For the first eight years that she was building her company, Carmen Rad didn't pay much attention to events put on by business networking groups.
Now Rad, who is president of the CR&A Custom digital printing company, goes to at least one a week.
"There is a tremendous advantage to joining, and you can't just join one. You need to join more than one because each organization will have a different added value," said Rad, who is on the board of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. of Women Business Owners.
She said her involvement with networking groups has helped her secure new contracts, bank loans and associates. She even found her accountant through one.
Female business owners — who sometimes have to work around entrenched, old-boy networks in order to expand their businesses — have found networking events to be particularly valuable.
"Creating strong networks, building those relationships, comes out time and time again" as key advice from successful women business owners, said Sharon Hadary, an author and former executive director of the Center for Women's Business Research in McLean, Va.
The number of women-owned companies grew twice as fast as those owned by men in the 10-year period ending in 2007, according to U.S. Commerce Department data. But female-owned firms are typically smaller than those owned by men, according to census data.
Only 1.8% of women-owned firms had revenue of $1 million or more in 2007, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released last month. Six percent of men-owned firms topped the $1-million mark in 2002, the latest year for which census data are available for that group.
Marketing communication consultant Marny Lifshen isn't at the million-dollar level yet, but she attributes her successes, in large part, to networking. She learned from her mentor — an Austin, Texas, lobbyist — that it's not enough to just attend events.
"Women oftentimes tend to focus on building relationships and maintaining relationships, but they don't understand that the true power of a network is leveraging it," said Lifshen, co-author of the book "Some Assembly Required: A Networking Guide for Women."
She said members of a group should be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to make referrals.
"I have a sticky note on my computer that says, 'Who do I know that can help?,'" Lifshen said.
She recently tapped a networking group, which included competitors, to find media contacts for an environmental project for a client.
"Within an hour I had lists and 'Be sure to use my name' messages," she said. "Utilizing my network saved me time and enabled me to perform better."
Some people who work on their own have found networking groups to be a good way to expand their contacts.
Ann Brenoff, a writer and marketing specialist in Malibu, founded the Women's Entrepreneurial Group with financial project manager Cathy Morrison of Pacific Financial Concierge.
"I work in my garage, I talk to my dog all day long, and a lot of women are working like this, working in isolation," Brenoff said.
There are numerous types of networking groups, including those that are industry-specificor are geographically based. Some allow only one member from each industry category.
But the rules to succeed are pretty much the same no matter what the venue, experts said: Set a goal, make a plan, execute well and evaluate progress regularly.
"It's not just about schmoozing at an event, passing out business cards or always asking for help," Lifshen said.
She advises her clients to figure out what they want to accomplish with their networking and figure out who they need to meet to accomplish those goals.
Sometimes the most important thing to do is just show up at networking events.
"People need to see you, like, three times before they remember your name or your face, on average," Rad said. "Then it might click."