Today, the 30-year-old go-getter owns and runs Today's Executive Network (TEN) - a group of 1,300 executives and business owners who take networking to a new level, bonding over unique shared activities, and forming close business relationships in the process. "I've been an entrepreneur for the last 15 years, and one thing I've always struggled with is finding the right network to get involved in - where people are doing more than just handing out business cards and trying to sell their products and services," Buhler says.
"On LinkedIn, I found this group called the Manitoba Executive Group and the whole purpose of it was basically business owners and executives sharing business and ideas and I thought, 'Finally, this is exactly what I need.' "
Well, not exactly. While the group had 40 to 50 members online, there was no offline activity. A year after he joined, the organizer invited members to a lunch and networking event at a South Osborne bistro. Only a handful of people attended the lunch and, a month later, Buhler was the only member to show up at a planned breakfast event.
Something had to give. After the organizer transferred the reins to Buhler in January 2011, he decided to plow his marketing budget into revitalizing the group. "I basically started cold-calling people and invited them out to this brand-new executive networking concept. I actually rented an old nightclub downtown. I had food brought in, we had bartenders, entertainment, that sort of thing, and we ended up having 80 people show up," he says.
Unlike typical business events that follow a networking session with a sit-down speaker program, the event was strictly about networking, and several guests approached Buhler to ask when they could expect a repeat.
"I ended up doing eight high-end events that year, and by the end of the year we had a following of more than 470 people," he says. "I thought, 'Wow this is pretty cool,' but what was even more impressive is I'd done well over $500,000 in sales out of that group of people. "It really ended up being what networking is supposed to be, because I got to build relationships with somebody and eventually they become a customer."
A former board member for not-for-profit organization New Directions, and currently a business mentor with Futurpreneur Canada, Buhler sold his majority interest in his software company in 2012, when he got involved in Oxygen Technical Services Ltd., a fast-growing managed services and IT consulting company. He put the executive group on the back burner for several months, but in 2013, he mounted a series of casual monthly events that drew well over 1,000 people over the course of the year.
Recognizing that Manitoba's movers and shakers had an appetite for a networking-only organization, Buhler incorporated the group in August 2014, and offered memberships. Over the next 12 months, he organized 18 unique high-end networking events and welcomed 1,200 members. "We've got every type of industry from not-for-profit and health care to manufacturing to research and development, education, technology, personal services - you name it, we probably have it."
Events have included an open house at a luxury show home where guests participated in interactive activities with a golf pro and executive chef; a wellness day with yoga and TRX classes, a private screening of a new James Bond movie, and a group appearance as extras in the web TV series Wind City.
"When you're put in different environments with various people the relationship changes immediately," Buhler says. "From a social and experiential point of view people get value from that, but where the real value comes from is in being able to leverage those relationships into business opportunities."
He points to two members who met at a group event and decided to start a side project together, a successful business manufacturing escape room concepts. "For a few hundred dollars a year they got to be members of our group, network, have a lot of great experiences and generate $1.5 million in sales."
In September 2015, Bruce Croxon, of CBC's Dragons' Den, was keynote speaker at the group's first business summit. A second summit is planned for April 2017, and there are more good things to come.
And TEN has its first spin-off business - Buhler bought an Audi R8 supercar and a Porsche 911 Carrera for High Performance Driving Experience events. With instruction from professional drivers, guests get to put the pedal to the metal in driving or ride-along experiences. "We are here to accelerate the growth of our members' businesses, so putting people behind the wheel of these amazing cars seemed like a great fit."