A private investigator, a piano teacher and an insurance salesman walk into a bar.

It might sound like a set-up for a punch line, but it's no joke. The truth is, these professionals and others are meeting in Southwest Florida restaurants to try out an innovative new way to market their services and attract new customers.

They're doing this through FastPitch!, a concept inspired by "speed dating" events where single people are introduced in seven-minute one-on-one encounters to see if sparks fly. But unlike speed dating, FastPitch! participants aren't looking for love, they're looking for clients. Up to 50 attendees-business people from a wide variety of backgrounds-come together for a high-speed marketing marathon in which they "pitch" their businesses or services in a series of one-on-one encounters.

FastPitch!, founded in late 2003, has already held 20 marketing events throughout Southwest Florida, including several in the Tampa Bay area and in Sarasota at Sammy Frog's, a casual restaurant and bar in Lakewood Ranch. Bill Jula, director of USF Sarasota-Manatee South, is FastPitch!'s founder, "as well as executive director, CEO, CFO," he jokes. He developed the FastPitch! concept as an alternative to traditional networking events-breakfasts, lunches or happy hours sponsored by local chambers of commerce, professional organizations and clubs-where it's too tempting to huddle with friends and colleagues rather than to branch out, meet new people and make new contacts. "FastPitch! forces people to take the initiative," says Jula. "It's an organized networking event. Instead of just socializing at happy hour, participants spend their time trying to develop relationships."

A recent FastPitch! event at Sammy Frog's in Sarasota began with a half-hour reception and sign-in period, during which participants ordered drinks, munched free appetizers and handed out logo products from business cards to ballpoint pens to money clips. After a brief introduction, Jula and event manager Molly McWaters explained the setup. Half of the FastPitch! attendees-there are 25 to 50 at a given event-will stay seated, and the other half will rotate from person to person. McWaters, armed with a whistle, keeps time.

When the whistle blew, the pairs shook hands and the room exploded in conversation. One thing became clear: FastPitch! is no place for wallflowers. The rapid, one-on-one nature of the session forces people to speak up and speak quickly-they've got about two minutes each to get their messages across. McWaters warned the crowd when they had 30 seconds to wrap up their conversations, then blew the whistle again. A parting handshake, then those seated on one side of the long dining tables stood up and moved one seat down, across from the next "pitch." When the whistle blew again, they were off and running.

The process, which at first glance seems a little frenetic and disorganized, works surprisingly well. No one wastes time getting down to business-sharing information about their companies, services and backgrounds, and finding common ground with the person seated across from them. There's no time to get bored, and absolutely no lulls in conversation. And just as with speed dating, contact information is exchanged, so anyone who wants to follow up can do so easily once the event is over.

At the Sammy Frog's event, FastPitch! participants seemed to come from virtually every walk of business life. Lynette Revill, a Sarasota private investigator who's been in business for 20 years moved through the crowd with an air of discretion fitting for her profession. Sandy Silverman, a friendly, 60-ish long-term care insurance salesman, easily struck up conversations as he migrated from spot to spot. Larissa Schueffman, a cheerful piano teacher from Bradenton, said she was looking for new pupils, young, old or somewhere in between. Other professionals included a CPA, a web designer, a travel agent, management consultant and, a life and career coach. Most say they have tried, and continue to participate in, other networking events such as chamber luncheons and Kiwanis breakfasts, and all but one were giving FastPitch! a try for the first time.

Asset protection consultant Lee Parrish, of Millennium Services Group LLC, probably spoke for many when he said he made solid leads during the two-hour pitch session. "I feel very confident that I'll have some good business relationships from this," he said.

Parrish believes FastPitch! is a more effective alternative to traditional networking opportunities. "It's not always that easy to break the ice," he said. "Here, there's no ice to break," added Katie Cundiff, owner of Katie-Dids! Originals, Inc., a screen printing and embroidery outfit in Sarasota. Cundiff said she made several contacts during the evening, including Ed Ellis of Micon Packaging. She'd recently had a need for cardboard boxes on which company logos could be printed; now she knows whom to call.

Joanne Lain of JoLain Virtual Assistant Services was back for her second FastPitch! session. In addition to offering administrative services to businesses and individuals, Lain books casino parties. "At my last FastPitch!, I didn't get any new admin clients, but I booked a casino party," she said.

Kim Kennett, business development manager with Gevity, a human resources placement firm, had attended a network lunch earlier in the day. "Everyone but me knew everyone else there," she said. "I can see the value of both types of events, but FastPitch! is more intimate than walking up to a group of strangers who are already in a conversation and trying to introduce yourself."

Jula plans to grow FastPitch! to a statewide and perhaps a national company. He's even considering franchises. Sessions cost $30 to $40 each, and his repeat business is growing. At Sammy Frog's, more than one attendee murmured wistfully, "I wish I'd thought of it." Budding and enterprising entrepreneurs make up most of FastPitch!'s clients. More than half of the attendees at this recent session were self-employed, with businesses small or large, home-based or with dozens of employees. How many deals were struck? That remains to be seen. Jula surveys FastPitch! enrollees after each event, and claims a 95-percent satisfaction rate. Wonder if that can be said about speed dating?Β 

Visit www.FastPitch!networking.com or call 730-1793 to learn more or sign up for an event. Prices range from $30-$40 per session, and company owner Bill Jula also sells sponsorships, ads in an e-mail blast called "The Weekly Pitch," and markets a vendor directory to all participants.Β 

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