This is a guest post by the brilliant, nature-inspired business coach Julie Wolk. This essay originally appeared as part of the Redefining Community project which ran throughout April 2019. You can find out more about the project and download the ebook here.
Part 1 of this post offers a paradigm shift: That networking is actually the most natural thing in the world. From this vantage point, you’ll learn in Part 2 how to network in nature, step by step.
Part 1: The Nature of Networking
Networking gets a bad rap.
Especially if you’re not naturally inclined toward flitting and floating around events chatting it up with everyone, even the thought of a networking event will either exhaust you or at least make you cringe.
I feel that way, and I’m an extrovert!
Or maybe you’ve been “netWORKED.” You know the feeling. Like they’re just trying to get something out of you. They might even ask about you, but you can tell they are just waiting to sell you on something. I get it. Ick.
But here’s the thing…
The success of our businesses depends on the networks that we are a part of and create. We cannot do this alone.
Luckily, networking does not have to be yucky. It can actually be deeply meaningful, connective and beneficial to everyone involved.
So let’s look at networking from a different perspective, a more NATURAL perspective…
Perhaps you know a little bit (or a great deal, if you’re a plant geek like me!) about how ecosystems work, but I’ll give you a basic definition:
ec·o·sys·tem –ˈēkōˌsistəm/ (noun)
“a complex biological network or interconnected system”
A healthy, robust ecosystem has an overall balance – it consumes and generates resources of all kinds, providing sustenance for all its component parts.
It has many interconnected species – like fruit trees, small mammals, edible plants, pollinators, soil microbes – all exchanging food, oxygen, minerals, water, and pollen with each other, and each playing their own role.
A robust ecosystem is diverse and has many points of intersection, so it’s resilient and can sustain itself over time; it can withstand natural disasters and rebound. If one food source dries up, there is another one around the corner.
It’s the same in your business.
In your business ecosystem, you relate to and connect with other people and entities. You exchange things, learn things, buy things, consume things, and you offer other things back out to these other “species” in your ecosystem. You hire specialists, assistants, and coaches, collaborate with people, refer clients to people and vice versa.
And, as in nature, the more interconnections and resources you have, the more robust a web you weave, and the more support you have to create a successful business over time (cuz y’all, it takes time).
And... the more you’ll be able to weather the inevitable natural disasters of running a business (cuz trust me, they’ll happen).
...So the idea is to grow and nurture these relationships, so they develop into mutually beneficial exchanges.
In ecology, this is called mutualistic symbiosis… a close, long-term interaction between two different species where both species benefit.
Just like an ecosystem, your business thrives in a diverse web of interrelated beings helping each other out over the long-term.
Community at its best!
And the more each person is playing her right role (or, fulfilling her niche), supporting some people and calling on support from others, the more smoothly the system works (the word niche actually comes from ecology).
(And by the way... when you know your niche – what you do, who you do it for and how you do it – it becomes so much easier to talk about it with the people you’re gonna network with).
And networking stops being so damn painful.
It simply becomes a conversation about roles:
“What’s your role in this ecological web? That’s so cool! Here’s mine! How can we help each other? Are we a good fit to work together?”
And then it can evolve into a conversation that weaves a stronger web of support for the mutual benefit of all:
“You do that?! Oh my gosh, you have to meet so and so! Let me connect you.”
And then everybody’s all lit up and happy.
And the best part is that there are ways to do this that don’t involve fluorescent light-filled rooms, 7AM meetings or lots of awkward elevator pitches.
Part 2: How to Grow Your Ecological Web
I’ve facilitated Networking in Nature in the Oakland, California hills for three years now.
We call it “the least awkward networking event you could go to.”
And it’s true. Because there’s just something about being in nature that opens us up and lets us relax. There’s a way we’re held by earth that allows us to be more vulnerable, more open, more real. More natural.
Participants are able to share at a surprisingly deep level about themselves, their businesses, their joys and challenges. There is never a sense of competition, only compassion, camaraderie and support as we look up at the trees together, breathe the fresh air and listen to the birds calling out in the distance.
People do walk away with new business connections and clients, absolutely.
But perhaps even more importantly for these solopreneurs (who generally spend a lot of time alone at a computer!), people have the opportunity to slow down and get connected to themselves and to nature. And from this place they find authentic connections to other entrepreneurs, plus new ideas, encouragement, and inspiration for their work.
The formula is relatively simple, and I’ll outline it here in case you want to try something like this in your community (and you don’t need to be a business coach to do this... an event like this could work great for almost any kind of business).
It’s a great “top-of-the-funnel” marketing event. In other words, it’s a low-risk, inexpensive way for potential clients to get to know you before diving into deeper work with you.
The key piece is first giving people time to connect to themselves and to the place before diving into networking and connecting to others. This helps people slow down and get grounded and present, and makes the conversations much richer.
Here are the basics:
Find a nice wide, flat trail in an accessible location with easy parking. Scout it out first. Check to see if permits are needed when gathering a group (often necessary for paid events).
Start at the trailhead and have people introduce themselves briefly to the whole group. Introduce yourself and share why you’re offering this event. Share any safety information and the general plan for your time together.
Lead people in a silent walk. I offer a guided meditation to get people to slow down and connect to themselves and nature. Then, I lead them on a very slow wander for about 15 minutes, until we get to the first “stop” on our journey. Their only job during this time is to walk at half their usual pace, feel their bodies, and notice what they see/smell/hear.
At the first stop, I give some context about how networking is the most natural thing in the world (see Part 1). Then I divide people into small groups and give them a prompt. I time 2-3 minutes for each person (bring a time piece and noise maker!). Each time you convene a small group, make sure people introduce themselves first, then answer the prompt. At the first stop, I always ask people what they’re grateful for. Other prompts that work for my event (but will be different for you depending on our audience) are:
What’s something you’re celebrating in your business?
What’s a challenge you’re having in your business?
What’s your next edge, or new exciting thing on the horizon in your business?
How did you positively impact a client this week?
What’s an act of self-care you’d like to commit to?
Then, I lead people to the next stop on the trail. While folks are walking between stops, I encourage them to chat with someone new and give them optional prompts from above if they need them. Then we stop at the next place for another small group. We do this 5 times at my event (three stops going in, and two coming out of the woods).
At the final stop, I gather the entire group instead of small groups. I ask people what moved them today... What was an a-ha they had or what are they taking away from this experience? It’s always a rich and beautiful conversation, and it helps you know how the event went.
I then announce any upcoming events I’m offering and other ways people can work with me. And then we depart. It lasts 2.5 hours.
If this sounds like it would be a great marketing strategy for you, and you’d like support to create a networking event in nature for entrepreneurs or for any other group of clients or potential, I would love to support you. From curriculum design to facilitation to marketing, I’m here to help. You can find the form for a free consultation on my website.
And if you’re intrigued by using a nature-based model to run your business and want to learn more, I invite you to watch my free video training, Grow a Burnout-free Business, Nature’s Way.
Julie Wolk helps hard-working coaches, consultants, and healers, grow rooted, blossoming, burnout-free businesses modeled after the way nature works.
She's a firm believer that if we step off the hamster wheel, and tune into nature’s rhythms, we can grow more sustainable lives, businesses and even—gasp!—a better world.
A lifelong nature freak, she has over 15 years of experience turning vision into reality and would love to help you create a simpler, more enjoyable, nature-led life and business.
She offers private business coaching online and in nature, the annual Replenish Winter Reflection & Strategy Retreat for Women Entrepreneurs, the Roots of Business home study course, and the Redwood Circle Women’s Business Community.