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Speed Dating For Suits


I met Arnold first. A bearded redhead with rimless glasses, he sat down across from me, nearly knee to knee, and handed me his business card. Arnold is a director at a commercial real estate firm and specializes in office and showroom leasing. Hmmm. No story here. (Clang!) Next up was Allan, a friendly, casually dressed guy who had worked with the former parent company of the Knitting Factory, a music venue in New York. Allan, who now runs an entertainment marketing firm and a career coaching service, had potential, but before I could learn more, the bell rang again. (Clang!)

Allan was followed by Scott, a "certified hypnotist" who wanted to show me a stress-reduction technique (Clang!); Ron, a quiet freelance writer with a wave of salt-and-pepper hair (Clang!); and Marvin, a sixtyish, straight-from-central-casting huckster who wanted to sell me on some kind of Web 2.0 affiliate scheme ("Video blogging! Video social networking!") more than hear about me. "This is going to revolutionize the Internet -- PERIOD," he blared. (Clang!!!)

Although it may bear a striking resemblance, speed dating this was not. I was participating in an evening of "speed networking" -- a structured series of four-minute conversations modeled after the dating format. My goal? To write about this increasingly popular phenomenon, of course, but also I hoped to meet interesting entrepreneurs who might be worthy of a story.

While I had no success with my latter aim, the format -- hypnotists and hucksters aside -- has its advantages. Speed networking offers the glad-handers an easy chance to swap business cards and wallflowers a safe way to stop guarding the cheese platter. And for those of us uneasy with using "network" as a verb, it promises a gracious escape hatch from aggressive pitchmen like Marvin.

GAINING MOMENTUM

Speed networking has its roots in the 2002-03 downturn, but has proliferated recently. The folks who sponsored the event I attended, New York-based Networking for Professionals, are expanding to five more cities in the next year: Chicago, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco. And now companies such as Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu and Chubb Corp. (CB) are organizing internal speed networking events. Chubb first tried the approach in January to spice up a women's group luncheon on networking. A few Deloitte offices have also begun using speed networking; the Dallas office holds occasional "speed mixers" in lieu of traditional cocktail hours to help young associates at the firm meet its always-traveling senior partners.

Local chambers of commerce, industry conferences, and professional groups are getting in on the act, too. The Financial Women's Assn. held its first speed networking event in June in New York. It was greeted with rave reviews, says Janet Handal, who co-chaired the FWA's lifestyles committee. Handal got the idea after hearing about speed dating from her yoga teacher, from whom she borrowed a 22-inch bronze gong to lend a fun aspect to the event. "And we started out with wine," says Handal, "which is always a good idea."

As is water. Introducing yourself again and again over a din of amped-up networkers is hard on the throat. By the end of the night I was exhausted. It didn't help that I'd made the mistake of sitting on the inside circle of chairs, where I had to rotate to the next chair every four minutes, leaving me juggling business cards, a notepad, and my bag while the 15 people I faced stayed put.

As I rounded the room, I asked each of the attorneys, tech-services entrepreneurs, and financial planners that I met -- many were repeat attendees, hence their wise choice of outside-circle seats -- whether they had gotten clients from past events. Most said they hadn't but seemed happy to have made a lot of referrals. On my way out the door, Scott the hypnotist stopped me to discuss that stress-reduction technique, I carefully avoided Marvin, and I offered up a little prayer of thanks that it's easier to come by a story than a client.

By Jena McGregor


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