I believe that networking is a critical skill to learn for small business owners. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs typically have one thing in common: They are very good at networking! There are different types of people out there, ones that can work a room without breaking a sweat and can jump from conversation to conversation. Then there are the ones that do break a sweat and are barely keeping their head above water from conversation to conversation. If you find yourself closer to a member of the second group, it does get easier with some practice and a little trial and error. Remember failure and error is ok, it is what teaches us and guides us, so don’t be afraid of it.
Boost that confidence by breaking up your networking skills into three key areas: Philosophy
We will give you some tips and key advice for each area. Here is how.
First, take a step back and remember what this is all about. The core focus of this is that you are looking to make connections that can potentially help you down the road. Even if somebody seems like they have nothing to offer you, treat them as if they do. The thing to remember is that you never know who they might know.
Set a goal.
To ensure that you actually get out there and do some networking, set a goal. An example could be a target for how many events, happy hour meetings, etc., you will attend each month. This can be extremely helpful if you are a little reluctant to go and don’t like doing it.
Attend events even if they don’t seem completely on target with what you are doing for your business. An example could be attending a speaker discussing a topic that you already know. Go to those events and meet people who might bring up future opportunities. Look for those opportunities in unexpected places! Whether you are at your child’s school event (fairs, open houses, etc.) places where you might not think to talk about business could be places for creating partnerships and grabbing some future sales. Leave no rock un-turned in your own backyard.
Treat every single person you meet as an opportunity. Even if they can’t help you today, you never know the contacts someone has in their network. Making people feel important and treating everyone as a potential opportunity can open doors you previously didn’t have access to.
Treat every single person you meet as a friend. Try not to be shy, introduce yourself. The only way to get to a point where you are used to meeting new people is to get out there and shake some hands and just go for it.
Competitors. Competitors. Competitors.
Just think of competitors as potential mentors. You will run into them, just meet them and attempt to engage the relationship the same way you would with anybody else. Not all competitors will be receptive to it but those who are can and usually will share helpful information. Some early competitors of mine have become great avenues for advice when I have needed it. It’s not taboo to refer customers to your competitors when it makes sense for you and them.
Have a support system in place. Family and friends are great for helping you out when you are in a bind. However, it is important to have a network of peers and a mentor to discuss ideas, solutions and problems with.
Now, you have a plan and you know what you want to do. Now, 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.