Nora Tocci on Organic Networking
CEO & Founder
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CEO and President
In our tenth episode, Nora Tocci, CEO and President of Contrast, Inc., joins host Alana Muller to share how building trust with her customers has helped to organically grow her professional network. Tune in to learn how Nora engages with her local community to establish mutually beneficial professional relationships. “It's really all word of mouth…We let our work and our work ethic speak for itself and that sort of organically grows networking.”
Alana Muller: Welcome to Enterprise.ing, a podcast from Enterprise Bank & Trust that's empowering business leaders, one conversation at a time. We'll hear from different business leaders about how they found success in cultivating their professional networks and keeping them healthy and strong. I'm your host, Alana Muller, an entrepreneurial executive leader whose primary focus is to connect, inspire, and empower community. We at Enterprise Bank & Trust thank you for tuning in to another episode.
Hello, everyone. Welcome to another episode of Enterprise.ing. I'm so glad to have you here. And I'm so glad to invite today's guest to join us. We have with us today, Nora Tocci, who is CEO and President and Co-Founder of Contrast, where she oversees all aspects of technology development, managing budgets, marketing strategies, and customer relations. Nora has extensive experience in optical system design, assembly, and testing. She is co-author of, get this, more than 25 issued and pending US patents for optical devices and systems. She is an expert in topics I can barely pronounce. Let me share a few of them with you. One is high-dynamic range video systems, beam control and pointing systems, alignment of diagnostics, multi-spectral imaging sensors, say that fast 20 times, optical metrology, medical imaging devices, and tracking systems. Oh my gosh, Nora, welcome to Enterprise.ing. You are literally a rocket scientist and I'm so happy you're here.
Nora Tocci: Thank you so much for having me and happy to be here to see if I can help.
Alana Muller: Well, Nora, tell us a little bit about Contrast and your work and what should our listeners know about your organization?
Nora Tocci: So we started our company, my husband and I, back in 2005 mostly to provide optical services to larger companies that maybe didn't have optics and those types of services in-house. So we started there, and then we developed some ideas for doing high-dynamic range video. And then we expanded into real-time imaging of high-dynamic range video. And then we started doing our own camera line. And so now we provide all sorts of engineering services and custom cameras to a variety of aerospace and entertainment industries.
Alana Muller: That's amazing. I want to talk a little bit, of course, about my favorite topic because that's what Enterprise.ing is all about, and that is relationships. Tell me a little bit about how you manage your network, your relationship base.
Nora Tocci: Well, that's kind of funny because when you guys reached out to me to do this, all I could think was, "I don't do any networking at all." So I wasn't really sure how my name, through whatever network, came up. But my networking is, you read my bio, it's not like I'm going to go to some event and find somebody who knows what I do and I'm going to sell products to them on site. So most of my networking is really just building trust with customers and expanding our reach inside of larger organizations. And then it's really all word of mouth and people we've worked for that know that we can perform, and do the work to make them look good, and make us look good and to do things that other people can't do. So we just kind of let our work and our work ethic speak for itself and that sort of organically grows networking, at least I hope so.
Alana Muller: Well, for sure. And you talked about I think the number one thing, and that is word of mouth and this idea of trust of all things. It's the most important thing, I think, in business is established and maintaining that trust because without it we have nothing really. So one thing I do know about you is that you have great affection for Albuquerque where you reside and where Contrast is based. How has your geographic affinity for your adopted hometown shaped your interactions or who you engage with for networking opportunities, however few and far between they may be?
Nora Tocci: Yeah. I think what I've tried to do is sort of grow a local group of, usually, people who are very well networked, unlike me, who have large Rolodexes that I trust, that I get in touch with. But interestingly enough, there's a lot of small businesses here in Albuquerque. And a lot of them work for really big companies and they do a lot of amazing work. And so we tend to just kind of grow locally and get to know other companies, even if they're not, especially if they're not, in our same space, in the hopes that we can make these connections and introduce those good companies to other companies.
And it all just sort of works itself out and comes back around. But then we have this really great foundation of community and local companies that are helping education and other small businesses that might just be retail, not tech, or not in our sphere, and reach out to them in all these different ways. So it's super cool. I love being in Albuquerque. It's a great place to come home to. The weather's awesome. We have Balloon Fiesta. I don't know, don't tell anybody, it's an awesome place.
Alana Muller: Yeah, seriously. I know my mother-in-law actually came to the Balloon Festival this year and loved every minute of it, was sending photos back. And I have to tell you, I was jealous. So Gabrielle and I have talked about that before too, Gabrielle, who produces our podcast. So I just love that you had mentioned that, that's so fun.
And it's funny when you say, "I have no idea how I ended up on the podcast." I think you just described exactly how, your acknowledgement and involvement in your community and that we each, irrespective of our comfort level with networking, with reaching out to people, when we can find our community, it doesn't feel like something awful, like networking, right? That awful word. It just feels like friendship and getting to know people. And I love how you describe that often,, some of your best referrals come from people, or your best advice comes from people who are not even related to your industry, who are never going to be clients, but they may know somebody who could be or they may have advice for you that you can use in your interactions with the clients that you do have.
