If you are a business owner who walks into a room feeling confident and makes 10 new connections easily before strutting out with a fan of business cards and a smartphone full of warm leads… then keep scrolling – I am probably not talking to you.
If on the other hand you are like most small business owners I have met, you believe that networking is for those ‘other guys’… you know, the suits. Plus, the thought of having to sell yourself at a networking event sounds about as appealing as roof work during a thunderstorm. No thank you.
The truth is, hardly anyone doing this networking stuff is feeling like that ‘other guy’ (and even he has times when he’s not feeling it and ends up sipping a cold one alone by the bar). Networking can mean stepping right outside of your comfort zone. That’s kind of a good thing – often that’s where we do our best work on ourselves… so let’s go.
Look on the bright side
Putting aside the sweaty palms and awkward silences there are actually some really great things about networking. It can help you to:
- generate leads
- build relationships with (or as) preferred suppliers (a great way to boost referrals)
- gain support from like-minded people in the industry
- feel less alone as a solopreneur
What is it… really?
Networking goes to the heart of that famous truism ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. It stands to reason that the more people you have meaningful business relationships with, the more business you will do. As we know, building rapport is key to increasing conversion rates and revenue. It should be obvious that these kinds of connections aren’t going to breeze into your business accidentally. You will need to be proactive and get out there ‘amongst it all’. That’s networking.
Where to start
Building mutually beneficial relationships can definitely be accomplished at industry association networking events. They’re an easy place to start in a way – after all, everyone knows that is why they are there. But if that feels a little too formal, then explore other ways you can connect with other people in your industry. I mentor my Tenfold coaching clients to consider:
- Informal local networking groups – websites like meetup.com often have listings for small business groups in your local area. These are usually run at familiar local venues by people just like you – often just a couple of local business people who share the same needs and concerns. It is a casual opportunity to swap stories over drinks and nibbles. Don’t be too worried if there are no industry specific groups close by – even the more general ones might see you cross paths with other local suppliers – accountants, financial advisors, real estate agents etc… plenty of potential there!
- The coffee catch-up
Offering to buy an interesting new contact a cup of coffee could prove to be the best $4.00 you’ve ever spent. It’s less commitment than dinner (or even drinks) and can happen at any time of the day for as long (or short) as your busy schedules allow. This is a particularly good option for those of us who feel we are better one-on-one than in a crowded room full of new people. It’s amazing what advice and insights you can share in the time it takes to order and drink a strong, regular sized latte.
- Existing customers – maintaining contact with your existing customer base on a semi-regular basis will keep you ‘top of mind’. That way, the next time a job pops up (for themselves or for a friend) they will think of you and be reminded of their great experience with your business. Email or text campaigns and newsletters, Christmas cards or letter-box drops can be a nice way to keep in touch.
- Social Media – Get active in the digital space. Join and participate in online forums, local industry and business Facebook groups and LinkedIn. Instagram can be a good platform for businesses whose products and services are better communicated visually (landscaping, construction and other trades) and you could also try tweeting about industry news and events. Just make sure you create a business account for these options – it is important to keep your personal and professional profiles separate.
- Volunteering – Don’t let Bunnings get all the credit for that local park being built! Rolling up your sleeves and offering your business’ services to local councils, schools, kindergartens, community centres and parks can be very personally rewarding. It can also help you get your business name out there while you are showing off your skills! Most importantly, working together towards a common goal is a key ingredient for creating meaningful connections with those in your local area.
There are a few things to note about this networking gig before you get started:
- It’s a long-term investment
Don’t expect to come home with five new jobs in the pipeline. You are looking to build real-life relationships – not the business equivalent of Facebook friends (those people in your life who ‘like’ and comment on your posts but would almost certainly disappear into the distance if things got ‘real’). Real and personal connections take time.
- Set a goal for each networking experience
One way to quieten the nerves and stay focused is to have a plan. Make sure you know why you are there – is there a particular acquaintance you are keen to make? Advice about a specific challenge you are facing? A certain number of emails/business cards that you wish to collect? Your first time out, you may just want to set the goal of talking to three different people with no pressure to even give or take down details.
- Download your worries about ‘getting out there’
Sometimes writing your concerns down helps you to see and understand more clearly what is holding you back. It can also help not to have to ‘carry them around’ in your brain. For example, you may worry about turning up late and everyone already being deep in conversation that you may then struggle to ‘break into’. Once you know this, you can prepare to arrive 10 minutes early, reducing your pre-networking jitters.
- Have your ‘openers’ ready
If starting conversations isn’t your strong suit, it can help to have a few conversation starters to avoid worrying about ‘what to say’. It doesn’t have to be clever or funny – just get some conversation flowing. For instance, put your own spin on these:
- If you weren’t here right now, where would you be?
- So, what’s your goal here tonight?
- Hi, I’m new here… anyone I should be trying to chat to?
- What’s your story?
- What’s keeping you busy these days?
- It’s not just about you
Networking is give and take – it is just as valuable to put someone you meet in touch with another connection that you know that can help them. It all breeds goodwill. Listen as much as you talk and be generous with those you meet – it will pay dividends; they may well think of you next time they (or someone they know) needs someone in your line of work.
- Do ‘you’
It is vital that you feel able to just be yourself. Do ‘networking’ your As I listed above, there are a few ways to go about it – not just ‘events’. Authenticity is important – you don’t want to create a ‘persona’ that isn’t really you (it’s hard to keep that up over time). The most important thing is to let your passion for your business shine through – enthusiasm is contagious!
- Follow up
Avoid pestering people, but don’t just let opportunities pass you by – persistence can pay off. Experts warn not to rely on giving out your card. Instead, try collecting email addresses in your phone. The next day send a quick email to:
- thank them for the conversation
- provide whatever you might have promised (eg the details of a fellow business connection)
- ask again about something they may have mentioned could help you (eg a customer who they thought might need your services)
- include some personal detail from your conversation (eg good luck with training for that marathon they are running in next month). This will personalise the message and make it (and you) more memorable.
Nice chatting with you…I’ll be in touch
Bottom line – no more leaving networking to the suits. Building relationships that will help grow and strengthen your business is a sound investment, regardless of your industry. It can be intimidating, but it is worth putting yourself out there for the benefits it will bring you. You don’t need to be ridiculously charismatic or outgoing to survive the networking experience – you’ve got this! Give different methods a try to see which benefit you and your business the most. If all else fails – get to know the bartender… they know everybody!