If you have a local business or website that you'd like to take national, or if you just like to hear stories of young entrepreneurs who have beaten the odds to realize business success, today's interview is for you. In the late ’80s, 8 year old Gelie Akhenblit and her family immigrated to the US as Soviet refugees fleeing religious persecution. Because of the hardships of poverty, it was necessary for her to take on many adult roles at that young age. She quickly became the family’s interface with the outside world — translating at doctor’s appointments, dealing with landlords, and even setting up and coordinating her own schooling. Gelie learned how important it was to know the right people and have access to the right resources at a very young age and she carried this knowledge into adulthood.
Today, Gelie is the CEO of NetworkingPhoenix.com, one of the most visited websites local to Arizona, and even making a global imprintÂ as one of the top 1% most visited global websites. Over 18,000 members have joined to date, and the website’s growth shows no signs of slowing.Â Gelie's insights into what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur are golden! So take it all in, and be sure to share your thoughts in the comments.
You founded NetworkingPhoenix.com in 2008, and it's grown to nearly twenty thousand members. To what do you contribute your growth rate, primarily?
We have been very fortunate as all of our growth has been very organic: word of mouth, forwarding emails, social media, ranking high on search engines, etc. Having our quarterly Signature Events provides a lot of visibility as well and we get many sign-ups around our networking events. However, I think the main reason behind our fast growth has been the fact that this is a much-needed service for the community. Business owners need to find new clients on a consistent basis and job seekers are always looking for opportunities. It's like I always say, networking never goes out of style.
There are a lot of networking events out there but few that draw thousands of participants like yours. Why do you think people come to your events in such great numbers?
We just hosted our 10th Signature Event that attracted about 2,000 attendees — which is phenomenal! I think people come because they hear great things about it. It's a place to make business connections, grow your network, meet new clients or find that next best job — the sheer energy in the room is just exciting! If people didn't think it was worth attending, they wouldn't be telling their friends to come. The very first event I ever had, I reserved the space for 125 people and more than 500 showed up. We've been growing ever since.
With online networks becoming so popular, what is the primary value of face-to-face networking events?
Nothing can replace a handshake or meeting someone face-to-face. I think online networking is a great way to stay in touch with people and get to know people's interests a bit more, but the initial face-to-face meeting is not something you can replace with social media. When you have a chance to meet someone and get to know him/her as a person, your chances of building a relationship from that point on are much greater.
You currently serve the Phoenix, AZ area. Any plans for national expansion? What is the process you go through to determine where and when to expand?
Absolutely! A lot of my work depends on having the right people in place. So, while I have specific geographic areas in mind, a good portion of the expansion will involve having quality people in place representing us in the different cities.
What has been the biggest business challenge you've had to face, and how did you overcome it?
Being a social media type of a site, we've faced some of the similar challenges that Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have battled. For example, how do you monetize the site? When we first launched, my goal was to build critical mass and worry about monetizing it later. That's exactly what we did and about 1.5 years into the business I came up with our Networking Passport concept. It's basically an optional paid membership program that we offer to our free members.
Once they sign up and become Networking Passport holders, they can attend many other organization's popular paid events for free. On a monthly basis, we have anywhere between 30 and 40 events in the Passport program, which range from $5 to $100 per ticket. The Networking Passport members can attend all of these events for free, therefore saving a great deal of money. The events range from Chamber mixers to educational seminars geared toward professional development.
The program has been wildly successful and we are expanding it daily by adding more events and more perks.
You've used social media very effectively to promote your business, and you've become known as a social media marketing expert. What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs trying to promote their businesses through social media?
Creating the proper infrastructure to implement your social media campaigns is key. Social media is a way for you to build and perpetuate your brand – be very careful with the information you put out into the world. I keep it at about 80/20; 80 percent personal and 20 percent business. People want to know about YOU before they want to know about your company. Show them value and make them care. And when it comes to personal posts, my rule of thumb is to always keep it light, bright and polite!
What three pieces of advice do you have for young entrepreneurs interested in starting their first business?
1. Let go of the fear and go for it! If you don't succeed the first time around you can always try again.
2. Surround yourself with like-minded individuals. Friends and family are great, but they're not always the support system that you need to move forward.
3. People will doubt you; it's part of the game. Just keep going and prove them wrong.
How do you personally define success?
If something that I created helps at least one person a day and makes someone's life better, I've already succeeded.