Building your business is better with people around you.
We don’t necessarily mean people directly working in your business. It can be really helpful to find people who are at similar stages in their business journeys as you are; people whose own businesses could supply services or products that complement your own offering. Perhaps there are opportunities to collaborate; people who can support you by offering advice, recommendations, help from their own experience; people who might, in time, be able to recommend your business to others they know. Sounds useful? Very often it is.
So where do you start if you want to find those people? Business networking!
You might have heard of networking and considered it with a shudder. You might feel you have no idea where to start. Lots of people who start a new business have never consciously ‘networked’ before.
But the good news is many of those same people demonstrate great networking skills every day without even considering it as networking. These include:
✔ meeting people
✔ having short conversations where you learn more about them and have a chance to say a bit about yourself and your business
✔ talking enthusiastically (but still briefly!) about your business/products/services
✔ finding out what people need to help their own business growth
✔ considering ways you might be able to help
✔ connecting them with other people you know who can provide that help
✔ simply enjoying a brief, professional conversation with a few people you might not otherwise encounter.
Essentially, all of that is networking!
Top tips for networking
Try to turn up early, not late.
It might feel like the easier option to arrive late, but in reality that means walking into a room that’s already busy, probably with groups of people already engaged in conversations. This might make it harder to join in the chat. On the other hand if you arrive promptly you’ll be one of the first in the room – you can find your perfect spot to stand, it’s less intimidating to strike up conversations when there are fewer people in the room and it’s actually easier for people to initiate an approach to you!
It’s a conversation, not a presentation! Take an interest in the people you’re speaking to and what they’re saying, in just the way you hope they’ll take an interest in you: that way the chat becomes more natural and you can tease out topics of mutual interest. Even if their business is something you know nothing about, you can ask questions to find your areas of common ground. “Have you been in business for a long time?” “Where are you based?”. Have a couple of standby questions up your sleeve – maybe “What kind of clients are you looking for?” or “What brings you to this particular event?”. And listen to the answers – what you know, or where you can signpost, could help someone else progress their own business and that, in turn, makes you more memorable.
Don’t ‘reject’ people you meet
Every so often there’s a tale of some rude individual at a business networking event who speeds round the room scanning name badges, moving on with a throwaway “You’re no good to me” if they decide someone isn’t a potential customer! Don’t be THAT person! If they stayed to chat a bit longer, worked on being interested in the conversation and listened better, some friendly common ground could emerge. Even better, they might in time have discovered that the other person has a colleague / friend / relation / neighbour who actually COULD make use of the services on offer.
Don’t expect to come away with sales
Most times networking is a marathon, not a sprint. We mostly buy from people we like, feel we could easily work with and/or trust. And that’s not usually something that can be proven through a brief conversation at a networking event. Be patient and concentrate on communication and finding possible connections with the people you chat to.
Don’t stick yourself to the friend you came with
Sure, it makes things a little less daunting to turn up with someone else. But you’re there to network, not to chat to your colleague. And it makes it doubly hard to get a chance to make an impression as YOU. Arrive together and then split to mingle.
Don’t stick yourself to the first person you meet
It’s really easy to find yourself stuck in the one conversation and sometimes it can feel tricky, awkward or rude to extract yourself. Remember that everyone is there to network so you can gracefully ‘unstick’ by saying with a smile “Well, it’s been lovely to meet you but I don’t want to stop you from meeting some of the other people in the room so let’s swap business cards and I’ll catch up with you again sometime.”
If you say you’ll send someone an email, connect them to someone else, get the link for that app you recommended – do it. But try to stop yourself from over-committing in the enthusiasm for the event! The professional social network LinkedIn is a great platform to connect online with people who you meet, who you want to keep in mind. (We’ve explained more on LinkedIn here.)
Try before you ‘buy’
There are LOTS of business networking events out there, but it’s very easy to find you have a diary full of networking events and no time to actually work on your business! When you’re starting out it’s very useful to try out a variety of networks and see where you feel you ‘fit’. Some just won’t feel ‘you’ and others will. If it’s a network with a membership commitment – try to go to a few of their events to get a feel for what the members are like and if you feel it’s relatable, before you join. Be wary of networks that make you sign up and part with a lot of money, unless you can a) afford it, b) get along easily to enough events without compromising your business or home life and c) be sure of the value of the investment – through the ‘fit’ of other attendees with your own business needs or the likelihood that the network will offer you new business opportunities. If you feel you’re being pressurised to join up – step away. No network out there is so essential that you should be under pressure to commit, and no network can guarantee you sales – these only come from effort on your part.
We’ve mentioned LinkedIn already and there you can find Groups with a wide range of interest areas, from particular industry groups to geographical areas. Facebook and even Instagram also have online-only business groups where you can chat to like-minded business owners, ask questions, find suppliers and more. Remember though that your online profile is your ‘shop window’ on these groups so…
Whether you’re networking face to face or online, a business network isn’t the place to scoop up the free wine, or let your guard down and invite gossip or bad-mouthing. Online, lock down the privacy settings on your partying photos to ‘friends only’, which allows you to continue posting on business pages without the risk of people being able to click through to see your ‘out of work’ stuff.
Some of your best business allies and friends can come from the networks you take part in, so take the plunge and give it a go!