive, and how has that worked out?
Charlie: Well, we decided that being exclusive was not really beneficial to the membership as a whole. I’ll give you an example, because there’s a lot of Realtors in the area, there’s a lot of insurance agents in the area, there is a lot of graphic designers in the area. You know, there’s a number of lawn care companies. Everybody is out there, and what we decided was, okay, what if we had multiple people from the same profession wanting to join? Well, why not, because not everybody is a good fit for everybody else. There’s a lot of restaurants, but I don’t go to the same one every time I go out to eat.
You know, it’s that kind of thing, so we decided that you join the group, there’s no exclusivity. If the group is not for you for one reason or another, then, okay, don’t stay. It’s up to the individual, not up to the group, to decide who gets to be in the group, so whether the individual wants to be a part of it or not.
Kevin: At first I have to admit I was kind of skeptical of that idea, that you were going to … when I joined the group … allow multiple people from the same profession, but after a while I noticed this sort of interesting phenomenon, and that was that people kind of self-selected whether or not they would participate, based on who else was in the group. In other words, there have been times where we’ve had multiple insurance agents or multiple people from say marketing or whatever, but it ends up being this one person who stays really committed, and I think eventually their competitors realize that if they’re not going to have that level of commitment, there’s no point in them even showing up. It’s actually kind of ended up that … and correct me if I’m wrong … but right now we really do, for the most part, just have one person from each profession, I think.
Charlie: Well, we do have two insurance agents, and they actually decided to collaborate and work together.
Kevin: Exactly. They’re now working together, based on the fact that they were both in this group, which is also a nice thing.
Charlie: Yeah. At times we’ve had more than one Realtor, and it turns out that the Realtors were all from the same broker, so they were already working together. You know, it’s just one of those things. It’s an individual choice. I’m a photographer, and if I join a group and there’s other photographers, one of the things that will always come to the forefront is that, hey, we have specialties, different things we like to do, different things we excel at. I mean, I don’t do weddings, so I refer weddings out to other people who I know do them, and that’s what they like to do.
You know, everybody’s got a specialty. I had … we used to have some carpet-cleaning companies, and actually their businesses got so big they just couldn’t keep coming, but they stay in touch, which I think is good. I feel like it ought to be an individual choice whether you stay in the group or not, as opposed to a group choice saying you can be a member or not.
Kevin: Yeah, and I think it’s worked pretty well. The people who want to grow their businesses are motivated and show up all the time and actively participate, and when they don’t have the motivation anymore, they don’t. That’s kind of there’s a selection process. It takes care of itself.
Charlie: Yeah. One of the things I’d like to point out about our group is, you know, membership dues aren’t much, just $50, but all that money … we don’t have any paid staff. All of our leadership is volunteer. We have a Facebook page, we have emails that go out about every two weeks, mostly meeting reminders. We network with each other on a private Facebook page. We encourage members to get with other members and learn more about their business.
How it’s helped me is I’ve learned about things that are available, resources in the New River Valley that have helped my business, through my connections, through my networking with other people. I’ve learned about opportunities where I can help the community free or get better, through members like NRV CARES, which a member, United Way, which is a member. You know, it’s not about … well, I’ll go back to it’s a rising tide raises all ships. The more we all know, the more we all get involved, the more we help each other, the better off we’re all going to be.
Kevin: Exactly. You mentioned a couple ways the group’s benefited you, but I want to talk specifically about your business and the business that you’ve gotten as a result of the group. I mean, this is a marketing podcast. The people who listen to this of course are interested in growing their business, so we want to make sure that they understand how groups like this … or if they’re in this area … how this group specifically could help them. Talk a little bit about customers and revenue and things like that, that you’ve gotten as a direct result of forming this group and especially being the leader of the group.
Charlie: Well, I appreciate you calling me the leader of the group. I was just the leader one year. I was a founding member, and actually I’ve been the treasurer, I’ve been the Cool Cat Communicator, but how it’s benefited me. The people in that group, some that have left, have referred me to customers or given me leads, you know, specifically that have resulted in money, business, which they’ve also helped me find, I’m going to say, resources which I didn’t know existed. That just makes my business stronger. A good example would be banks, okay? I know more about what some of the local banks can offer to small businesses in terms of, okay, checking accounts, credit card processing fees, things like that.
