Beating challenges: Tariq Ahmed Nizami (left), Founder and CEO of CEO Clubs Network, with Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice-Chairman, Dubai Duty Free, and other club members at a recent club meeting Image Credit: Supplied

At the monthly meetings of the CEO Clubs Network in Dubai, many of its 600 local members turn up for lunch and a workshop to get in touch with people who they can do business with. Tariq Ahmed Nizami, Founder and CEO, CEO Clubs Network, tells GN Prime about having taken a member delegation — mostly SMEs — on an all-expense paid trip to Malaysia to meet senior political leaders.

Rise, an online networking platform launched by UAE-based bank Emirates NBD last year, is another example of how networking and SMEs are linked. The bank is not selling anything, or even talking about its products on Rise. Instead, SMEs share knowledge and best practices and showcase their products. In its six months of existence, the portal already has about 30,000 views.

Another believer in the potential of networking is Paul Kenny, the Dubai-based online entrepreneur and now millionaire founder of Cobone and Triperna, who started his own venture capital company Emerge Ventures in the last quarter of 2013. One of the first three businesses he invested in, Impacthub, identifies networking as its raison d’etre. It’s a place where, Kenny says, “entrepreneurs sit, work, socialise and meet people who are going through the same challenges as them.” The Dubai hub, one of the 40 in the world, attracted about 400 people on its opening night.

Direct approach

Clearly, business-to-business transactions benefit from a direct approach. Successful SMEs and networking majors in the region tell us that done right, this connection building can be beneficial in terms of money. In fact, the head of LinkedIn in the region, the social networking website for professionals, is said to have opted for a membership of the CEO Clubs Network.

Nizami, whose club boasts 14,000 members across the world, says, “We’ve signed on more than 12 business councils affiliated to various embassies, since they want to connect with people from other countries. Between December 2013 and June 2014 we have more than 50 events on our calendar, including seven international ones. What we achieve in five minutes, 100 emails won’t achieve.”

LinkedIn itself claims more than one million in the UAE alone. Ali Matar, Head — LinkedIn Talent Solutions, LinkedIn Middle East and North Africa, educates its members on making the most of it. “We tell our members that once they have a profile, it’s important that they share knowledge, seek insights and explore ways they can bring about value for connections. LinkedIn Groups is a great place to start engaging with professionals. Another way to reach a larger audience is to share content via status updates,” he tells GN Prime.

Networking vs sales

That people matter is not a new concept, but for SMEs in the region networking is directly related to tangible results.

Kenny, who used LinkedIn throughout the various stages of his UAE career, says his strategy of talking to as many people as possible was responsible for his initial success. “When I started, at 25, I was ignorant about the types of investors who were interested in the internet. So I put myself out there, speaking to anyone who would speak to me. That’s my approach to it. I could speak to you and you may not give me money but you would speak to someone who might give me money…and so on. Then came a point when I was able to secure funding from two investors,” he says, making it sound simple.

Connecting, engaging and being direct are some of the secrets that make networking different from a sales pitch. Sara I. Mohamed, a board member of the newly launched women’s division of the CEO Club UAE and CEO of Al Bashayer Investment Company, says, “For SMEs that are in the same sector, there is a lot to be shared. They face similar challenges and their aim is also the same. At networking events, if you want to sell a part of your business you say it. Sometimes for SMEs, the only way to expand is by inviting other businesses to join them. Networking helps you do that.”