Interview #016: Michael Slater of SpeedNetworking.com

by Jay Delaney

Michael SlaterAbout Today’s Subject:
Michael Slater

Creator of: SpeedNetworking.com
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Website: www.speednetworking.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/SpeedNetworking

Turning A Love for Connecting Into a Business

Michael Slater has always loved to connect people.  He worked in business development for years, and in 2001, he decided to take the concept of speed dating and apply it to the networking world.  SpeedNetworking.com was soon born. It started out not as a business but more as a way for Michael to act on his love of connecting people and bringing them together.  But as the popularity and demand grew, Michael saw the opportunity to turn it into a business.  Since then, the business has grown.  Their client list includes Yale University, New York University, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, and the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau.  They currently have 40 clients, including Fortune 100 companies.

“I come across a lot of individuals who have a bazillion ideas, and it’s great.  But stick to one and improve the process. Make it better. Become the master of that one.” -Michael Slater

Michael splits his time between SpeedNetworking.com – traveling across the country to host networking events and promoting the business – and also serving as the Managing Director at his family’s real estate business, Slater Realty & Investments.  His real estate work provides a solid foundation that’s allowed him to take on more risk with SpeedNetworking.com.  His approach has been to first “build one strong foundation” and “get that machine going strong” to then allow him time to work on other ideas.  Keep in mind that juggling multiple businesses takes a lot of time.  He admits to putting in long hours, often working from early  in the morning through the evening, then spending a few hours at home with family, before diving back into work typically from 9pm to 1am.  But it’s clear that Michael loves what he does, and he’s found a nice groove dividing his working hours between real estate and networking.

Here’s a 2-min Clip (scroll down for the full video interview)

A Few Insights from My Conversation with Michael

A theme you’ll notice in the insights I picked up from Michael is the idea of focus.  Much of our conversation in one way or another was about this notion of really staying focused – in your business, in your networking, and in choosing ideas to unleash.

  1. Build one strong foundation, then you can move on to another project as well. He mentioned spending 2 years training a key staff person on the operation.  You have to invest time in establishing processes and systems that contribute to a strong footing.  Once you’ve built that, then you can pick another passion to add to the mix.
  2. Identify the key associations and networking groups in your area or industry and then pick one or two to get deeply involved with instead of just scratching the surface with numerous groups. Michael said he sees too many people  getting involved with 5 different associations or networking groups, going to events expecting to meet all kinds of great people.  When that doesn’t happen, they get discouraged.  Instead of just scratching the surface, pick 1-2 to focus in on and get deeply involved; join a committee or a board.  That deep engagement is where real relationships develop.
  3. Pick one idea and stick to it. Don’t jump around between too many ideas and spread yourself too thin. Pick an idea, keep improving it, and develop your expertise at that.

The Full 16-min Interview

Transcript of Our Conversation

Jay Delaney: Can you give us the cliffs notes version of your bio and something you’re working on right now that you’re excited about?

Michael Slater: Sure.  Michael Slater. I live a dual life.  I have a business in real estate and a business of speed networking, which is a great passion of mine.  Real estate is a family business.  Got started over 30 years ago in the Edgewater/Uptown areas, a bunch of other areas of Chicago as well and also Ohio.  When I’m not doing that, I’m also doing speed networking which was a true passion. I’d always been in sales, and I did business development for 15 years, and through those years I always wanted to find ways to better connect people ‘cause the end result was it made me look like a better person trying to help other people and it essentially drove my business up, business development.  So I’ve been a big part of my alumni association, Indiana University, and the business school.  And through that process, I got involved and I tried to find ways to make great events in which it connected people.  Without question, there was this great event going on called speed dating.  I did not partake in it.  I had already met my wife at that point.  So I never had to sample the product.  But I said, “Why couldn’t we do speed dating for business?”  So I turned back to my alumni association that I was very involved with, and I said, “Why can’t we do this?”  And they kind of laughed at me at first and said, “Well put it together, and we’ll see if it can work.”  So I picked a school to build some camaraderie with it, Purdue University, the biggest rival to Indiana.  I said let’s have a joint networking event and brought the Indiana folks and the Purdue folks together.  But the objective was for business.  We were from like types of schools.  Let’s try and get to know each other.  It was a slam dunk.  We’re all from Chicago. We’re all business people, and the business development took place.  To make a long story short, on the cliff note of it is that it began to evolve.  We did it several other times for the school. Then other schools started to inquire about it.  We grew and grew and grew.  Then we got involved with software, and we incorporated software to then make the matches better.  So if you wanted to meet a certain person, we would connect you to that person that when you came to the event, you had an opportunity to meet them.

