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Saturday, June 13, 2009

ESPECIALLY FOR WOMEN: Building a Brave New Network for Micropreneurs

Especially for Women with Ann Barczay Sloan

Introducing Lara Feltin

Co-Founder of

Biznik: “Business networking that doesn’t suck”


Ann Barczay Sloan

Featured Columnist, The National Networker

How Lara and I first connected

I was introduced to Lara Feltin ─ at my own request ─ by Lori Richardson, fellow Northwesterner and also fellow writer at The National Networker (TNNW).

Lori, President and Founder of ScoreMore Sales: , is an Entrepreneur, Sales Coach and Fundraising Auctioneer. She is very involved with Biznik and an enthusiastic “Biznik Ambassador”. So, Lori was the ideal guide to lead me into the dynamic world of Biznik where I quickly decided to jump in and join as well.

And yes by the way, Lara quickly and graciously agreed to doing this interview!

Who is Lara and what is she all about?

Lara Feltin’s education is actually in the arts. She graduated from the University of Washington with art and art history degrees in 1994. With experience in oil painting, photography and digital design, she started out by freelancing in graphic design and photography.

Fast forwarding to the now, we see a very different picture: Lara as successful multiple award winner in technology, of all things! For instance, she was designated among the top Seattle technology leaders. Here’s the actual write-up:

100 Top Women in Seattle Tech

Lara Feltin, co-founder, Biznik business networking company. Started the venture in 2005 with her husband, Dan McComb, to provide small businesses and freelancers a way to network.

Lara lists still more top awards in her official bio:

Since our launch Biznik has won a silver in the 2007 W3 Awards, a Best in Class in the 2008 Interactive Media Awards, second place in the 2008 SEOmoz Web 2.0 Awards, and an Honoree in the 2008 Webby Awards. While Dan and Lara were recognized in Seattle Business Monthly's 2008 Top 25 Innovators and Entrepreneurs, and Seattle Magazine’s 2008 Power List: Most Influential People of 2008.

Impressive! So what exactly is Biznik? Again, information from Lara:

Biznik is business networking community for the independent business person - a hybrid between an online social network and member-driven local face-to-face events. This is a community of like-minded people who, for the most part, view their business as an extension of their self expression. Over 30,000 members world-wide and 12,000 in Seattle is a testament to that - business networking doesn't have to suck.

How does it all work so successfully? Lara explains:

Go to a Biznik event and talk to a room full of real people interested in forming real relationships with other small business people and you'll see that first hand. Our mission is to help each other build our businesses through networking, collaboration and education. You can host events in your own area, and participate in the community online through the Biz Talk forum and the event discussion boards. If there's anything I can do to help you to get Biznik working for you, please do not hesitate to drop me a line.

And here’s what Dan McComb, Lara’s husband and Biznik co-founder, shares about his own experiences, his essential roles in this enterprise:

[In the past], I found self-employment hugely rewarding but surprisingly isolating. I was surprised to be turned away when I tried to join a local business networking group because "we only have room for one person from your profession, and your spot has been filled."…

In 2005, Lara Eve Feltin and I co-founded Biznik (, with a simple premise: business networking shouldn't suck.

Today Biznik is an award-winning community that connects more than 30,000 forward-thinking business people in 135 countries. And we always have room for one more, no matter what profession you represent (as long as it's legal!). Members connect using Biznik's social network and strengthen relationships at nearly 200 member-hosted events every month.

I am [now] approaching my goal of completely forgetting what it was like to be a corporate drone. And I'm on a mission to connect great minds with interesting work.

These are terrific results and achievements in an amazingly few years. I am impressed, and want a closer view! After all, Lara and Dan are here in Seattle, virtually around the corner from Bainbridge Island, where I live although in “real” time/space, I’d need to take a half-hour ferry ride to even get close to their events...

In my personal cyber-visits to the Biznik site, I find it chock-full of bright minds and youthful entrepreneurial energy. So many ever-new, interesting articles posted by members! I haven’t had enough time to get into all the goodies not to mention the variety of in-person meetings and events scheduled – but I know an exciting entrepreneurial feast awaits me when I do dive in!