Nora Tocci: Yeah, it's really just about lifting each other up and helping each other through all kinds of times, even if it's just support and being there for them, so it's pretty cool.
Alana Muller: That's amazing, really amazing. I'd love to sort of continue down this path and ask you, what are some ways that you make connections mutually beneficial? So how do you give back, how do you show mutual appreciation?
Nora Tocci: So, a lot of our connections and stuff are organic. And a lot of our clients are in very big aerospace or entertainment companies that have tens of thousands of employees. And I end up being the one that introduces a lot of intercompany people together. There's groups that have never met before that I've introduced and developed their network and given back to them.
And then locally, I try to do that as well. Knowing other companies in the area and trying to give back and introducing them to other people or even maybe helping their company be bigger in the community, having them support local communities on boards and helping them become active in the community, to help make everything better. And then that networking kind of works itself out. But I try to encourage that and to kind of lift everybody up and help them be at home and find all sorts of different people that they can trust through these relationships.
Alana Muller: So, that's amazing. So, really at the heart of it, you're a connector and bringing people together, so that's really nice. Kind of with that in mind, can you tell us about an interaction with somebody who resulted in a particular breakthrough for you either personally or professionally?
Nora Tocci: Yeah. So, there's a really cool interaction. So for a long time, I had a great friend who started out as a supplier that I used to buy things from when I worked at a large aerospace company. But as with most suppliers, you talk to them so much that they sort of become really good friends and you go visit them and you see their work and they see your work and you guys get... That's how you make connections, right?
So I'd been away from this aerospace company for a while and I got an email from this supplier and he said, "Hey, I know you're out on your own. And I have a good friend in the entertainment industry and they need help. Maybe you can help them out." And so he sent me this email introduction that was kind of forwarded from this senior VP in this very large entertainment industry. And I just read the email and I was like, "I don't know what this guy wants. I don't know what they're doing. I don't understand this email. I'm totally not writing back to this guy, no way."
And a couple months passed and I talked to my supplier friend again and he was like, "Well, did you write to him?" And I said, "No, I don't know what that guy wants." And he said, "Well, look, he's a really good friend of mine. So please just write him and tell him that you can't help him then." And I said, "Okay, I can do that. That's right. That's the right thing to do anyway." So I sort of wrote up this Dear John email to this senior VP. And I was like, "I don't know what you want. We make cameras. I do optics. I don't think I can help you. So thanks and good luck." And I hit send and my phone rang and it was the senior VP and we had this really nice conversation.
And I said, "Well, what do you actually want?" And he said, "This is what I want." And I said, "Oh, well, that's really easy. Why didn't you just say that?" I said like, "What's the hard part." And he was like, "Are you joking?" And I said, "No, that's really easy." And they've been a customer for almost 10 years now. They're our largest customer and senior VP and I are really good friends. We still talk a lot. So that was an interaction to make sure you always kind of respond and take care of friends. But, we've basically grown our business out of one email contact. So it's really cool. And now we work with them all over the globe and we sort of became a global company, even though there's only nine of us here, so it's pretty cool.
Alana Muller: Yeah, and you weren't going to respond to the email and you didn't respond for two months. Oh my gosh.
Nora Tocci: Yeah, everybody was pretty mad because they're like, "We would've had a whole nother month or two to do all this work." And I was like, "I didn't know that's what they wanted. Come on. How would you read the email? It doesn't say anything like that."
Alana Muller: Exactly. Well, I mean, it goes all the way back. You just never know, right? You just never know. You don't know what a simple phone call, email, cup of coffee, is going to bring to your life. So, amazing.
Nora Tocci: So, and always be polite and respond even if it's something you can't help with, you can always make a contact and maybe get others together later down the road.
Alana Muller: Yeah, it goes back to your comments about community. I know we were talking about Albuquerque specifically, but I think community, for me, it extends beyond geographic borders. And it sounds like for you, at least for contrast, it certainly does. The fact that you've become an international organization for being such a sort of physically small company. You have reach that is truly global. So I was going to ask you, how networking has impacted your business? And maybe you have more to say, but I think you described it, amazing.
Nora Tocci: Yeah and I think technically, that was networking, but it was also again, just trust and kind of building that relationship with people that you've known. And we trust each other. We know each other's work, we recommend people based on that work and our work ethic and the people we surround ourselves with and everything else kind of grows rather organically, at least for us, around that.
Alana Muller: Yeah. Well, and you honored your friend. Your pal who actually made the introduction, you honored that relationship by saying, "Okay, yeah, it's the right thing to do. The fact that this guy's a good friend of yours by relation, I guess, once removed, it makes him a good friend of mine." And so the fact that you were willing to sort of go that extra mile, not just for a potential customer, but, genuinely, to really help out a friend I think is great. I think it's great. So yeah, I would say that networking has absolutely benefited your business as it should. So talk a little bit about what advice you would share with someone who wants to grow or cultivate their own professional network.