Jay Delaney: What I think’s interesting too about it, so many networking events that I’ve been to, there’s not enough of a push to get people to really talk to each other.  So it’s easy to go to these networking events and just be a fly on the wall if you want to.  Certainly some of the ultra-extraverted people are always out and very comfortable in those environments, but I know people who are more shy and quiet and introverted, and it’s not as easy to navigate and get to know people.  So I think it’s great that you give people that push to really talk.  Tell me, in terms of speed networking, from when you had the idea for it to when you actually took action, what was that time period and what was kind of going through your head?  Did you have the idea for a while, and it took you a while to really take action?  Or did you come up with the idea and very quickly decide to dive in?

Michael Slater: Good question.  I had run an organization for the school, for young professionals.  So I ran that for a year or two.  And it just dawned on me during the speed dating days, “Let’s have some fun with networking.”  To your point, for the introverts who often come to events, and they’re by the cocktails.  They’re by the food.  They’re not event talking.  They’re on their blackberries or their phones, and they’re just finding excuses not to talk to each other.  But yet they have so much to offer.  They’re usually a lot of bright, smart people.  And we want to get to know them, but they just have that awkwardness.  During that process we said let’s have some fun.  Let’s incorporate this.  My personality is, “Let’s just give it a shot.” What do we got to lose?  We’re bringing people together.  Let’s try it.  So it took me about 3-6 months to get that first one off the ground, which was the coordination, the marketing, etc. and we filled it up.  And we did surveys.  That survey gave the confidence to keep doing it.  Would you do this again?  What should we do to make it better?  How many of the people would you follow up with that you met at these events?  So it actually evolved pretty quickly.  And then I purchased the domain name, Speednetworking.com which today is like how people say, “I’m gonna go make a Xerox,” where people don’t realize they’re saying the name of a company.  Not a photocopy, but a Xerox.  People now all over the country run speed networking events, so we get a lot of organic traffic to our site at Speednetworking.com.

Jay Delaney: When it started out, did it start out as a business?  When you initially had your first event, you were thinking, “This is a business.”  It wasn’t just…?

Michael Slater: No, I thought when I was with the school, let’s just have fun.  I wanted to find better ways to make connection for my own business development.  It was my volunteer time with the alumni association.  But what happened is as people started coming back to me from other associations, chambers, etc. and said, “Hey, can you run this for our group?” I realized my time was getting so consumed with that, and I wasn’t charging anything for it, so I thought, maybe there is some type of business here.  We’ve probably done somewhere around 800-900 events now.  It’s been so much fun.  And to think about how many connections were made, there is value here.  When you hear from people, you get repeat business that come back and say it, I’ve got to turn this into a business.  There’s something here.  It took probably about a year to a year and a half before I got the clunk on the head to say, “Hey, there’s something here.”

Jay Delaney: Maybe you can talk for a minute about something I’m interested in these days is this concept of security and stability. And, I feel like there’s this new normal that’s either emerging or maybe already has emerged where that’s kind of a thing of the past for the vast majority of people.  I’m curious, do you feel a sense of security and stability in terms of job and work and career? Does that kind of shift and ebb?

Michael Slater: For me personally or for the…?

Jay Delaney: For you personally.

Michael Slater: I’m pretty confident.  The multi-family obviously in today’s economy is very strong, and we keep a very close grip on our business.  So operations are going well.  So I have that level of security.

Jay Delaney: So the real estate is kind of the foundation that gives you….

Michael Slater: Yes, so you build one strong foundation.  You get that machine going strong, and that gives you time then to work on other projects.  There’s no question I still have to be here to manage and facilitate.  We have a great staff, and that is, personnel is huge.  It’s a huge key to success.  And they know about the processes, so therefore I can go on to the speed networking where I’m now going to take on more risks and absorb those risks on the Speednetworking.  And I’m going to fall down; there’s no question.  There’s ups and downs whenever you start a business.  So on the speed networking, is there risk?  Sure, there’s always risk.  But I’ve been doing it for so long because it’s a passion.  And just making sure you manage your dollars well and your processes well.  I only see the growth in the future of it.  If for one reason or another it doesn’t succeed, I’m fortunate enough to fall back on the real estate.