Now, let’s move into the actual interview with our star subject!

How would you briefly describe what you do, Lara?

“I co-founded with my husband, Dan McComb. Biznik is a community of like-minded micropreneurs that marries an online community with face-to-face events. An unofficial tagline is, ‘where collaboration beats competition’.”

What makes you / your company unique? In other words, what is the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) of your enterprise?

“Two things make Biznik unique. One is the marriage of an online site with real-world interactions. We’re a social networking site that meets face to face; and the face-to-face meetings are supported by social networking technology.

The events are created by the members. As long as the host offers something of general interest to those growing a business, and limits the time he/she spends on self-promotion, the event will be listed in the Biznik Events calendar.

But more importantly, Biznik’s USP is in our definition of the term, ‘business networking’. I’ve found that business Networking means different things to different people. To some it means job seeking – (e.g. I need a job and I put the word out to my network of friends, family and former co-workers.) To others it means referral-marketing and leads generation – (e.g. I meet regularly with other small business people to pass referrals and leads.) And to most it means rolodex padding – (e.g. I attend the ‘networking hour’ provided at conferences and seminars, and exchange cards with as many people as I can.) The one thing these three things share is self-promotion and push-marketing.”

That’s true – and we know how annoying that can get sometimes!

“In the era of social media, you must re-think how you promote yourself and your services. On Biznik, business networking is about participating in a community – not selling to that community. Business networking on BIZNIK is a byproduct when members turn to one another with a collaborative approach. Successful networking happens through building relationships, strengthening your reputation, and investing in your social capital. This is also called pull-marketing.”

What is the primary goal ─ the mission of what you do?

“A report based on the 2007 U.S. Census showed that of the 27 millions businesses in the U.S., 20 million (nearly 75%) are what the IRS calls, “personal businesses,” (i.e. companies of one.) The largest issues these businesses face are invisibility and isolation. Using social networking technology, Biznik offers extraordinary visibility through search engine optimization and a site that rewards participation. Biznik also provides a community of people you can meet face to face on your own terms, at events you create.

Shane Petersen, EcoBroker Realtor at the Windermere Eastlake office in Seattle, and a member of Biznik, said: “Every entrepreneur should be highly involved in the community in which they live and work. You need to be in front of people. The beauty of organizations like Biznik is that they create a community of like-minded people. You don’t have to look outside of Biznik to find the tools and resources needed to grow your business."

What is your mission, overall?

“My mission is to facilitate the growth of this community of micropreneurs dedicated to helping each other succeed.”

How did you get started in all this, and how have you arrived where you are right now?

“Well, I’ve practiced serial entrepreneurship for nearly all of my post-undergraduate adult life. From 1999 to 2006, I ran Studio LEAF, a successful photography business. In 2005, I married Dan McComb, an indie web developer, and a fellow serial entrepreneur. Before long, the conversation about business networking arose. We were tired of the events that focused on referral-passing and rolodex-stuffing, disappointed with the local associations that did not utilize simple social networking tools, and dissatisfied with the online business communities that didn’t provide a means for meeting face to face. Discontented with our own experience with business networking, Biznik was founded with the simple premise that business networking shouldn’t suck.

That’s certainly a noble goal, I laugh.

“Yes, we felt we were on a mission! Dan built the first version of the web site in his spare time. What started as a group of friends sharing needs, resources and camaraderie has grown to 30,000 small business people world-wide.”

Which of your projects are you currently most excited, most passionate about?

“Biznik is currently producing a short film about small business in America. On May 6, 2009, we threw a social media event in the Fremont Studios, Seattle’s largest film production studio, called SHINE. SHINE was the largest collaborative social media film project Seattle has ever seen. 450 people attended the event, and over the course of the evening, 250 small business owners had the opportunity to ‘tell their story’ to one of the 12 video crews. More information is available at

Here’s two 60-second unofficial productions created that night by participants with personal cameras: and “

How much of your work is focused specifically toward women?

