Remember that old saying, “It’s not what you know, but who you know?” Nothing could be truer for entrepreneurs and small business owners, especially those who are just starting out. It’s your network that will help you get your business off to the right start.
Both the size and quality of your network matter. Research shows that entrepreneurs with larger and more diverse networks grow their businesses bigger. The weaker ties built by casting a wide networking net are the greatest source of new ideas, information, and opportunities. However, not all contacts are equal. Make sure you have people that have the expertise to provide advice and guidance as well as those with clout and influence who can open doors to money and customers.
By building your network, you’ll develop a strong community of people who will support you through tough times and cheer you on during good times. They provide role models, know-how, guidance and connections to capital, customers and partners. Here are eight ways to build your network.
1. You’ve got to be in it to win
Networking is a participatory sport. Show up at events that are relevant to what you need to accomplish. That could be industry, skills (events about how to market or how to take advantage of the latest technology), or based on raising capital.
Sure, in the beginning, it’s uncomfortable walking into a roomful of strangers. However, by taking a genuine interest in the people you’re speaking with, you can turn strangers into acquaintances and, over time, even friends. People want to know other people who have a genuine interest in them. Be curious. Inquire not just about people’s businesses but about their other interests as well.
2. Have a great elevator pitch
Make sure you have a smart and succinct elevator pitch. Remember, your pitch isn’t about sealing the deal. The point of your elevator pitch is to engage a person in conversation so they want to know more about your company and you. To ensure your pitch doesn’t fall on deaf ears, ask qualifying questions. Avoid sounding like a solution in search of a problem. Explain how your unique solution fills a must-have need. Use plain English, not MBA-speak or technobabble.
Communicate “why” you are doing what you do.“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” says Simon Sinek, an ethnographer, author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action and speaker (his TED speech is among my favorites).
3. Give to get
Remember the old adage, “It’s better to give than receive.” It’s also key to being a successful networker. The act of helping someone doesn’t just endear you to him or her, it’s a useful tactic in establishing a stronger connection to your community, whether they’re fellow entrepreneurs and small business owners, potential funders, or members of the press.
4. Tell people how they can help
Asking can be uncomfortable. This may come as a surprise, but an indirect request may work best and may be easier to make. When updating people on how you are doing, let them know what you’re working on. One out of 10 times, the listener will offer up a connection.
Not only is it important to be connected to resources, it’s important to be connected to the best resources. Before directly asking someone to connect you to an investor, engage in a conversation to find out which investors are easy to work with and are useful. And don’t be disappointed if not everyone connects you. That’s just reality.
5. Be a joiner
From hands-on help to the synergy of co-working, you don’t have to go it alone when starting your business.
In an HBR blog post, Athena Vongalis-Macrow, a researcher at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, outlines four things to look for in a professional networking group:
- who is in the group (people who not only provide resources, information, and knowledge, but have a willingness to share)
- how the network communicates (frequency and professionalism of interaction)
- what’s the substance of the communication (does the network offer support that enables you to overcome difficulties)
- what level are the people in the group (are movers and shakers part of the group)
6. Persistence matters
Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up. When it comes to networking, persistence is the name of the game. Movers and shakers are busy people. You may not get through to them the first, second or even third time you try. You don’t want to be a nag but you do want to try different approaches in reaching out to them.
By using these networking tips, you’ll develop a strong community of support that can help you through tough times, cheer for your successes and open doors to growth. No matter how intimidating networking may be at first, the potential for role models, know-how and guidance make every handshake worth it.