The most successful entrepreneurs typically have one thing in common (other than a great business idea): They’re good at networking.
Networking is an important skill to learn for small business owners. Some people are naturals who can work a room without breaking a sweat and seem to float from conversation to conversation. Others often do break a sweat and tread water from conversation to conversation. If you’re in that second group, know it does get easier with a bit of practice and trial and error.
In order to boost your networking confidence, try breaking up the task into three main areas: philosophy, networking, and follow-up. Here’s how.
When it comes to networking, it’s important to step back and remember what this is all about. At the core of it all, you’re looking to make connections that can potentially help you down the road. Even if someone seems like they have nothing to offer you, treat them as if they do. You never know who they might know.
Set a goal for yourself.
To ensure you’re actually getting out there and networking, set a goal. It could be a target for how many events, meetings, happy hours, etc., you’re going to attend each month. This is especially important if you’re reluctant and don’t like doing it.
Go to events even if they don’t seem completely on target with what you’re doing for your business. This could be a networking happy hour with folks outside your industry or a speaker discussing a topic you already know. Go to those events and meet people who might bring up future opportunities (business partners, customers, clients).
Look for opportunities in unexpected places.
Whether it’s at your kid’s school or community events (fairs, holiday boutiques), places where you might not think to talk about business could be places for creating partnerships or garnering future sales. Make sure you turn over every rock in your own backyard.
Treat everyone you meet as an opportunity.
Even if they can’t help you today, you never know the contacts someone has in their Rolodex. Making people feel important and treating everyone as a potential opportunity can open doors you previously didn’t have access to.
Treat everyone you meet as a friend.
Don’t be shy to introduce yourself (which can be easier said than done). The only way to get to a point where you’re used to meeting new people is to get out there and shake some hands.
Think of competitors as potential mentors. Meet them and attempt to nurture that relationship the same way you would with anyone else. Not all competitors will be receptive to this but those who are can share helpful information or become good avenues for advice when you need it. Don’t forget to refer customers to your competitors, but only do so when it makes sense for you and them.
Create a support system.
Family and friends are great for helping out in a pinch. However, it’s important to have a network of peers and a mentor to discuss ideas, solutions, and problems.
You’ve got a plan and you know what you want to do. Now it’s time to execute.
From formal networking events and business meetings to cups of coffee, happy hours, classes, speeches, picnics, mentorships, volunteering — the list of networking opportunities/events is almost endless.
If, as we mentioned above, you mentally frame everything as a networking opportunity, you’ll be prepared to take advantage of every interaction that comes your way.
Here are some things to do in order to prepare yourself as well as a few dos and don’ts.
- Have your elevator pitch nailed down and make it second nature. It should be easy to explain what you do and why you do it. For deeper conversations, it’s a good idea to also nail down how you do it.
- This might seem obvious, but make sure you have business cards on you at all times. You don’t have to carry a stack in your pocket but keep extras in your car and bag, so you can always refill your wallet or pocket at a moment’s notice.
- If you go to any sort of networking event with another person, make sure you’re not just talking to that person all night. It’s nice to go with someone you know so you have a home base in case you run into a lull, and they can also introduce you to people they know.
- Come prepared with things to talk about or general questions you can ask other people about themselves or their business.
- Do your research before you go to an event. Who will be there? What it’s all about? Will there be snacks? Give yourself every advantage by doing your homework.
- Try to get a speaking spot at an event. Speaking at an event can sometimes get you the biggest bang for your buck. It doesn’t have to be a major conference. Something as simple as an alumni association event is a great chance to speak in front of others. Not just for those who hear you speak but all of the people after the event who come up to you for that one-on-one time.
- Genuinely listen when you’ve asked a question. Practice active listening and don’t think about what you’re going to say next.
- Be interested in what others have done or are doing. When you’re at an event, you’re not just selling yourself. Ask questions. Focus on them.
- Be humble. Give a good handshake and dress appropriately for the occasion. Don’t brag or try to impress someone with money.
- Don’t overindulge on free drinks. You want to remember the connections you make, and you don’t want to be that person at a networking event.
- Don’t talk to someone for too long. Talk, get to know them, exchange information if it makes sense to do so, and then move on.
- Don’t talk during a presentation or over a speaker. If you’re at some sort of presentation or some community event with a presentation component, it’s rude to continue networking while others are trying to pay attention.
Networking isn’t a one and done thing. Once you meet folks it’s important to keep those relationships going. But now that you’ve done the legwork, what’s next? After you network, how do you keep your network? Use social media.
Nothing beats coffee meet-ups and lunches for that face-to-face time, but you need to keep those social networks, so you won’t fall out of mind if you’re trying to keep something going.
That doesn’t mean you need to post on social media all day every day, but it’s good to stay engaged with what others are doing. Send the occasional email, message or comment. It’s also a good idea to share others’ wins with your own network.
The platforms you choose to utilize for social networking can depend on your industry.
LinkedIn, in general, is easily the best bet for small business owners. It’s the most business-driven platform and its sole intention is for professionals to use it for their digital networking.
Facebook is great for networking on a deeper level. Just be mindful that no matter how private your profile may be, those in your network can see what you do, screenshot it and share it publicly.
Twitter is a good platform for keeping up with current events and industry-related influencers. It’s especially helpful for networking at in-person conferences.
A good idea to stay informed at all times is to set up Google alerts for your business, your industry and some of your competitors. This will also help with networking because you can easily share relevant content on your social media accounts and also congratulate competitors and industry leaders for their successes, nourishing those positive relationships.
4. Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Remember to pay it forward. If someone introduces you to some really great connections, make sure you’re introducing them to great connections as well. Sometimes you need to give to get.
Also, having a great network can help when you’re ready to expand your business and hire an employee. You can utilize these relationships to find the perfect candidate to help run your business and take it to new levels. Ideally, it’s someone who can take over tasks and responsibilities that you don’t need to do on a day-to-day basis. This will free up valuable time, so you can focus on expanding the business and work on expanding your network.
The whole idea of networking is cyclical. One digital platform for finding those in-person community events or networking opportunities is meetup.com. You can actively engage in those online communities and then meet with the same folks in person. Then, go back to the top of this post and start all over again.
Milan Vracarich is a digital marketer with a passion for the written word. With a background in journalism, his focus is to always discover the right story to align with big-picture objectives. Outside of his day job, you’ll find Milan enjoying the beautiful PNW with a crisp craft beer in hand, improving his photography skills, or indulging in the Seattle music scene. Milan has a B.A. in Journalism from Temple University and is a regular contributor to the Lendio blog.