“None of my work is focused specifically on women as Biznik is a gender-neutral community. Having said that ─ on a side, I’ve been meeting monthly with a women’s peer advisory group for 3 years. We call ourselves Nourish, and the substance the seven of us offer each other, in the form of listening, mirroring and advice, fits closely with the definition of nourishment: ’the substances necessary for growth, health and good condition’ .

Our group includes an interior designer, a freelance copy writer, the owner of a moving company, and an MBA student. I am the only one building an international company with tens of thousands of customers, and the only one sharing a business with my spouse. Collectively we balance children and marriages, relationships with aging parents and employees, while staying committed to the path of entrepreneurship.”

What are some of the ways / places you promote your enterprise?

“Our success during these trying economic times is based on the value our members find in the Biznik service and the community it supports. In fact, we’ve grown entirely through word of mouth because small business owners need this type of resource to thrive. Biznik is currently growing at a rate of 3,000 new members per month.”

That’s impressive!

“Yes!” Lara smiles. “So ─ Biznik expects to achieve profitability within the next six months.”

Whom / what does your network currently include? How far does your network extend?

“Biznik’s members can be found in over 140 countries, but that is a demonstration of the long-tail. Biznik is primarily used in North America, with fully 1/3 of our members in the Seattle area where we were founded. This year, activity has grown significantly in cities like San Francisco, Austin, Los Angeles, New York and San Diego.”

What has been the best about building a network: Positive experiences you’ve had? Benefits, expected and unexpected?

“The most rewarding and perhaps most unexpected benefit was hearing the stories from members who met critical partners, clients, friends and collaborators in Biznik. I can count on more than one hand, the number of times someone has told me with tears in their eyes, that they give Biznik credit for keeping their business. Moments like that, I know I’m on the right path.”

Amen! Now ─ have you found any challenges in your networking experiences? Unexpected events? Any benefits emerging from challenges in the long run?

"Well ─ on the business side of things, the largest challenge we’ve faced is monetization. We are committed to being available to all micro business people and set the entry level to zero. It’s free to join. At the same time, we’re also committed to an ad-free experience. Our business model is dependent on membership revenue from two premium levels of membership priced at $10 and $24, a month. The challenge we faced in the early days was sharing the value of the benefits, while the benefits were still under construction.

Biznik is a private, self-funded company, built by a small team of three until January of this year, when we added a fourth and fifth employee.”

Bottom line – What do you feel is really working well for you / your company?

“The community is working really well. Our members are supportive and kind to one another. I’m told that Biznik events possess a character of friendliness, generosity and openness not found at traditional business networking events. I think that is due to the emphasis we place on collaboration over competition, and the way the community frowns on pushy self-promotion.”

What are your plans and goals for the future (organizational / personal), especially regarding networking activities?

“This year is about spreading Biznik’s mission to other cities and building a national community that meets locally. Our long term goals include an idea for a venue where micropreneurs can work and meet, but also socialize and play.”

Any other point you’d like to emphasize at this time?

“Despite the impact of the deepening economic recession, Biznik continues to experience rapid growth. In the last six months, Biznik membership has grown 65% to more close to 30,000 members.”

In conclusion, anything you’d like to add for our readers? Some words of encouragement, inspiration?

“When times are tight, it can require a stretch to view those in competition with you, as potential collaborators. Your direct competitors are the same people you share the most in common with. Reach out to them and start a conversation.

Remember why you became an entrepreneur and what it means to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship isn’t just about the bottom line. Entrepreneurs are innovators and idea generators. Entrepreneurs help people and cause change in the world. We’ll get much further if we find ways to work together, rather than look for ways to shut each other out.”

Thank you so much for this interview, Lara! I find it really exciting to see such a unique vision, such dedication to help others succeed become so very successful, with no limits in sight!


Contact information: Where can people reach you?

You can reach Lara at

or .


Ann Barczay Sloan, M.A.

Author & Editor / Creative Writing Coach

Featured Columnist,


Author of the forthcoming book:

How to Use the Pieces of a Broken Heart:

Recipes for Rebirth


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