No matter where you are in your entrepreneurship journey, a strong network will help you be more successful – whether you need to sell more products, attract new clients, connect to funding sources, or build your team. Makes sense, right? But, for many, networking is uncomfortable and can be downright scary. It’s difficult to figure out how to make new connections, sans awkwardness.
The good news is there are plenty of easy and comfortable ways to approach networking and make it fit both your personality and your business’ needs.
Here are some ways to get started…
- Talk to everyone you know about your venture. Don’t assume that your family and friends understand your product, service, or entrepreneurship journey based (this is especially noteworthy if your work is technical). Make sure your existing connections understand what you’re up to, and update them periodically on your progress. They’ll be your best advocates and promoters!
- Don’t neglect traditional networking. Chambers of commerce, small business centers, and industry-specific associations host regular networking events, lunch and learns, business open houses, etc. These are great – and often free! – opportunities to get to know who’s who in the local business community. Always take the time to chat with the hosts of any given event, particularly if you’re running a B2B company; after all, they spend their days working with local business owners and decisions makers.
- Take your hobbies to the next (social) level. Get active and join a kickball team, running club, or Masters swim team. Sign up for classes to learn to cook, paint, or brew beer. You get the picture! Capitalize on your interests or pick up a new skill, and meet new people along the way.
- Set specific, measurable goals. If you’re heading to a networking event, set a goal to collect at least five business cards before you leave. Maybe you already have plenty of connections to nurture; in that case, consider making it a goal to meet with a new person each week over coffee to see how you might be able to help one another. We’re all busy; goal-setting reinforces the significance of networking and encourages you to track your progress.
- Spend time volunteering. Giving back to your local community is a feel-good activity that will expose you to new groups of people. Look up your local food pantry, homeless shelter, humane society, etc. to find volunteer opportunities. Or, if you have a specific skill to offer (accounting, event planning, web design, strategic planning), ask around to see if any local non-profit organizations are looking for candidates to serve on their board of directors.
- Practice your pitch. You want to be prepared with an intriguing, concise elevator pitch for that moment when you finally meet your ideal investor, co-founder, or customer. Why not practice with an organization like 1MillionCups or at another pitch event? Bonus: You’ll meet new people!
- Seek out free business classes/seminars. Organizations that might offer free or low-cost classes include: chambers of commerce, community college small business centers, business incubators, coworking spaces, and local colleges/universities.
- After a job well done, always ask for referrals. If you have happy customers, make it a habit to ask them for referrals or to write a review for your business. The worst case scenario is discovering that your customers aren’t happy, in which case you can work to fix that instead. Happy customers, though, will typically be glad to introduce you to a new contact or write out a few sentences about how you helped them solve a problem.
- Don’t let people forget who you are. Don’t let business cards pile up on your desk without any follow-up. Nurture the relationships you’re building. Connect on LinkedIn. Send a quick email with an interesting (and relevant) link to an article you read, or simply let them know you enjoyed your chat. These actions help ensure that your new connections will remember you and your business.
- Create your own networking events. Want to chat with other women in business? Start your own monthly meet-up for female entrepreneurs! Have no idea what your neighbors do for a living? Invite them over for an open house! When you’re starting from scratch, the options are endless.
- Focus your networking efforts on people, not opportunities. In case you haven’t picked up what we’re laying down here, it’s important to view networking as a way to meet people and nurture those relationships over time, rather than a way to make quick deals. Generally, people can tell when you have both eyes on your bottom line and just an ear turned toward them. Find out how you can make the relationship symbiotic instead of forging a one-way street. It’ll be worth the time and effort.
Personalizing your networking approach – engaging in activities that you actually find interesting rather than forcing yourself to swap business cards at every free event in town – will help you be efficient with your time and form more meaningful relationships with your connections. With effort, strategy, and a little patience, many of your new connections will become business opportunities.
Choose at least one of these options right now and commit to taking the necessary action within the next week. Like, commit to attend a local meet-up or similar event this week and challenge yourself to chat with three new contacts. You got this!