No matter which line of business you go into, you will most likely need to be a master of networking to succeed as an entrepreneur.
Knowing the right people is the key to growing your customer base, finding the right employees, accessing support and expertise and more.
Set your goals
As an entrepreneur, you only have so many hours in a day and you need to make the most of every minute.
To make a success of networking, you should build it into your business plan and set objectives. That means setting aside a portion of your day or week to meet with other people – come what may. It also means think strategically about which people you should spend time with to meet your business goals – whether these are new customers, prospective employees, alternative suppliers or potential investors and mentors.
Craft your message
You have limited time and so do the other people you would like to connect with, so it’s important to make the most of every networking opportunity.
You could create an elevator pitch for your business – a 30-second description of who you are, what you do and how you can help the person you are meeting with. As you give your elevator pitch to more people, you’ll become more confident in delivering it and more able to tailor it to different audiences.
Get active on social media
Digital technology has revolutionised business networking, enabling you to connect with people from around the block or around the world that share your professional interests.
You can use a blog to interact with your customers or join professional groups on LinkedIn and Slack to share expertise and seek advice with other people in your industry. LinkedIn allows you to easily ask for references from people in your network or to ask them to introduce you to their contacts.
These tools can make an entrepreneur’s life less lonely, especially during those times you cannot easily get away from your desk to meet people.
But also go out into the real world
There’s no substitute for face-to-face contact. Even if you can do most of your business by phone or across the Internet, it’s a good idea to get out there and shake hands with real people.
There are many opportunities to do so – you can join an industry association and attend its events, go to seminars, expos and conferences, or simply invite someone for lunch and coffee after you’ve interacted on social media.
The trick is not to go out and hand out as many business cards as you can, but to concentrate on building relationships where there is value for you and the other person. Be selective about which events you attend – perhaps ask mentors and other people in your industry which contacts and events they would recommend to you.
Build on your existing network
Cold-calling is difficult for most of us and it’s easy to become disillusioned when nearly every person you contact closes the door in your face or doesn’t bother to return your calls and emails.
Given that most of us get numerous emails and invitations to connect on social media, it can be difficult to break through the noise. This is why a personal introduction or recommendation from a mutual acquaintance can be a powerful icebreaker.
Before you start advertising for a new sales assistant or scouring the Internet for sales leads or suppliers, why not ask someone you already know if they can introduce you to someone who can help? When someone in your network refers you to a supplier or potential customer, they are putting their reputation on the line for you.
Be sure to be prompt, responsive and professional in your interactions with a referral contact from someone in your network.
Give back to others – Win Win
Networking isn’t a one-way street – it’s about facilitating connections between multiple people.
As far as you can, be generous to those who seek your time and advice. People gravitate to those who are genuinely interested in collaboration and creating shared value – and shy away from shameless self-promotion. Where and when you can, act as a connector who introduces people to others who may share their goals and interests. This can place you in the centre of a growing business network.
You could meet a different person for lunch each day for a year, and not build any meaningful business relationships if you don’t put the effort into sustaining contact. Try to make a point of sending an occasional follow-up email or phone call to touch base with your new contacts.
This will show that you value the time they spent with you and that you are interested in maintaining contact with them.