Jay Delaney: So let me ask you this question.  Do you ever feel, you have these two passions that you’re working towards constantly, three if we include family, but in terms of work, real estate, speed networking, do you ever get tired of those two things?  Do you ever have other passions that you wish you could pursue and you just sort of have to push to the back of your mind and say, “I don’t have time for it.” This is what I’ve decided.  This is the path I’m taking.  How do you deal with that?

Michael Slater: Sure, there’s other passions.  Occupational passions, not so much.  Technology in some respect.  But, personally, sure, there’s many other things I’d love to do.  Traveling with the family.  All those outside items.  But other passions?  Our family, I think it’s in our blood.  From my grandfather, both sides.  My father, etc.  Even my wife’s family, very entrepreneurial.  And just, I don’t know, this is how we’re born and how we’re bred.  We just focus on what we do and do it the best we can.

Jay Delaney: What about just a couple of pieces of advice in terms of networking?  Since we are sitting here with a networking guru, I think we can safely say that.  And I know it’s very open-ended, what are one or two things that might be helpful to people pursuing an entrepreneurial path, any kind of networking advice you want to share?

Michael Slater: One thing I always talk about is to identify yourself with key associations or groups and get involved.  I see too many times that people run around and jump on 5 different associations.  They expect to go to an event, and they’re going to meet all these great people. And then they walk away let down, saying, “I met nobody; it was terrible; I met all the wrong people.” Where I see the folks who get involved, they join a board on the association or group.  And they really embrace it and take it.  All of a sudden, people start looking up to them.  And now they’re being introduced, the directors are introducing them to all these great people.  And now they see things have really blossomed.  That’s the one thing I always recommended.  Get involved.

The other thing I often talk about is connect with spheres of influence.  A sphere of influence is simply somebody else who’s just a well-connected individual that you enjoy the relationship with.  You want to try to meet those people.  They’re a wealth of knowledge.  They have great connections.  Like you said, it’s a broad question, depending on what your industry is, etc.

Jay Delaney: Those are two great pieces.  I think it’s easy, especially these days, it’s easy to disperse yourself in too many directions instead of just being focused and focusing on depth of connections instead of getting too caught up in breadth of associations and memberships.

So the last question, what advice do you have for people who are out pursuing their own path and trying to create their own map so to speak?

Michael Slater: Block out the people who say it can’t be done, it’s not going to work, what are you thinking?  Just go for it.  If that’s what the passion is, just go for it.  When I started doing the speed networking, there were people who said who’s the heck going to do that?  What are you thinking?  Here I am with 40 clients that include Fortune 100 companies, huge law firms.  We’re flying out to a massive hospital system next week.  Go for it.  Block out what everybody else is telling you.  When Google got started, someone thought they were nuts.  No one thought they were going to buy into Google.  Facebook.  Go for it.  I know that’s kind of a cliché.  People always say that.  But the hardest thing is to block out all of the people who have the negative mentions about it.  If that’s what your passion is, go for it. But, get connected to people who have the positive energy to keep pulling you through it.

Jay Delaney: One more question on that note.  Do you feel like picking that idea that you’re really going to go for, because I think for some people the challenge is they have numerous ideas, and picking one and really just deciding to focus in on that one is the challenge for some people.  It doesn’t seem like it’s the challenge for you, Michael.  But I’m curious.  Do you think that it’s kind of like love where you just know it when you find it?  How did you know that speed networking was that idea that you just needed to pursue regardless of what other people were saying?

Michael Slater: For me personally, I always had a passion for connecting people together.  That was always a passion.  Where it went from there, it led to a couple of weddings. It led to business.  It led to everything in the middle from there.  I come across a lot of individuals who have a bazillion ideas, and it’s great.  But stick to one and improve the process. Make it better. Become the master of that one.  Because if you’re on to this one six months later, no one’s going to remember you for what this was.  And fight to keep it going.  I fought for many years to keep the speed networking alive.  Maybe when we started, we were a little too ahead of the game.  And now it’s coming around.  If you Google the word “speed networking,” 16 million pages come up.  It’s all over the place.  But, you just gotta stick to it.  That is my entire game plan.  I’ve had that passion. I’ve stuck to it.  I’ve focused on it.  My wife hears about it all too much. My family hears about it all too much.  They have seen the progression of it.  That’s just my DNA I guess.  That’s just how I was bred.  And I enjoy it.  I lost a little bit of hair along the way, but what can you do?

Jay Delaney: Thanks so much. That was great.

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