I also, through my connections with Network NRV, am able to help my clients find resources. In other words, okay, so I photographed a family, and the family says, “Hey, do you know somebody that can help us with yardwork?” Well, yeah, I do. “Do you know somebody, a good insurance agent?” Well, yes, I do. “Well, we’re going to move, do you know a real estate agent?” Well, yes, I do. I guess you call it a sphere of influence. That was a term I learned years ago. It helped me expand my sphere of influence, so that not only does it help my business, but it helps me be more knowledgeable about how I can help my clients with other things.
Kevin: Exactly, and that’s important because that keeps people coming back to you and keeps you top of mind. I certainly see you as a resource myself, being new to this area, because of what you just said, and I’ve also hired you as a photographer for myself and for one of my clients. I think that’s proof right there, that this concept of smaller, tight-knit networking communities does work.
Charlie: Yeah, and it spills over too. I’ve gotten business in the Roanoke area because of people that I know in the New River Valley. The key to business success, I believe, one of them, is, you know, do a good job. Exceed the expectations of what your customer thinks they’re going to get, so that you’re not just creating a new customer but … I remember years ago reading the book “Raving Fans.” You don’t want to create a satisfied customer, you want to create a raving fan. It really helps, because if you create that really, really happy customer, that raving fan, then you’re more than likely going to get that person talking about you in a positive way, which will result in more business.
You know, that’s one of the things that I like about Network NRV, is that core group that’s very committed to the group. It shows me that not only were they committed to being part of Network NRV and helping the community, but that commitment that I see they give to the group, I know they’re going to give that commitment to their customers too.
Kevin: Exactly. Now that we’ve built up the idea of this group and these types of group and talked about what benefits they have, let’s say someone listening to the podcast wants to start one of these groups themselves. Let’s talk a little bit more about the actual process of getting it started. I started a BNI chapter in the town I moved away from, and I know it’s not as easy as simply going out and saying, “Hey, I’m going to build it, and they’ll come.” That’s at least not the way it happened for me, so what was the process you used once you and the two other founding members decided to do this? What was the process, and what were some of the challenges you faced?
Charlie: Well, I would say for several months, the three of us would get together and we talked about this. You know, we were all … each one of us, for one reason or another … it’s kind of funny, because I got to know Sarah B. Jones because I friended her on social media and we kind of connected that way, and then finally we just decided let’s meet in person. Then it was kind of the same way with Terri Welch, and we all had these issues, or I should say challenges. I’m going to call it a nanobusiness, okay? It’s just me, it’s just Sarah B., it’s just Terri at the time, but each one of us knew there was two or three other people who were also facing same challenges, that could benefit from let’s put all our heads together.
We met several times. We decided on twice a month, we decided on dues, we decided on a name. We wanted to network in the NRV, and then we just basically emailed and made phone calls and invited people to our first meeting. We had met in several different venues, because we always look for a venue that’s going to be free. You know, because our dues are so low, we didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a meeting place. We’d rather spend the money doing other things. We’re very happy where we are at Mockingbird because they don’t charge us to be there, but Mockingbird realizes a lot of business from everybody buying coffee and pastries and stuff. We did meet at the library, which was great because the library was able to give us all these great resources that are there for anybody to walk into. Just get a library card. I highly recommend it.
Anyway, basically it was one-on-one with other people saying, “Okay, we’re going to start meeting, we’re going to start in August. The first Thursday in August, everybody show up,” and people did. Then we were going to meet on the third Thursday, and realized, well, we need to have some social media involved. Facebook is free, we can do this, it’s great. Then we decided that, “Okay, you be in charge of communicating, you be in charge of leading the meeting, you be in charge of finding us some education speakers,” because we realized that people will come to the meeting if there’s going to be value to it. We like to think there’s value in networking with other business owners, but there’s also value in learning something about the community.
That’s basically how we started it, was one-on-one with the people we know. I know that Terri and Sarah and Kevin and several other people now have new friends, because they were my friends and we introduced them and we brought everybody together at Network NRV. We encourage people to bring guests, and some join, some don’t. One of the challenges with I’m going to say any organized group is, you know, pick a meeting spot, pick a meeting place. Be consistent, so that people can plan around it. You know, I think that’s very important. I think that successful businesspeople, they’ve got a day planner of some type and, okay, I’m marking out this time for this meeting because that’s valuable to me, and I always know when it’s going to be. I think that’s probably one of the most important things if you want to build a group, is be consistent when and where you meet.
Kevin: Right, exactly. To finish up, any other pieces of advice you’d give to either someone thinking about starting a group like this, or thinking about joining a group like this? Maybe one of the things you can speak to is how they can decide which one of those things do, starting versus joining.
