To the chagrin of the Tulsa Business Journal’s sales staff, a portion of Tulsa’s small business owners have decided to forgo ad-buying in light of tough economic times. They’re finding that, rather than spend thousands or even millions of dollars on advertising, they can earn business and grow their revenues for about $2, the cost of a cup of coffee.
They’re members of the fast-growing Cup of Coffee Networkers, a free networking group Joe Sting, proprietor of Sting Investigations, started at the beginning of the year. In early February there were three clubs. Less than two months later, there are 21; 17 in Oklahoma, one in Danbury, Conn., one in Sarasota, Fla., one in Minneapolis, Minn., and one in Portland, Ore.
Sting, who’s owned Sting Investigations for eight years, realized that last year he spent about $1 million on advertising, and he began to seek a more cost-effective way to market his business.
He failed to find what he thought would be an ideal situation – a free networking group comprised of local business owners who meet frequently to exchange information and help one another further their companies’ growth.
Sting opened an account on the professional social networking site LinkedIn and expressed his desire to connect with a free networking group in Tulsa. He met over coffee with a few of his LinkedIn connections, who shared his sentiment: “Why should business people who want to get together and do business together have to pay to do that?”
Word of Mouth
In an effort to duplicate the experience he had with a handful of local professionals over coffee, Sting started the Cup of Coffee Networkers, scheduling meetings once a week and informing possible members via LinkedIn. Attendance was sporadic, Sting said, and he ended up alone at about half of the meetings.
When he joined Facebook, another social networking site that allows users to create groups, post links and sent mass invitations to events, his efforts to grow the group began to pay off.
“I remember saying, if this group gets bigger or not, I’m grateful for the effort I’ve put into it and for the friends I made that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Sting.
However, the buzz about his group began to spread, until at one meeting 30 people showed up to network, and Sting decided to expand the group by adding more meetings. When one meeting gets too big, Sting and other core members simply add another meeting at nearby location. They want the groups to remain small so that there are plenty of possibilities for interaction. And through his LinkedIn and Facebook connections, Sting has helped people in other cities and states start their own meetings.
One on One
Cup of Coffee Networkers meetings are casual and unstructured. Most of them happen at coffee shops where members simply chat one another up, exchanging business ideas and contact information. Dress is casual, members are free to come and go as needed and the cell phones stay on. Sting says he wants people to be able to answer their phones, especially if the person on the other end of the line is calling to give them business.
“A certain type of person attends these meetings,” Sting explained. “The people who come to the meetings are leaders. Most of them are entrepreneurs. They make their own schedules. Some are employed by others but they’ll benefit from their company doing better, so they want to better their company. Some are looking to start their own companies or want new jobs. Some are small companies, and some are large.”
Matt Louviere (www.mattlouviere.com and www.wifitulsa.com) specializes in business branding and technology management solutions and says nearly 100 percent of his business comes from the people he meets at the Cup of Coffee Networkers meetings, either directly or by referral, and he attends eight to nine meetings per week.
Monica MacIntyre, personal assistant and owner of On the Go Concierge (www.onthego.vpweb.com), probably gets about 25 percent of her business as a result of the meetings, she said. She also sponsors the Cup of Coffee Networkers Web site, www.cupofcoffeenetworkers.com, with an ad on the homepage.
She and others who attend the meetings on a regular basis say they value the personal connections they make by networking and feel that those connections pay off more than dollars spent on advertising.
“The bottom line is that Cup of Coffee Networkers allows business people the opportunity to connect with other business people on a business level,” said Sting. “You get to know each other as individuals and you feel more comfortable doing business with them. You know their business, so even if you don’t need their service yourself, you are able to refer them to other people who might.”