Every Friday morning, Maureen Burleson heads to a small Italian restaurant in Newmarket, Ont., to hobnob over breakfast with about two dozen other local entrepreneurs.
Ms. Burleson isn't what you'd call a social butterfly. "I'm one of those people who's happier behind the computer," says Ms. Burleson, who owns a bookkeeping company called The Montana Group.
But a few years ago, she decided it was time to start getting out there to help her company grow. So she sent an extroverted employee to do reconnaissance at a few local networking groups.
Her pick: a small, locally based group called the Professional Referrals Organization.
Now, over those breakfast meetings where members swap connections and business stories, she's gaining leads and networking confidence. "I've learned that it's not about you selling yourself, it's about listening to what people need," says Ms. Burleson, who now works rooms at larger events with greater ease.
Connecting with peers is critical for small and medium-sized business owners, says Glain Roberts-McCabe, founder and president of The Executive Roundtable, a Toronto-based business consultancy.
"When you start a small business, you have to be everything – chief executive officer, chief financial officer, head salesperson," she says. "I don't know what I don't know, and if I can talk to other people who've had that knowledge, that's going to help me save my money."
There are all kinds of networking groups geared to small businesses in Canada, including regional groups and local chapters of national and international groups – like Business Network International (BNI) and Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO). There are online groups, too.
Some people, like Ms. Roberts-McCabe, even put together their own group. After starting her company, she struggled to find an organization that matched her goals and experience, to no avail. Many catered to newbies or mom-and-pop shops – which she was not – or charged exorbitant fees.
"So, I decided to start my own group,"she says. Now, she and a half dozen like-minded entrepreneurs meet regularly as the Business Alliance and Referral Network to focus on developing their businesses, rather than socializing.
Thinking of trying out a networking group? Here are a few national groups to consider.
Focus: Family businesses
Size: 13 chapters across Canada; about 800 member businesses
Year established: 1983
Fees: Membership fees, paid by businesses, not individuals, vary across the country, from $550 in Halifax to $1,045 in Toronto annually.
Structure: Members network regularly by joining personal advisory groups (PAGs) consisting of 10 to 12 individuals from non-competing companies.
Perks: Family businesses face challenges others don't and need support from their peers, says Lorraine Bauer, interim chief executive officer of CAFÉ Canada and managing director of the Toronto area district. PAG discussions can range from tax and human resource issues "right up to pre-nups and transferring to the next generation, or what my wife said to the sister-in-law at the dinner table."
Focus: Small and medium-sized businesses of all kinds
Size: 118 chapters in 38 countries; 7,500 members worldwide; 800 members in Canada
Year established: 1987
Fees: Global dues are $1,300 a year; in addition, chapter fees vary, but usually run the same as global fees.
Structure: Members belong to a 'forum' through which they gather weekly with peers to discuss business topics.
Perks: Along with regular networking comes the chance to develop international connections, says public relations manager Ryan Meyer. "We're in 38 countries, which means if a member of EO Seattle is thinking about expanding into China or India or Germany, he or she has hundreds of other entrepreneurs in those locations to call."
Focus: Small and medium-sized businesses
Size: There are 5,778 chapters worldwide; 280 chapters across Canada
Year established: 1985
Fees: $480 a year. Chapters may charge other fees to cover costs associated with renting meeting space, buying food and drinks, etc.
Structure: Chapter sizes range from 15 to 70 people, representing different areas of expertise – with no overlap. At structured weekly meetings, usually held in the mornings, members discuss entrepreneurship and swap referrals. Members are required to meet referral and business-lead quotas. "You can't just be present – you have to play on the team," says Cindy Mount, managing director of BNI's Toronto region. Strict rules around attendance require individuals to send subs if they cannot make it; too many no-shows will result in a member being dismissed from the club.
Perks: With BNI members around the world, joining connects people with an international network, Ms. Mount says.. But the best value might come from the organization's focus on training people to network. Newbies are paired up with mentors who help them find their feet in the group, and a "member success program" provides a three-hour training seminar.
Focus: Women in business
Size: About 1,000 women in chapters in Toronto, Vancouver and other parts of British Columbia.
Year established: 1976
Fees: $260 for full members; $160 for virtual members
Structure: Chapters host monthly breakfast meetings, quarterly evening events and lunch-and-learn events. The Toronto chapter hosts an annual charity golf tournament. A virtual membership allows members to connect online.
Perks: CAWEE focuses not only on business connections and referrals, but support for the challenges women in business face, says CAWEE president Melvine Baird. "Not only are those networking things there, but it also enables you to talk to other professional women who've perhaps had the experiences you've had and get their input," she says. There are forums for those who connect online.
Focus: Women running small businesses, including micro-businesses
Size: Ten chapters across Canada, with about 350 paying members, and 3,000 non-paying members.
Year established: 2004
Fees: Monthly fees range from $15 to $25.
Structure: Women gather regularly – but informally – to talk shop, says founder Mandie Crawford. Others meet online.
Perks: No regular commitment. The goal is flexibility for busy women, who are often mothers, too. To that end, Roaring Women doesn't require regular attendance or mandatory referrals. "When you're there, there's never the feeling someone's going to try and sell you something," Ms. Crawford says.
Focus: Small businesses of all kinds
Size: About 6,000 members in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia
Year established: 1992
Fees: Annual fees range from $230 (to join one club) to $5,000 (to join multiple clubs); may be additional meeting costs, like meals, drinks etc.
Structure: Clubs contain only non-competing business people and are capped at 35 members. Each club meets once a week and holds monthly evening mixers. A biannual general meeting is held for the entire organization.
Perks: Every referral is discussed by the group eight weeks later to ensure there are no dead ends, says executive director Craig Chandler. "No one wants a cold lead—except maybe a funeral director," he jokes. PGIB also has a separate women's wing – the Progressive Group for Independent Business Women – and a lobbying arm, which pushes for smaller government and lower taxes. "Our slogan is, one half helps make you money, and the other side helps you keep it." Mr. Chandler says.
Special to The Globe and Mail