Nora Tocci: Yeah. I think, for me as a technology professional, I don't know that there's a one size fits all or how you can really do that. Because again, I'm not going to go to an event here and find a customer. That's just not going to happen, but if you're in different industries and you're in maybe marketing or you're in graphic design, I think reaching out, local networking type events could be hugely important for you, right? But you kind of have to start really small and start with your immediate circle and see how they can help you, and see how they can kind of lift you up. And if you already have some clients, how those clients can help you and you got to let your work and your work ethic kind of speak for itself. And generally speaking, it'll work and kind of, you can sort of start to build that.
But again, I just caution with some sort of one size fits all because every market is so different and events where you socialize and really build Rolodexes, are really important in certain circles. But in really focused engineering work, not as much, right? So I think you have to find a way to talk about yourself confidently and your company confidently. And if you can do that, then it'll all sort of work out. It all takes a long time though. That's the only other advice is that patience, you just kind of got to wait it out.
Alana Muller: Well, there's a long tail on this stuff, right? I go back to your story, kind of, it took you years to develop the relationship that you had with your own supplier. And then he makes the interaction to somebody else. You wait two months to contact that person and the rest is history, right? But that's a pretty lengthy cycle. I'm curious about something you just said about sort of intentionality versus sort of things being organic. Generally speaking, and maybe this is particular to your industry, but do you believe more in organic or what I would call sort of unintentional things that just happen, versus very deliberate networking, and when it comes to sort of building these strong networks, asking for referrals, getting actual business, what has benefited you more specifically based on your industry?
Nora Tocci: I think, honestly, I'm moving towards a little bit of intentional, but, we don't advertise. We have a website, but I'm not actively looking for customers on the website. It really just describes our capabilities. And I think when you're starting out, really all you have is sort of this organic method. At least for us, we did, like I said, I'm not just going to go somewhere and find a customer. So it's a little bit different and you really have to work contacts, which are really just people that I've worked with, that understand me and know that I can get things done. You use that for a while.
Well, now our company is more established. So, maybe we have something that I want somebody to see now. I have a product and I want someone to see it. Then we can do a little more intentional networking. So, we have a commercial line of camera systems. Well, who can I show this to now? Now it's done. Now I'm ready to kind of do some networking and something intentional, but I think it takes a certain amount of time, or I have a technology that I really think some industry could use. Well, how do I actually target or find somebody else in that industry?
Again, I usually start locally with people that I know who have huge Rolodexes and say, "Hey, do you know somebody at one of these companies?" And try to go from there. But you have to get certain things to a maturity level so that when you approach something like that, or you do something intentional, you got something to back it up, right? You don't want to kind of go into super intentional networking and be like, "Oh yeah, sorry, not totally ready. Nevermind." So I think it's just being, at least technically for me, that's sort of where I have to be, to do intentional marketing and not just letting things sort of organically happen.
Alana Muller: Yeah. That makes total sense. And honestly, what you're describing, there's some ebb and flow, right? You have to understand kind of where you are at the moment and your own positioning. And it may vary from month to month, year to year again, based on, what it is that you're promoting and if you have new features, new services, new products. So I think that makes great sense. And the truth is, I always think that it's important to remember the relationships we already have, and you've probably built relationships over the years that you can now return to, even if there's never been a transactional relationship, maybe now there could be.
Nora Tocci: Absolutely. Absolutely. That is very, very true. Keep in touch with all those contacts and you just never know when people need things or when they need something from you, also.
Alana Muller: Yeah. That's exactly right. Our time is kind of coming to a close, but I have to ask you a couple of fun questions. So I always love to ask my guests, if you could have one networking meeting, some interaction, a cup of coffee with one person living, not living, fictional, nonfictional, who would it be and why?
Nora Tocci: Well, anybody that sort of opens it up, but we'll just go with somebody who's alive. I would like to sit down with Elon Musk and tell him why he needs our HDR tech to make his full self-driving a reality.
Alana Muller: I love it. I think that's a great choice. Talk about intentional networking.
Nora Tocci: Very intentional.
Alana Muller: I love it.
Nora Tocci: Very intentional.
Alana Muller: That's great. My husband and son would agree with you. They think that he's just a genius, the number one dude, so that's great. I hope you get that chance because you probably could do some work together. How about this one? What's currently on your nightstand, are you reading anything? Anything that keeps you calm, meditation?
Nora Tocci: Always reading something, usually fiction. I can't do heavy politics or business stuff because my mind won't turn off. So, usually fiction. Right now, I am reading a book by Mura Kami and a reading light, and since I have a sinus infection, a lot of Kleenex. That's what's on my night stand.
Alana Muller: There's something we all need, right? That's great. Nora, I loved talking with you, hearing your story and just your perspective on relationship building. I just think it's fabulous. Tell our listeners where they can go to learn more about you, to learn more about Contrast.
Nora Tocci: They can go to our website at contrastoptical.com.
Alana Muller: Fabulous. Nora Tocci, thank you so much for joining us on Enterprise.ing.
Nora Tocci: Thank you so much for having me.
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