If you’re an entrepreneur or small business owner, like it or not, you need to master the art of networking.
If I’m being brutally honest (and I usually am), networking was not high on my list of fun things to do when I started my business. But I knew it was important and that doing it well could make or break me, especially in a small town.
So, I swallowed my nerves and decided to jump in with both feet and do this networking thing!
It’s definitely a work in progress and I’m still learning the ins and outs of networking, both online and off. That said, I have learned a few things in my recent experience, so here are my top tips for small business networking:
1) Engage with others – This seems like a bit of a no-brainer, but there’s no networking without engagement. Listen, I know you’re nervous. You joined a meet-up group and it seems like people know each other and are chatting, but you don’t really know what to say or how to break into the conversation. Put your fears aside and simply walk up to someone standing on their own and introduce yourself. And you know what? They will likely know someone else in the room whom they would introduce you to (and if they don’t know anyone either, now you’ve got a buddy and it’s easier to approach others when you’ve got a sidekick!). Before you know it, 25 people in the room will know who you are and that you own “Business ABC” down on the corner. Done! Online networking is no different. Introduce yourself, make a connection and it will grow from there.
2) Get to know people AND their businesses – The most irritating thing I hear with regards to networking is “their business is not relevant to mine.” Really? Everyone’s business is relevant to everyone else’s business in some way. Should the photographer connect with the mobile spray tanner? Yes! Brides like a nice glow before their wedding photos. Should the groomer connect with the dog trainer? Yes! They have the same client base. Hello, referrals! Here’s a great example pulled from an online networking group I belong to. One couple from the group owns a cabinet refinishing company. Do I personally need my cabinets refinished? No. But guess what? I have quite a few clients in the real estate industry, and they are forever telling THEIR clients to refresh their homes before listing them for sale. It is absolutely to my benefit to engage with the cabinet people, because I may be able to send them some business, even if it is not my own. People remember that. And what do they do in return? Refer my business (or yours!) to people they know. It’s that simple. Make the connection. Trust me.
3) Take it offline. Go and meet them – I know! Even more scary, right? Not really. You’d be surprised how open and welcoming people are when you have chatted with them online and then drop into their place of business to meet them in person. It makes them feel important. And they ARE important! It’s not a cheesy sales visit with a greasy handshake. It’s a genuine desire to meet them face to face and increase your connection. There’s a quote I’ve heard many times and I don’t remember who originally said it, but the gist of it is that people will forget what you did, they will forget what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. And making a genuine effort to step out from behind the keyboard and meet someone in person will be memorable to them. It doesn’t even have to be an “official” visit. I stopped into a store downtown earlier this week because I happened to have an appointment around the corner. Simple as that. I wasn’t dressed for business (at all!), but I stopped in to say hi and introduce myself to someone I had only met online. Turns out she provides a great service that I will likely take advantage of around the holidays. Bonus! And she didn’t care that I was wearing jeans and sneakers. Double bonus!
Which leads me to my next point…
4) Do business with them – Now, please use some common sense here. Don’t buy 100 candles from the local candle shop if you hate candles, or sign up for a salsa class at the local dance studio if you hate dancing. But if a local business is providing a service that you need (either personally or professionally), then go for it! Buy the candles to decorate your office. Become a salsa queen! If nothing else, it will keep your dollars in the local economy (IMPORTANT!) and strengthen your connection with other small business owners. Whether they reciprocate with their business is irrelevant. What’s important is that you have connected with some new people, and are able to recommend them to others. “Hey, Peggy sent me!” That’s powerful. And it will eventually come back to you. Because when someone in THEIR network is looking for YOUR services, guess whose name will come to mind? Not because they saw your ad in the paper, or scrolled past your Facebook post (though a great post can obviously have great impact!), but because you know them, you do business with them, and you are connected on a personal level.
The key to all of this is to be genuine! You have to genuinely want to connect with people. If not, then your attempts at networking, both online and offline, will come across as fake and contrived. And don’t worry that people will think you’re just pretending to be nice in order to get something. As a busy small business owner, if I take the time to stop by your business to say hi, it’s legit! And another small entrepreneur will get that. Would I like to grow my business? Of course I would! But wouldn’t you like to grow yours as well?