Charlie: Well, I would have to say I’ve been in this area for many, many years, and so I feel like I’m pretty familiar with what was available out there for a small business owner. I have worked with Main Street programs, I’ve been on chamber boards, I’ve been on boards of non-profits, and I think one of the things that made us start Network NRV was we looked at the whole of the geographic area and realized that if we wanted … you know, I mentioned this before. It was impossible economically to join all the chambers, so let’s make one that’s less expensive than a chamber that reaches out to everybody.
You know, quite frankly, everybody in our group is part of I’m going to call it nanobusiness. The government says a small business is 50 employees or less, and there’s not going to be 50 employees in my future for Whitescarver Photography. It’s going to be me and maybe somebody else, who knows, so the opportunities out there for a nanobusiness to network economically but effectively, that was one of our goals. I think that the best thing to do is find a couple of like-minded people that you already do business with or you want to do business with, and see if they’re interested. Pick a time and a place. Decide on a consistent time and a place, and then just start reaching out.
Kevin: Yeah. Hey, the worst possible result from that is that you end up with a couple really strong relationships with the two or three other people that you decide to start the group with, and that’s really not a bad outcome at all. There’s really not a lot of downside to trying this and failing, I would say. If nothing else, it’s going to raise the standing of you in the community, it’s going to increase or strengthen your relationships with a couple other people, and you’re going to learn a thing or two in the process. I really see only upside from at least attempting this process of starting a local networking group.
Charlie: Yeah. You know, I can’t see the downside. You could compare it maybe a little bit with a bowling league or something. You know, if you’re in a bowling league, you’ve got a team and you go every week and you bowl. All right, so that’s a consistent time to go do something that you’re interested in, so it’s kind of the same thing. It’s a consistent time and a place to meet where like-minded people, who care about the community and care about their business and want to grow their business, get together in a … I mean, for a structured agenda, but it’s a casual atmosphere. Yeah, there’s no downside to it.
Kevin: All right. To finish up the interview, let’s speak, just in case anyone listening is in the New River Valley or Roanoke areas, let’s make sure they know when and where Network NRV meets, in case you want to join our group, and you maybe can tell them, just in case they want to hire a photographer, how they can get ahold of you.
Charlie: I appreciate that plug. Network NRV, we meet the first and third Thursdays of every month. Now, if there’s a fifth Thursday, we don’t meet. You can have that Thursday off. First and third Thursday of every month at 8:45 a.m. At Mockingbird Cafe in Christiansburg. We’re upstairs in their meeting room, and we encourage people to come about 8:00 to get some coffee, get some breakfast, help us move the tables and chairs around into a meeting area. Now, the meeting we’re going to have the third Thursday of July is our last meeting of the year. We’ll have some extra snacks and food for people.
Kevin: I just want to clarify, it’s the last meeting of the fiscal year.
Charlie: Fiscal year, yeah. Fiscal year. Thanks.
Kevin: We’ll still have meetings in August.
Charlie: Yeah, fiscal year. We’ll announce what charity that the membership voted on to receive a $500 gift from us, and then our fiscal year starts August first, or the first Thursday in August, with our new leadership. Bill Kyle will be our new top cat, and we let our leaders pick whatever title they want.
Now, if you need a good photograph … everyone deserves a good photograph … I’m Charlie Whitescarver with Whitescarver Photography. I work out of my home in Christiansburg, but very soon, hopefully within the next week, 10 days, I’ll be opening a studio in downtown Christiansburg at 17 West Main, Suite 130. I’ll have hours by appointment and some public hours, and I’m really interested in … one of the first projects I want to do is I’m going to document all the businesses in downtown Christiansburg with some photographs, and kind of introduce myself. Even though I’ve been doing this for years, this will be the first studio I’ve ever had.
Kevin: Excellent. I think that’s a great plan, and hopefully we’ll see those photos up on your website at WhitescarverPhotographyLLC.com. That’s where people can find you online, and we’ll make sure and put a link to that in the show notes for this episode.
Charlie: You can also … it’s funny. You know, you can buy domains that say anything, so I have a domain, Everyonedeservesagoodphotograph.com, and also Christiansburg.photography and Blackbird.photography.
Kevin: Excellent, so we’ll put links to all those in the show notes.
Charlie: Okay. Well, thank you, Kevin.
Kevin: Thanks for coming on, Charlie, and best of luck with your new studio.
Charlie: All right. Well, thank you, and Kevin, I really appreciate the help that you’ve given me to really get a much better footprint on social media. Redpoint Marketing has been an integral part of some of my growth, so I appreciate that.
Kevin: All right. Well, thank you very much.
Charlie: All right. Talk to you soon.