When I started my business as an at-home personal trainer, before I pulled the trigger on spending any money on any advertising, I began participating in local networking events. I had a few objectives. The primary reasons were to network with potential clients, cultivate business partnerships and begin to establish myself in the local business community.

But perhaps of even greater value of attending various networking events was that this gave me several opportunities to practice pitching my business so I could hone my brand and my message. My "30-second elevator pitch" was constantly evolving based on what questions people would ask about my business and whether there was even an interest in the services I provided. This practice gave me more and more clarity around my brand, who was my core clientele and how to most effectively position what I do to differentiate myself. Without a clear message, spending very limited startup dollars on advertising would have resulted in little to no return.

Here are 3 things I learned that helped me get the most out of networking in order to establish my business and brand even before I spent any marketing or advertising dollars:

1. Listen to the way other business owners talk about their business. Do you know exactly what they offer because their message is clear, concise and unambiguous? Are they specific about who their core clientele is and the specific product or service they offer? Or do you find that you're left wondering what they really do because they weren't able to effectively articulate what they do.

2. Always position your business in a manner that communicates, "what's in it for them." In no more than about 2 or 3 sentences you should be able to clearly state who your ideal client is and how they benefit from your services.

3. Pay attention to questions people ask about your business and then begin to integrate the answers of commonly asked questions in to your message. If a common question you're hearing is "Where do you train clients," be sure to include this in your main pitch. For example, instead of "I am a personal trainer and can help anyone who wants to lose weight or tone-up," try, "I offer at-home personal training sessions for busy women with my signature 30-minute workout. What I do best is tailor programs to fit each of my client's busy work and family schedules that they can't experience in a typical gym."

These networking events, usually at the cost of lunch, became the foundation for establishing my brand, my message and most importantly, how to most effectively communicate it in a way that separated me from any competition. Once I was ready to begin spending dollars on advertising and marketing, I already had a strong foundation of what would work and what wouldn’t to attract my ideal clientele.