When English poet John Donne wrote that “no man is an island", he didn't really have small business owners in mind.
Even so, the thinking behind his immortal line — that none of us thrives in isolation — can be just as easily applied to the world of startups and independent businesses as the general human condition.
It doesn't matter if you're putting in eighteen hours a day, seven days a week to make your business a success — if you're not making an effort to expand your professional network, your business' growth will always be stunted. If you want to grow, you have to do so outwardly, connecting with other businesses and their owners as much as possible.
But how, exactly, do you go about establishing a professional network when you’re the new kid on the block? Networking might come easily to those corporate bigwigs, but what about the independent business owner striking out on their own?
Today on the RotaCloud Small Business Success Blog, we’re offering up 10 networking tips for startups and first-time business owners on how to make connections and find ways to grow your network when you’re just getting started.
Ready to expand your professional network? Let’s go!
The Benefits of Professional Networking
You've probably heard that networking is a good thing to do. But what can you expect to get out of doing it? Well...
Brand-boosting. Even if you’re not seeing an immediate uptick in orders as a result of networking, it still pays to get your name out there. People are far more likely to trust a brand or person whose name they’re familiar with or that was passed on to them by someone they trust. Plant as many seeds as possible early on — there's every chance that they'll grow into fruit-bearing trees in the months and years that follow.
A living library. Good business advice is priceless, but why rely on anecdotal evidence from friends and family when you could talk to people who have walked the exact same path that you're on and overcome the same obstacles? Connecting with professionals from within in your industry means that you’ll always have someone to learn from and bounce ideas off.
Exponential growth. The great thing about connecting with other professionals is that, by doing so, you’ll have an immediate, secondary connection with all of their contacts, making it easier for you to approach them. You're also more likely to start receiving contact and enquiries from third-party companies as a result of your original contact passing your details on to them.
A positive first impression. Sending out cold emails might snag you one or two new clients, but you also risk annoying people as you force your way into their inbox. The great thing about attending professional mixers and meeting people through your existing contacts is that they're usually much happier to hear from you, starting your professional relationship off on a much more positive footing.
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How to Build a Professional Network
It's perfectly possible to build up a long list of professional connections via email and social media alone. The most worthwhile business relationships, however, require meeting face to face.
Even if you don't consider yourself to be much of a people person, if you want your business to grow, you're going to have to learn — or at least pretend — to be one.
That might sound scary if you're new to the world of business, but the good news is that networking gets easier with every mixer and event you attend, as you find yourself bumping into more and more people that you already know.
Plus, there are plenty of ways to expedite the process...
1. Get some business cards
Yes, we live in a digital age and can easily connect online, but the humble business card remains a vital part of any business professional’s toolkit.
Sure, you could always whip your phone out and exchange numbers with someone you meet at a mixer or trade shows, but business cards enable you to pass on all of your contact information (company name, website, phone number, email, etc) in seconds. They're also much more personal and show that you're the kind of person who plans ahead by having a few cards on you at all times.
If you haven't already done so, get some professional-looking cards printed up. Along with all of the usual contact info, your cards should chime with your existing branding, so work with a company that will work to your exact specification rather than relying on a template that thousands of people will have used before you.
2. Build up a strong online presence
True networking happens in person, but also you need to make yourself discoverable as possible online.
Building up an online presence involves more than just setting up a website and sharing a few snaps on Instagram. Ideally, you'll also have:
- A business Facebook page. Keep this up to date and make sure it includes all of your key contact information and a link to your website.
- LinkedIn accounts. Set up one for your business and one for you if you don't already have one. Some people may wish to connect with your company, but others may prefer to connect with you as its owner.
- A Twitter account. Twitter allows anyone to converse publicly without being a part of their network. They can also tag you in things that may be relevant to you, so make yourself easy to find.
- A business blog. This could be on either your personal or business' website. People will want to get to know more about you and your business — a blog is the perfect way to show them how passionate you are.
- A business listing on Google. If you have a physical store or office that's open to the public, you should claim your business listing on Google so that you can do things like respond to reviews and update your contact information and opening hours.
Spend a little time making sure that anyone you meet in person can find you quickly and easily online after the fact.
3. Get to know your neighbours
Do not underestimate the power of your local network!
You might not be able to compete with those big-name multinationals, but the connection you have with your fellow local businesses can be invaluable to the success and growth of your business.
