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Rapid-Fire Relationships

Martin Smith - 10/6/2016

Rapid-Fire Relationships

SA - 2/20/2014

Author Michael Takiff is looking for a big fish: someone who can spend six figures on a vanity biography. Alas, folks like that usually employ serious gatekeepers. While Mr. Takiff has already signed two former congressmen as clients, he'd like to meet more people who can introduce him to rich folks. "And these are not people I normally have much association with," he says.

He's tried the usual networking venues: his Yale alumni club and an entrepreneur's society, among others. But it's tempting to spend those sessions chatting with friends, and conversations with strangers can be awkward. Time to try something new? Last week, the Upper West Side writer went speed networking. Prompted by a jingling bell, he raced through timed chats with more than a dozen fellow professionals, including four lawyers, five real-estate agents and a diamond dealer.

Speed networking may be the quintessential NYC meet-and-greet: efficient, high-powered and intense. Networking for Professionals founder Amanda Nissman, who organized the event, says no town embraces the medium like New York. "It's suited to the type-A personality," she says. "No small talk! If we can't do business, move on!"

In the rapid-fire networking frenzy, the laid-back Mr. Takiff, outfitted like a middle-age professor, stood out. He offered an interesting service, and his pitch was intriguing: "I'm half joking, but what I'm really selling is immortality."

By evening's end, he had wrangled several new LinkedIn pals and a coffee date. But what an ordeal! "I think I delivered my elevator speech 15 times," he said. "I was just exhausted."

He should have tried the session I attended last week hosted by Nerissa Malloy, a nurse, entrepreneur and founder of the NYC Speed Business Networking Group. It was listed on Meetup.com: "Explode Your Business in 2014!!!...Speed Networking Opportunity at its Best!!"

The free forum, held upstairs at one those cavernous, dimly lit East Side lounges, attracted a motley bunch. There were strivers in pinstripes and dudes in sneakers. Ms. Malloy had us stand in two rows, facing each other like shooting squads. "Have your business cards ready!" she called. "Your first minute begins now!"

My first partner was Sunee LaClaire, a personal stylist who photographs her clients' clothes and sends emails suggesting outfits. It was an intriguing concept, but there was little time for questions—we got two minutes per session.
I was looking for a partner for my yet-to-launch business: making collectible trading cards featuring local car service drivers. There's a photo on the front of each card and stats on the back including each driver's hometown, personal motto and favorite air freshener. Genius idea, right? Folks seemed puzzled. "I don't do paper anymore," said Ms. LaClaire. "What about making them virtual?"

The event attracted lots of newbies. Some had forgotten their business cards. Others seemed reluctant: "I'm with Mary Kay," said one. "What else can I say? You've heard of our company, we're branded, pink Cadillac. I don't have to talk too much because everybody knows Mary Kay. It's like McDonald's."

I met a filmmaker, an energy broker and a lace maker. Many attendees were multi-talented. There was a personal trainer/lifestyle coach and a financial planner/marketing expert. "I'm an actress model real-estate agent," said one. "Why are you laughing?"

My favorites? The woman who pointed out the dog hair on my dress, and the man who, upon hearing I'm a writer, responded, "I hate writing!"

Not that I was any better. I sounded like a clueless valley girl trying to raise funds for her pom-pom squad.

But the benefit of speed networking is the chance to refine your pitch over and over and over and over and over. I delivered my spiel 24 times. By evening's end, my throat hurt and my feet were sore, but my pitch had improved.

Speed networking tends to attract networking newcomers and shy types who appreciate structure: "The facilitator does most of the work for you," says Kate Gaffin, founder of Connecting to Greatness, a local networking outfit.

But not all speed networking events are created equal. Veterans say that events charging a cover attract more serious, established professionals.

Some events are jammed with real-estate agents and financial planners; Ms. Gaffin says she screens attendees to ensure no single profession is overrepresented.

The pace can vary, too. Some organizers allow two minutes a session, others four or five, along with the occasional break. "Otherwise people are dying of thirst and their heads are exploding," says Ms. Gaffin.

I don't think anyone's head exploded at Ms. Nissman's event, where I met Mr. Takiff. Participants lounged on padded benches and enjoyed five-minute sessions. The $30 evening attracted a well-dressed, older crowd including a CPA, an anger-management specialist and a divorce lawyer.

The most charming participants treated the event like a fun little party. I fell in love with the real-estate agent who chatted genially about writing and the horrors of networking. 
Others plunged right into their elevator speeches, rattling off credentials. But this, too, can be delightful. One broker sat down and with little prompting delivered a fascinating tale: "This has been my best year in real estate.…I'm in a much better place spiritually….People say, 'You came to my rescue' and write me these magnificent letters….I'm also like a therapist, I had a client bawling her brains out on the phone to me yesterday….I don't have kids so this business is my baby."

The event was a blast—though it reminded me a bit of a high school dance where everyone's wondering when the cool kids will arrive. Even the real-estate agents complained about too many real-estate agents. One design executive said he was a disappointed to find no one in a position to buy his high-priced services. "I'm meeting nice people, but it's not a good fit," he said.

Ms. Nissman says it's about expanding your network rather than direct sales. And it's important to be realistic: "You're not going to come and meet Donald Trump!"

But you will meet fun folks who are optimistic enough to hurl themselves into the speed-networking void and see what happens.

As for me, one of my new contacts has already connected me with a novelty gift expert. I'm on my way to becoming the Car Service Collectible Card Queen of Brooklyn. Not to mention a proud speed-networking addict.