For the 10th time in my life, I was moving to a new city.
For the 10th time in my life (I’m only 28), I had to start from scratch, decide where to go to meet people and make friends, and proactively choose the kinds of connections I would want as a freelance writer.
I didn’t want to base those decisions solely on age. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have any sort of safety net to rely on to help introduce me to people I’d have common interests with. I wasn’t in school, I hadn’t moved in conjunction with a job, and I didn’t have friends of friends who could show me around.
All I knew was that the city was a cool place—and I wanted to live there.
But since I was fully self employed, lived alone, and worked from home, I faced every lonely freelancer’s dilemma: how do I meet these other cool solopreneurs who I know exist here, but who are also holed up in their own home offices for eight hours a day?
Like any other good introverted freelancer, I took to the internet to help me solve that problem. And after a few minutes of searching, I found Meetup.com.
Fortunately, I live in Asheville, North Carolina—a city that’s popular for entrepreneurs. It’s one of those places that’s highly desirable because it gets featured on so many “Top 10” lists for handfuls of different things; however, readily available local jobs are mostly limited to the food and tourism industries. A favorite quote among the city’s entrepreneurs is this one: “Asheville is great as long as you bring your own job.”
Given all that, I knew finding these other entrepreneurs was certainly possible, it was just a matter of uncovering the place(s) where they all hung out. So I joined a handful of business-related Meetup groups and started going to the meetings.
At first, I was kind of disappointed.
Sometimes, 50 people said they were coming, but only five actually showed up. Sometimes the person speaking was boring; they’d just drone on, stating one obvious fact after another for the entire hour and a half. And sometimes I’d leave the meetings without ever having any sort of meaningful conversation with anybody—or, if I did, it was them asking me for a job.
Not so cool.
Then, during one meeting, a lady who seemed really successful heard me talk about what I did and asked to meet me over tea the following week. I agreed—and that’s where the magic started to happen.
Once she saw my worth as a serious copywriter and entrepreneur, I got invited to multiple other events around town with warm introductions from her.
Inspired by that jolt of success, I started proactively looking for reasons to set up meetings with others I judged as successful within the Meetup groups. Before I knew it, I had gigs leading a workshop, speaking at local colleges, and paying clients.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Meetup, let’s back up for a second. Because before you dive headfirst into the tool, you should know what it isn’t.
Meetup is not a hack for traffic, more subscribers, or a pool of instantly qualified leads that are ready to hire you at your asking price—so if that’s what you’re looking for, I wouldn’t even bother with the site. In fact, Meetup has very little to do with using the actual site and everything to do with helping you find meetings and establish communications.
The key to successfully networking via Meetup is putting in a lot of time during your off hours. Once you put in enough face time with various people, you’ll start reaping the rewards.
You also have to ask for meetings outside your Meetup group—and the trick there is narrowing in on a purpose. If you don’t already have a core, driving reason to ask people to meet one on one, find one. Once you do, you can use it to get that face time and prove your value on a person-to-person level. Because here’s the secret: the people who are “in” are ready and willing to let you in too, as long as you’ve proven that you can add value to their ventures, and they enjoy spending time with you.
(Note: this means that every meeting should not be a sales pitch for your services or referrals back and forth. Those are just awkward, and they probably won’t actually get you any work.)
All that said, if breaking into your local entrepreneur market is important to you, Meetup is the fastest way I know to do so if you’re coming from a place of no connections.
Entrepreneurs—especially solopreneurs who spend most of their working time isolated from other professionals—are almost always going out to meet like-minded people. So finding a quality entrepreneurial Meetup or two is a wonderful way to get that face time in, see the same people over and over, build your trust levels, and start delivering value in a way you couldn’t if all you did was stay inside your home office.
Also, it’s worth noting that Meetup is free and open to the public—so anyone who wants to can join a group of entrepreneurs and show up to the meetings. That means you’ll encounter plenty of “wannapreneurs” who like the idea of running their own businesses, but never even get as far as setting up their websites. Keep that in mind when you start, and you’ll be less frustrated with the actual meetups themselves.
From my experience, these are the kinds of results you can reasonably expect from attending Meetups and taking the time to meet with the right people outside the actual events.
This is usually the first step, especially if you make an effort to connect with a Meetup’s leader.
If this opportunity arises, don’t just give a generic talk. Instead, plan to actually teach something actionable that the Meetup members will be able to implement in their businesses and benefit from. Not only will you prove your expertise in your field and your niche, but you’ll also ramp up your trust and rapport level with the other serious entrepreneurs in the room.
For example, I taught the emotion-invoking phrase-discovery process through which I take all my paid clients, and which I’d usually charge $650 for by itself. It was incredibly valuable to the members, and after that one meeting, other opportunities really skyrocketed.
Secret: you don’t even have to be a good speaker to land more speaking gigs.
I got red, flushed, and sweaty when I kicked off my original presentation to the Meetup group, but because I delivered a great value and didn’t speak inaudibly, people loved it. And within a month, I had invitations to speak for three different nonprofit and college-based small business programs.
The speaking gigs were unpaid, but with each new speaking gig came opportunities for more speaking gigs, more referrals, and, as I’ll talk about below, more paying clients.
By teaching something that I normally charge a fair amount of money for, I was able to show Meetup leaders and other people in the audience that I was someone they’d want to work with (in a paid capacity) to teach versions of the same workshop to their own audiences.
And for my business, I just took what I taught in the initial presentation and expanded it to include some one-on-one help which took up a few more hours and was value worth paying for.
At each event, I ask everyone to write down their email addresses if they liked my presentation and want to hear more from me. I tell them that I’ll send them some resources and add them to my email list for business communications. If it’s a teaching-style speaking engagement, half of the room usually signs up.
This is where the money’s at.
My initial goal in teaching a free mini workshop for the Meetup group was to simply get practice with public speaking, gain teaching experience, and hopefully add some people to my email list.
Not only was I able to achieve those goals, but I also collected a fair amount of leads for paid clients, too. And the best thing about these leads was that they were ready and willing to pay my asking price and do value-for-value exchanges to help me with other aspects in my business I’m not so strong at. They even asked for small handfuls of my business cards to refer my blog out to other people who weren’t present.
Meetup events have proven themselves to be an incredible investment for my time. I feel less isolated, I get practice teaching and honing my area of expertise, I build up my email list and business awareness, and I find dedicated, paying clients.
It might not be worthwhile for everyone, especially if you’re already well-established within your local network. But if you’re not, it’s a great way to get introductions, prove your value, and work your way to the top.
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