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How to network: How putting yourself out there helps your small business
As entrepreneurs and small business owners, it’s important to always maintain a steady stream of new leads, new connections, and new opportunities. But opportunities don’t come knocking on your door—you have to go out and make yourself available to them.
One way to do that is through networking. And while you may be used to going solo as an entrepreneur, networking can not only generate new business, but also chances to truly grow and improve your business.
Benefits of professional networking
There’s a ton of value in networking, and it all comes down to what your goals are. Here are some of the potential benefits you can gain through networking:
- Find a mentor. You might make a connection with someone you aspire to be like or can learn a lot from. Entrepreneurism can get lonely!
- Build brand awareness. The more you get yourself out there, the more people know and talk about you and your brand.
- Learn new things. You might hear about something new to incorporate into your business, be it a tool, process, skill, or insider info.
- Find staff. Nearly 85% of jobs are filled through networking.
- Gain partnership opportunities. Collaborating with other businesses can amplify your reach and put you in front of a new audience.
- Embrace word-of-mouth marketing. These recommendations impact 20–50% of all purchase decisions, and 83% of consumers trust recommendations from friends and family.
- Grow your business. “People like to do business with people they know,” says Lindsay Anvik, business coach and keynote speaker on leadership and marketing.
How to network: The many ways to make connections
Networking can happen in person and online, both formally and informally. If you really think about it, networking can happen on your morning commute, at the grocery store, or after yoga class.
But there are also more “formal” types of networking, situations where it’s assumed that the people involved have a common goal of expanding their network. These organized networking opportunities can also happen in person and online. Here are a few examples:
- Conferences: “Conferences are a good networking environment, because everyone knows networking will be part of them,” says Ben Taylor, founder of Home Working Club.
- Meetups: Meetup is a great website which allows users to create groups and events—both for fun and professional. You can search Meetups in your area and by interest.
- Volunteering: Getting involved in volunteer events and organization opens the door to networking opportunities with others who share similar passions.
- Events: Any event you attend could turn out to be a networking opportunity.
- Community membership: Industry associations (both paid and free) are great opportunities to connect with a large group of people in your niche.
- Co-working spaces: Though this is closely related to the one above, coworking spaces are filled with entrepreneurs looking to build connections. There are more than 14,000 co-working spaces to choose from, with the number of professionals expected to use expected to be 3.8 million by 2020.
- Social media: I participate in a fair number of Facebook groups to connect with other copywriters and marketers, for example, but this can happen on any channel.
- Online groups: There are free and paid online communities you can join. I’m a member of the 10xFC copywriters group, where I can not only learn new skills but also connect with fellow participants.
The most successful approach is typically one that involves a combination of the above.
“Attend events related to your industry, and during and after those events to use Twitter to tag people (especially the speakers and more well-known people) and use the event’s hashtags,” says Melanie Aronson of Panion. She’s used this strategy to connect with many mentors and advisors who’ve been pivotal to her career.
Networking tips for small business owners
Always be networking
Networking doesn’t stop. Even if you’re not at a meeting or event, you can (and should!) be networking.
“You never know who could go on to be a useful long-term business contact—it could be someone you interview with or someone you receive a speculative email from,” says Taylor. “When people talk about where they met other people in their career, there’s often plenty of serendipity involved.”
Take every advantage possible, especially when you’re starting out. Even if these initial interactions don’t lead to anything, it’ll get you comfortable with striking up conversations with strangers.
“Never dismiss anyone,” says Lori Cheek, founder and CEO of Cheekd. “You never know who you’re talking to, who they might know, or how they’d be able to contribute.”
Before you dive into networking, ask yourself what you want to ultimately get out of it. This will help you tailor your approach.
“It’s important to have a focus,” says Anvik. “If people ask you what you do or what you’re looking for, you need to know the answer.”
Understanding your goals will not only help you identify which opportunities are most relevant to you, but it’ll also help you tailor your approach once you’re in networking situations.
“Instead of saying, ‘I’m a landscaper,’ say, ‘I do residential landscaping, so I’m always looking for anyone who might know a developer or community I could connect with to share my services with,’” Anvik says. “Clarify what you do, who you do it for and who would be your ideal person for an introduction.”
Identifying networking opportunities
The first step is finding the opportunities. Tap into your existing network to ask about opportunities; browse Meetup, Facebook, and Eventbrite for local events; and look at what others in your industry are doing.
“Even if you live in an entrepreneurial desert, the internet is chock-full of groups waiting to know you,” says Liz Theresa, business mentor.
We’ve listed a few types of networking opportunities above, but that doesn’t mean every avenue is going to be right for you. And not every event, conference, or Meetup will be conducive to your business goals. You want to evaluate potential opportunities to see if it’s worth your time.
“At first, go to everything. Go to Chamber [of Commerce] events, Meetup groups, other networking groups, parties, seminars, etc.,” says Anvik. “Go to everything, and then weed out the events or groups that don’t have potential or your target customers.”
Michelle Clark, founder of Shake Your Money Tree, agrees.
“Get a feel for who attends, the structure and day/time of the meetings, whether the group builds in time for all attendees to give their 30-second commercial, and how friendly the people are to newcomers,” she says. “Then go back to the groups you feel you’d be able to give the most to, knowledge, and referrals.”
She also recommends arriving early if big crowds intimidate you, as this is a great way to ease yourself into the situation.
What to talk about
Prepare yourself with some conversation starters. Ask open-ended questions that will enable people to open up to you about who they are and what they do. Try to find commonalities and focus on that; this will lead to the most organic conversations.
