Most architects find new work through word of mouth. So the more circles you move in, the more people will talk – and the dizzier you’ll become

Since setting up on my own, I find myself on the networking merry-go-round. Round and round I go to various organisations who offer me access to potential clients. Architects seem to regard networking, schmoozing and hob-nobbing with anyone other than the construction industry as “uncool”. I don’t mind being uncool but feel baffled by all the networking choices. But then I get back on that merry-go-round trying to convince myself … surely I’ll crack it sooner or later?

When you start up in business, it is imperative to be one step ahead and to be able to generate new clients. If business is not how much you know but who you know, then networking is essential.

Persuade someone to actually join the group and you are rewarded with a whoop and a cheer. I started to feel that I was being subsumed by a cult

During my networking experiences I am bombarded with messages. One group asserts that being active in their organisation means I will have up to 40 people working for me. How so? Fellow networkers will carry my business cards and recommend me to people they meet without me having to pay them salaries or commission. At a Women In Business group I find myself thinking this could be a Little Britain sketch. All round the room people are asking: “What benefits can your organisation bring me?” What benefit can the colonic therapist bring to the copywriter? How can the podiatrist benefit the architect? I start to doubt that this is the right showground in which to be flogging my wares.

Networking is very expensive with membership costing anything from £200 to £500 a year, and the rigorous and aggressive marketing is off-putting. All are keen for me to sign up and pay the subscription there and then. Persuade someone to actually join the group and you are rewarded with a whoop and a cheer. I started to feel that I was being subsumed by a cult.

Many of these networking groups start at 6am and if you don’t turn up, then not only are you letting yourself down but the group too and you have to explain your absence. Three black marks and you’re out. Part of the meeting requires you to stand up and make a 60-second pitch to those in the room. Great, I think, this is my chance to make my mark. Attaching a tag line is recommended. I boldly go where no architect has gone before. I mutter something about being good value for money and being a great designer; all eyes are cast in my direction.

Architects simply can’t afford to stagnate and do nothing in the current climate. I have learnt this the hard way, initially throwing myself with vigour and enthusiasm into every potential new networking opportunity. I went everywhere. I even gatecrashed a CPD event in another office. I naively thought this would yield a deluge of clients eager to commission a brand spanking new house. If my experiences are typical, it appears networking outside architectural circles seems to be unproductive. If, arguably, 80% of an architect’s business comes through word of mouth, advertising would also be a waste of money and time. It is very hard for a new practice to carve a niche in a very crowded market and especially in such austere times. It seems we have to become more creative in generating new interest. Since teaming up with my business partner, he often reminds me it is simply down to who you know and what circles you move in. Time and time again a lot of repeat business comes through existing connections. Larger practices have the weight of experience and through their sheer size seem to attract the right calibre of clients based on a proven track record. Up against them what little chance have we got?

I have stopped wasting time and money on the networking circuit and I am putting all my efforts into building up existing relationships especially with my contemporaries. They are able to point me to the right lecture, party and exhibition opening to go to. Social networking is a powerful force used the right way - LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter cannot be overlooked. I often use Twitter and Facebook to advertise what I am doing. I have got myself into a national broadsheet by following the right people on Twitter, complaining about the rising cost of car insurance which in turn got my business a mention. I entertain the local press with snippets of information on a project I generated off my own back. At parties, I regularly remind friends and family I am available for work. We are living through extraordinary times in the profession, it will take an array of networking opportunities to survive.

Susanna Clapham is an architect at 6QF