Must Read: World’s greatest club

Written by Allan Britnell

For most entrepreneurs, booking a business trip to a destination where they have no personal or professional contacts would be a massive waste of time and money. But not for Mark Organ.

That’s because the CEO of Toronto-based software developer Eloqua Corp. is a member of LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com), one of a growing number of online business networks (OBNs).

When Organ booked a recent trip to Singapore sight unseen and without having a single acquaintance on the island, he used LinkedIn to find out which of his friends — and his friends’ friends — had contacts there. Within days, he’d booked 14 meetings with Singaporeans he’d met online through LinkedIn. “Many have experience in my industry, and I could even do due diligence about them by contacting people that we are both connected with,” raves Organ. “I think I’m going to expand in Asia at a much faster rate, because of the networks that I have.”

With the help of OBNs, you can accelerate your expansion, too. A cross between online dating services and contact management programs, OBNs turbocharge the networking process, essentially giving you online access to the annotated address books of your contacts and their contacts. Point, click and see exactly who is in your extended network and contact them. No wonder millions have joined OBNs since the granddaddy of OBNs, San Francisco-based Ryze.com, débuted in 2001.

LinkedIn, one of the largest OBNs, exemplifies how they work. Once you’ve joined by creating your member profile (which includes basic contact and biographical information, such as your occupation), you can search by keyword to find people at up to three degrees of separation with whom you might want to connect. You can quickly build your inner circle by inviting LinkedIn members up to twice removed from you to join it.

However, you can make contact with friends of friends (and so on) only through an introduction by a mutual contact. It’s a blessing for those who don’t want to field a constant stream of solicitations from the hundreds, if not thousands, of strangers in your extended network. But, as LinkedIn user and Toronto entrepreneur Evan Carmichael notes, “If you have to go through more than one person [for an introduction], the chances of getting a reply really go down.” Luckily, LinkedIn’s paid subscriptions — ranging from US$15 to US$200 a year — allow you to send direct inquiries to people in the outer orbit of your network.

Long popular with headhunters, OBNs are now being used by CEOs for do-it-yourself recruiting. Organ says LinkedIn helped him hire a senior VP of business development who is based in Silicon Valley. He has also used his online connections to conduct blind reference checks and has “avoided two bad hires” as a result.

Carmichael has discovered another way to leverage OBNs: “I’ll get calls from people on my network saying, ‘I see you know so-and-so from XYZ Company. How do you know them?’ Then they contact the person at XYZ with a phone call rather than via LinkedIn.”

However you use OBNs, think of them as supplements to old-fashioned, face-to-face networking. While keystrokes can help you open more deals, you still need handshakes to close them.

© 2006 Allan Britnell

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com