I hear the phrase, “your network is your net worth,” everywhere I go. I must admit, the best investment I ever made in my own business was to start my fifth networking group. Yes, the fifth time is the charm.

I’m not sure about the rest of the country, but from the time I started in this industry in 2001 networking was touted as the thing to do in Halifax. However, if you were a financial advisor, real estate agent or mortgage broker, it was tough to get into an existing group. Many networking groups, including the one I started, are category exclusive. You can’t have more than one member per business category, and since most groups are started by an advisor, real estate agent, or mortgage specialist, those categories tend to be full.

So, in 2006, after four failed attempts at getting a networking group off the ground, I convinced a real estate agent I’d known well for some time and my banker to have lunch with me. We decided to have another go at a group and agreed we’d seek out like-minded professionals we either already knew or could get to know in professions we thought we thought we could refer business to.

The original 13 officially launched The Group, Professional Networking Association, a not-for-profit incorporated under the societies act, on October 15th, 2006. Membership fluctuates between 22 and 28 members and we’re forever on a quest to get to 30. Every Tuesday morning at a Smitty’s Restaurant in Halifax, my current 23 closest business associates – many of whom are also friends and mentors – sit down to breakfast and learn about each other’s businesses. We take turns presenting, and occasionally bring in guest speakers with mutually relevant topics.

Yes, we meet every week, so unless a holiday falls on a Tuesday, we have 52 meetings a year. It was a hard sell to get more than 20 committed business owners to give up 90 minutes of their business days every week – and it continues to be a tough sell. But now, after more than three years, we still have excellent member attendance most weeks.

We all joined the group with the intention of giving and receiving referrals. That part’s been successful, and those who give the most get the most. I can attribute approximately 20% of my 2007 business to my group connections. By 2008, nearly 27% of my total business came through my group members and their contacts. And in 2009, I’m likely to see closer to 35% of new clients coming to me from those connections.

Still, the business growth is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve gotten much more than I’d ever bargained for. Networking for me has become about so much more than exchanging referrals. It’s about learning, growing and developing my business along with those of others I’ve grown to know, like and trust. As an independent advisor who at one point worked from home, I found my business had become very isolating. I had plenty of client contact, but I was missing the valuable input that can come from peers.

Most of my friends and family don’t run or own businesses, so don’t make the greatest sound board for my ideas. It wasn’t until the group really got going in late 2006 that I realized how much I needed to be surrounded by other business people. It’s not the same as industry events, or advisor peers. A networking group allows me to regularly see through the eyes of true entrepreneurs. And we in the financial services industry tend to be encouraged to be entrepreneurial only in some ways, like marketing and building teams.

I can’t recall an industry meeting where I learned about brand identity, hiring employees, registering trademarks, working with editors, public speaking or any of the other helpful things I’ve learned from various group members and their varied backgrounds. Our ages range from 27 to 61. Some industries are complementary, but many are completely unrelated.

The ratio of men to woman is forever changing, and some companies are micro small businesses with fewer than five employees, while others represent some of the most successful family run businesses in Nova Scotia. They are my team, my sounding board, my focus group, my chief pep talkers, my support system, my marketing department, and my trainers. We all pull in the same direction, and through helping each other our businesses grow and thrive no matter what the economy throws at us.

In the last three years we’ve pooled our resources to do things we couldn’t easily do on our own, like take everyone to see Anthony Robbins in 2008 and then Bill Clinton in 2009. (I can negotiate a mean deal when I’m booking 30 tickets at once.)

We’ve also held numerous well-attended networking events to attract new members. As well, this fall we produced a speaker series featuring popular local talents –a task that would have proven difficult for any of us to do alone.

So if you are wondering if there is something you can do to really freshen up your still battered post-2008 business, think about starting a networking group. Call a few people you already know you’d love to refer more business to and whose clients fit in with your practice. For example, go to an event at your local chamber of commerce to seek out additional connections.

Like-minded people are out there. If you really do want to build a business, not just sell some products, you should have a team. My team is one of my greatest resources. They’ve opened my mind; and many doors.