Whether or not they're a part of your industry, start by introducing yourself to the businesses in your immediate area, and make time to meet with their owners in an informal setting if possible. By working together, local businesses can form strong networks, supporting one another and referring their customers to mutual benefit.
You should also try to attend as many community-focused events (town hall meetings, opening ceremonies, even local theatre performances) as possible in order to meet the most active and influential members of your society.
It doesn't matter if the people you meet don't work in your industry or aren't business owners themselves — diversity is key to networking, and every person you connect with will have dozens of contacts of their own.
4. Attend trade shows — all the trade shows
Unless your business would immediately suffer as a result of your absence, you should make it your mission to attend every trade show and industry event that you can.
More than just an opportunity to expand your professional network, regularly hitting trade shows will enable you to gather a wealth of information about your competitors and help you to spot upcoming trends and any gaps in the market.
Follow your competitors on social networks and pay attention to the people that they follow and the groups they belong to. The moment you hear talk of an upcoming event, be sure to get your name down either to display your business or go along just as an attendee — you never know who you'll meet or what useful information you'll unearth!
5. Find a friend
If you’re new to the networking scene, it’s a good idea to attend your first few mixers and trade shows with an existing contact — or at least attend events you know they’ll be present at so that you can seek them out.
While you wouldn’t want to mimic their every move or stick to them like a lost puppy, attending mixers with someone who’s more experienced will give you an opportunity to pick up some tips on how to discreetly move in and out of conversations. You’ll also have someone who can introduce you to their existing contacts and will have a natural starting point for conversations.
6. Avoid the hard sell
Remember: a professional network is not the same thing as a client list.
You might end up selling to or working with some of your professional contacts over the years, but your immediate goal when meeting people at events and trade shows should never be to sell to them.
You of course want to come across as passionate and knowledgeable about your industry, but you should always try to keep the content of your conversations light and find mutual interesting topics to discuss.
Networking events are all about building rapport and meeting new people — don’t be tempted to turn every conversation back to your product or business.
7. Always follow up
Think about it: if you come away from a trade show or a public event with half a dozen names in your head or business cards in your pocket, then there’s every chance that you’ll forget about at least one of them. And plenty of your new contacts might just forget about you.
Whether or not you can see yourself working closely with them in the near future, it’s always a good idea to follow up with the people you meet at mixers and trade shows after the fact. Depending on the nature of your businesses, consider adding them to your online networks (LinkedIn and Twitter are usually safe bets, as many people try to keep their Facebook accounts personal), including a quick message with a line or two alluding to the conversation you had to help them remember you.
Alternatively, if there’s someone you particularly chimed with, consider dropping them a quick email, inviting them to get in touch anytime or telling them that you look forward to catching up at the next event.
Just like in your personal life, you'll need to maintain these professional relationships, so be sure to check in from time to time (the odd "like" on social media; a two-line email at the end of the year...) to keep your business' name fresh in their mind.
Bonus: Tips for meeting in person
Not so confident in public situations? Don't worry! The great thing about trade shows and meet-and-greet events is that people usually have only limited time to chat before moving on.
If you're really struggling to make conversation, or feel that your chats are falling flat, consider the following:
- Ask open-ended questions. Keep your questions open-ended and encourage them to do the talking. If there's one thing that people like to do it's talk about themselves, so avoid asking yes-no questions and ask plenty of questions that allow them to run with the ball rather than throwing it immediately back to you.
- Introduce people. The simple act of introducing someone can be a huge power move in business. As well as showing yourself to be polite and considerate by inviting someone new into your conversation, by using their name and dropping in a few lines about what it is that they do, you're also showing to the person that you've been speaking to that you've actually been listening.
- Prepare your self-introduction. This isn't an elevator pitch as such (remember: you're not there to sell), but you should be able to summarise what it is you do in a clear and concise manner. Jot down a few lines now and practise saying them in a mirror — as well as your name (!), you need to mention where you're based, the industry you work in and your business' name.
As a small business owner, networking is as important a part of your job as securing your initial funding or hiring staff. It's only when we reach out to others and learn from each other that we can achieve our individual potential.
View every meeting, event, tweet and online connection as an opportunity to forge new alliances, present your business in the best possible light, and — either directly or indiretly — win new clients.
Don't be shy — get out there and start shaking some hands.