Working the Network for Net Work

It seems like yesterday I was visiting a global petrochemical company here in Houston to discuss building a Web site for them. During the meeting, the company’s marketing representative asked me if Tenagra could deliver color printouts of some of its already-designed sites because none of the senior managers had computers. Naturally, I obliged, but found her not terribly uncommon request made me feel like I was living in a remote, technology-challenged area of the universe.

In spite of its strengths in the aerospace, biomedical, and petrochemical industries and despite the fact that it’s the home of companies like Compaq and Enron, Houston just a few years ago was a marketing and technology backwater compared to other major U.S. cities. With the exception of a few early adopters, businesses here were very late to adopt the benefits of Internet technology and online marketing. And with the exception of a few early financial players, there was virtually no venture-capital support for entrepreneurial endeavors. This is one of the primary reasons Tenagra has emphasized building a worldwide clientele rather than a local one.

Over the past two years, Houston has transformed itself into a network of entrepreneurial organizations and individuals that have created a thriving technological community. And many larger local companies are in the process of learning that they don’t have to go all the way to New York or San Francisco to find best-of-class products and service providers — all they have to do is look in their own backyard for vendors that are less expensive and more responsive.

The valuable lesson other “backwater” cities can learn from Houston’s rapid transformation is that to foster synergistic growth and alliance among technology companies, a city needs organizations with counterparts in other cities throughout the world to promote growth and networking. And this article unveils those very “Houstonian” organizations that could help motivate your town. And the winners are…

The Greater Houston Partnership

Probably the largest organization to facilitate networking among companies is the Greater Houston Partnership. The Partnership’s 2,200 members include companies of every size from virtually every industry sector and geographic area of the eight-county region. Combined, Partnership member companies employ almost 600,000 “Houstonians,” or roughly one out of every three employees in the region. I’ve been a part of its CEO Roundtable program for several years, sharing experiences with other CEOs, owners, and presidents who face similar business challenges.

The Houston Technology Center

Newer on the scene but quickly becoming a very powerful center of the technology community is the Houston Technology Center (HTC). The HTC champions technology by accelerating the success of emerging technology-based companies, by communicating Houston’s commercial technology successes, and by educating entrepreneurs and students to develop a tech-savvy work force. The HTC hosts a multitude of monthly technology panels and “digital mixer” events that bring members of the technology community together for education and social interaction. Through these events, I’ve found new clients and even a new law firm that really understands the needs of technology companies and has gone to bat for us to help Tenagra network with investors and technology partners.

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship

The Web site of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship says that the organization creates “a forum for exchange and collaboration between the technical and entrepreneurship/business communities” and acts as “a vehicle for support of, and advice to, inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs in their pursuit of new business concepts that will culminate in new jobs, and new sources of wealth for Rice, Houston, and the U.S. economy.”

The MIT Enterprise Forum

According to its Web site, the MIT Enterprise Forum is “dedicated to promoting and strengthening the way new companies get their start and to providing information for them to grow and prosper.” The Houston chapter has monthly Flagship events and New Venture Clinics that offer both educational and networking opportunities. It has chapters in many major U.S. cities, and you don’t have to be an M.I.T. alumnus to participate.

The Technology Entrepreneurs’ eXchange

The Technology Entrepreneurs’ eXchange (“Texchange“) describes itself as “a nonprofit networking organization for emerging technology entrepreneurs, professional and angel investors, experienced mentors, and related professionals in services firms, government, media, and academia.” It hosts networking dinners and panels on a monthly basis in Houston, Austin, and Dallas.

TechExecs

TechExecs is a grassroots peer network exclusively for entrepreneurs, executives, and investors in early-stage technology companies,” its Web site states. TechExecs offers CEO Roundtables, a Breakfast Briefing series, and free Executive Speakers Panel events each month. Nearly every major venture-capital group in Houston participates in these events.

Texas eComm

According to its Web site, “Texas eComm is the Business Association for the New Economy representing the electronic commerce industry throughout Texas.” It hosts educational seminars along with the annual Texas eComm Ten Awards that each year honor Texas’s 10 most innovative and influential eCommerce leaders. There are similar groups in other states.

The Texas Chamber of Electronic Commerce

The Texas Chamber of Electronic Commerce (TCEC) is an organization that aggregates “local chambers of commerce and other civic organizations with a high concentration of business leaders,” says its Web site. It “assists these groups in educating their members about the emerging trends in E-Business” through seminars, workshops, and newsletters.

The Entrepreneurship Institute

As one of the local board of directors for The Entrepreneurship Institute, we host an annual Presidents Forum, an event that provides education and networking for local businesses. There are chapters in 19 cities throughout the U.S.

Fast Houston

Fast Houston is the local cell of the Company of Friends coordinated by Fast Company magazine. They sponsor networking cells worldwide.

First Tuesday

While they don’t have a chapter in Houston, another helpful networking group is First Tuesday, a global meeting place and marketplace for start-ups. Last year I chaired a panel on online advertising for their Los Angeles chapter.

Association of Internet Professionals

The Association of Internet Professionals has chapters in many cities worldwide.

Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization and World Entrepreneurs’ Organization

(I saved the best for last.) The Young Enterpreneurs’ Organization and World Entrepreneurs’ Organization are far and away the most valuable networking organizations I have ever belonged to because both groups offer tremendous benefits to individuals aged 44 and younger who have founded businesses with revenues of more than one million dollars per year. Monthly chapter events are fantastic for both education and networking, and our forum (roundtable) events provide each of us an additional virtual “board of directors.” Their semiannual university events are terrific educational and social opportunities. With more than 90 chapters worldwide, you have a good chance of finding one near you.

Just as links on the Web come together to create something more than the sum of its parts, your local business environment offers you the opportunity to create a network of real people that can provide great value to your business. I urge you to follow the pattern of these organizations to create your own networking events, and avoid becoming a casualty of the dot-com downturn.

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