Another great way to break the ice is to ask for help. Think about some of the challenges you’re facing in your business, and seek advice from those with relevant backgrounds. Bonus: This gives you a reason to follow up with them after your initial interaction.
You also need to think about your elevator pitch. While networking should mostly be about the other person, they’re likely going to ask you about yourself as well.
“Be ready to explain who you are, who you help, and the problem your business solves in a matter of a few sentences,” says Theresa. “Write it down, play with it, and know it inside-out.”
Avoid the hard sell
Remember, networking is all about building relationships, not selling yourself. You want to create connections which will hopefully lead to sales. Not every person you meet is going to be your target customer, but they likely know at least one person who is. If you come across as a sleazy salesperson, you’ll not only lose out on the initial connection but also the potential referrals they could make to their network.
“Go to networking events with a mindset of being a matchmaker for others instead of looking for generating business or connections for yourself,” says entrepreneur and author Rick Itzkowich, author of The Referral Playbook: How to Increase Sales with Proven Networking Strategies.
Itzkowich also points out that by avoiding the hard sell, you’ll also stick out from the rest of the crowd. Many approach networking as a pitching opportunity. Taking a more authentic and human approach will differentiate you and make you more memorable.
Focus on the other person
Sense a common theme here? Networking isn’t about you—it’s about the people you meet. Avoid making the conversational all about you and instead make it about the person you’re speaking with.
Ask open-ended questions and pose thoughtful follow-ups.
“Lead with curiosity and ask more than you tell,” says Charlene “Ignites” DeCesare, founder of Firewalk Sales. “Small business owners and entrepreneurs are typically very passionate about what they do.”
Struggling with what to ask? A couple of my favorites are:
- “What are you most excited about right now in your business?”
- “What’s your biggest business challenge right now?”
These questions open the door to lots of opportunities to relate, help, and get to know the person.
Remember to focus more on listening and less on talking.
“If you spend the whole time talking about what you do, you’ll come off as selfish and disinterested in the other person,” says Theresa. “Even if you don’t care what they do, it’s polite to pretend. Act like a human first and a business second.”
DeCesare has a mantra she likes to use in networking situations: W.A.I.T.—or, Why Am I Talking?
“Whenever you get the sense you may be babbling on, ask yourself this question, and put the focus back on the other person,” she says. “If you’re not sure what to say, ask a question such as, ‘What inspired you to get into your business?’ or ‘What do you love most about what you do?’”
And finally: Names are important. Remember them. Use them.
Not every connection was meant to be, both in your personal life and in business. One of the advantages of working for yourself is being able to choose who you get to work with. And that means that not everyone is going to be a fit.
“Many people don’t realize that networking is about personalities and finding those who get you,” says Aronson. “Don’t force a relationship that isn’t right.”
Stay true to yourself and your business, know the types of people you want to do business with, and direct your energy towards attracting and interacting with your target.
Post-networking, your work isn’t over. It’s important to nurture the budding relationships you’ve established. But follow-up doesn’t mean adding everyone you meet to your email newsletter subscription list. Instead, personalize your follow-up to the individual. Make a call back to something you discussed, offer advice, and keep the conversation going.
“Getting or giving a business card is a cold connection—it doesn’t promote future conversation,” says Ivy Slater, CEO of Slater Success. “Develop relationships by having real conversations. Instead of simply promoting yourself or looking to close a deal, add value to your connections by way of referrals, resources, ideas and experience.”
Rather than a generic “It was great to meet you!”, give your connection a specific action to take. Maybe you pose a question to them asking for advice, or you suggest meeting for coffee with another connection of yours who might also be able to offer value.
If your growing list of connections becomes too unwieldy to keep up with, consider implementing a customer relationship management (CRM) platform. This will allow you to keep track of conversations, as well as make note of who people are and how you know them. Some great options for entrepreneurs and SMBs include HubSpot, Zoho, and Insightly.
Make it easy to remember and find you
Many times, networking starts out strong and quickly fizzles out. You might attend an event where you’re so jazzed about your new connections, but then nothing comes of it — especially if you’ve only given your contact info and not received any in return.
For these instances, it’s important to be memorable and findable. If proactive follow-up isn’t feasible, there are a few ways you can make it easy for people to find you:
- Create a website URL that’s easy to remember and spell. Better yet, create a custom shortened URL with a tool like Bit.ly, Tiny URL, or Rebrandly.
- Hand out business cards.
- Use a logo on your business cards and other collateral.
- Make sure your LinkedIn and other professional networking profiles are up-to-date and include your full name, nickname, and any former names (maiden name, etc.) where possible.
You want to focus on the networking opportunities that generate the most ROI. It can be difficult to know which efforts are most lucrative, and which ones could be eliminated. And measuring ROI is challenging, especially considering that making a sale isn’t a direct goal from networking—rather, it’s a tangential benefit that takes time to pay off.
So, how do you measure ROI if you’re not really making money? Consider the connections and relationships made as “currency.” You could also implement a simple rating system for your connections, giving them a score based on potential and actual ROI.
Figure out which types of events worked well and why. Was it because they were all in the same industry? Were the attendees the same types of people? Or maybe it was the location. Whatever it is, look for those trends and double down on what’s working—and eliminate what’s not.
How to network: Moving forward with professional networking
What’s holding you back from getting yourself out there? If you’re nervous to introduce yourself to a group of people you’ve never met before, start small and casual. Use the resources available to learn how to network online and act on professional networking opportunities real-life for a multi-faceted approach. Before you know, people will be seeking you out.