The Washington Post

Cadre, a high-priced networking group, serves the self-employed crowd

In business, it’s often all about who you know, and networking events have become a popular way to get to know the right people. Virtually every profession has its monthly lunches and mixers, complete with business-card exchanges, opportune introductions and “how’s business?” inquiries.

Derek Coburn, a financial planner, frequented local networking events, but he felt the gatherings were too transactional. To him, it seemed attendees focused on swapping cards quickly, getting some new business leads and heading out the door.

Or as he calls it, “one-night stands, not meaningful relationships.”

So in March of 2011, he and his wife, Melanie, founded Cadre, an exclusive networking group for “remarkable business professionals” whose stated mission is to help each other. Cadre joins groups like the Potomac Officer’s Club, the Tower Club, the Young Presidents Organization and others as the latest hangout for those at the top of the corporate food chain.

“It’s networking for people who are usually prey at networking events,” said Coburn, who splits his time between Cadre and Washington Financial Group, where he is a partner. “It’s is for people who want to avoid being hit in the eye by a flying business card. If you’re meeting people in Cadre, they’re vetted, they’re high-quality.”

The group meets in the District about four times each month to talk, eat lunch and hear inspirational speeches from business owners. Cadre currently has about 100 members, and Coburn caps the number from each industry in order to prevent the group from being overrun by techies, lawyers or any other sector.

Cadre stands for Connecting Advocates Deepening Relationships Exclusively, and the “exclusively” means it’s harder to get into than similar groups. Each new member must be invited by an existing member, and about six out of 10 prospective applicants, “aren’t a good fit,” Coburn said.

Membership costs $500 a month, higher than several other executive-level networking groups in the region. (The Young President’s Organization costs $3,000 a year plus various chapter dues, the Potomac Officer’s Club is $795 per year, and the Tower Club dues range from $140 to $250 each month.)

If it sounds steep, make sure Coburn doesn’t hear it in your voice: He said he rejects members who seem overly focused on getting their money’s worth in business deals.

“If they’re focused on ROI [return on investment], if they have that bit of desperation, like, ‘If I’m going to be paying $500 a month -- when do you think I’ll start making money?’” Coburn said, explaining the types of warning signs that might cause him to turn away an applicant. “If you don’t feel like you have a great business, Cadre is not a place to become great.”

Motivational speeches

Cadre events aren’t as fancy as the price might suggest. A recent gathering was held in the back room of Affinity Lab, the hip U Street co-working space. Folding chairs were assembled in rows and several dozen attendees, who wore everything from suits and ties to jeans and t-shirts, grabbed chicken wraps on their way in. The events are not for the hurried: each one is approximately two hours long, with time for lunch, an hour-long presentation and for networking.

The day’s presenter was Jim Garland, the founder of Sharp Details in Loudoun County. As he began talking, attendees whipped out notebooks and iPads, taking careful notes.

Garland regaled the audience with this life story: How he went from being a C-student at Radford University to the proprietor of a multi-million dollar business.

“How many of you own businesses?” Garland asked. Most hands in the room shot up.

Determined to start a boat-cleaning company right out of college in 1991, Garland tried guerilla marketing -- literally. He printed up flyers for “Barnacle Jim’s Boat Cleaners,” scaled the fence of a marina near his home and stuck the flyers on the windshields of boats. After an angry phone call from the local police, he got his act together (including a proper business license and some insurance) and tried again, this time without trespassing. Soon, he was cleaning boats all day and waiting tables at night, sometimes going months at a time working either one or both jobs each day.

His big break came when a client offered him a corporate-jet-cleaning job, and he shifted his company to the higher-dollar airplane market from there.

Between 2000 and 2006 Sharp Details grew exponentially, and Garland continued his workhorse habits, rarely taking days off to spend with his wife and four kids and controlling most of the business’ operations himself.

By 2010, Garland was ready to take a break. He took his wife and kids on a year-long trip around the world, checking in with his business only twice a month by phone. Not only did Sharp Details not fall apart in his absence, it continued to grow.

With tears in his eyes, Garland said his wake-up call was when, “you’re watching your kids grow up and you’re not part of that.”

He urged the crowd to delegate parts of their businesses to others, take time off and truly disconnect every once in a while -- including from their smartphones.

“Is there anyone who doesn’t see every day as a work day?” he asked.

Only one man raised his hand.

“I propose you start making days where you don’t work,” Garland said.

There were a few knowing nods.

It’s this sort of speech that many Cadre members come for. In the past, the group has hosted DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFL Players Association, and the marketing consultant Chris Brogan.

Garland’s speech was a favorite for Roger Brown, a former NFL player who now owns Train Like a Pro, a D.C. fitness company.

“He spoke from the heart to me,” Brown said. “It’s all about family and taking yourself out of the equation every once in awhile.”

Making connections

After Garland’s presentation was over, Cadre members sat in a circle, introduced themselves and offered up their services for the group. Marcus Sheridan, a marketing blogger and pool salesman, said he’d be willing to take a look at anyone’s Web site, gratis. Justin Gutwein owns a video-marketing company called ShineOn Storytelling and invited questions about video production.

Then came the evaluation forms, where each person scored the others on aspects such as, “I have an introduction or opportunity for this person RIGHT NOW!” or “I believe I could be an advocate for this person, but would like to learn more about them so I will better know how to identify opportunities on their behalf.”

After the lunch, Coburn acts as a business yenta, setting up Cadre members with each other if they need certain services or seek business partnerships. Despite down-playing the return-on-investment angle, several Cadre members have, in fact, gotten new business through the group.

“This is really pro-Cadre -- they want to do business with each other,” said Michael Goldstein, a member and head of Endeavor D.C., explaining that the attitude at Cadre is more inwardly-focused than in other groups. “Other networking groups will do business with each other -- or not.”

And the high-profile members also have certain intangibles to offer.

Rohit Bhargava, a senior vice president at the marketing company Ogilvy, joined Cadre and subsequently featured three of the group’s members in his book, Likeonomics, Coburn said. When Coburn and his wife wanted to attend the White House easter egg roll, Brown made some calls and got them two tickets.

Cadre also offers a certain camaraderie -- and motivation -- for those at the top, according to several members. It can be lonely to be an entrepreneur, said Joey Coleman, a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur. Cadre offers a circle of peers who, at least outwardly, don’t want anything from you.

“The people you’re closest to have a similar level of success, and being around people who are even a bit farther along than you forces you to up your game,” he said. “The fact that in Cadre you’re surrounded by people who are living their dream is absolutely priceless.”

Follow @olgakhazan and @onsmallbiz on Twitter.



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