By Sandra Dexter, Federation of Small Businesses
When operating a small business, networking is certainly something that some business owners will shy away from and others will leap towards. It is thought that networking is key to becoming a successful entrepreneur as it allows you to build a bank of contacts, including potential customers and suppliers, employees or even investors. It can easily be seen as just another task on your to do list but it’s vital to see the value that it could bring to your business.
Throughout the years as technology has progressed there’s so much more to networking than meets the eye. Now there’s a number of free and easy to use digital platforms at the end of your fingertips. Even though entering digital networks may seem the easier option, nothing can replace building those all-important face to face relationships.
One of the most common issues people have with networking is confidence. Don’t let this shy you away from attending events in your industry. The first contact you make is always the hardest but in time you’ll build up a network of contacts and your confidence will soar. Of course you may face some setbacks but after all you’re only human so don’t take it personally.
Where do you even begin? True networking is a collaboration of both your online presence and face to face meetings. The following elements will give you an overview of what is available.
Set up a LinkedIn profile, if you haven’t already. Social media may seem like a mystery but it’s an essential tool for building your web of contacts. There is no need to feel intimidated, with the site being user friendly simply follow the steps and fill in your necessary information. Don’t forget to upload that all important professional headshot and include your contact details at the top of your profile.
Connect with everyone you currently do business with and have done in past. Keep a keen eye out for people you may know, when connecting with them add a personal touch by changing the generic message. Sometimes suggesting that ‘put off’ coffee catch up may lead to something new.
See how you’re connected and reach out
Take a look at your connections, you never know who they might be able to introduce you to. Don’t be shy to click the ‘request an introduction link’, it’s there to be used.
The digital platform is a more valuable networking tool for small businesses than first meets the eye. While using your account bear in mind what you say if you’re using it for business purposes. When writing your bio think about what you want potential new connections to know about not just you but your business.
Follow all of your current connections and then take a look at those who you might want to connect with. Use tools like followerwonk to search the bios of people you may want to connect with.
Keep a close eye on Twitter
Set up Twitter lists to track the movements of those you want to build relationships with, so if they’re looking for a new supplier or agency you’ll be the first to know.
Engage with the conversation
There are numerous hashtags that run every evening for a one hour slot, talking all about business in different areas in the UK. This will give you the chance to talk about your business and connect with others in your area.
This has to be the most important part of networking. Face to face interaction is what will help you to gain those long lasting business relationships.
Before you go to the event think about what you want to achieve, whether it’s to find a new investor or five new suppliers. Carry out your research beforehand as this will help you to get ahead of the game. Who’s going to be there and what are they looking for? Going into a networking event fully equipped could make the difference between making the connections or not. Don’t forget you’ll need to take your business cards with you, keep it simple and make sure your new contact will be able to write extra details about you on it.
Remember - this is an important one - be yourself
People buy people, so be approachable. Don’t just stay with the people you know, work the room and make the most of your time. Everyone is there for the same reason so they will be open to meeting new people.
Take your time
Think about the objectives you set before you arrived. You’ll need to speak to someone long enough to have a meaningful conversation, as your goal should be to maintain a long-term relationship. Is there a cost involved?
Like any aspect of business, networking should be budgeted both in terms of time and cost. The majority of networking events are free to attend. Although be mindful of the ones you choose to pay for. Always think about the end goal that you want to achieve before attending any networking event, as the old saying goes, time is money. Think about who will be there and who you want to connect with. This is key as you don’t want to miss out on an opportunity or waste money.
Above all don’t complicate networking, after all the key aim is to build long-lasting relationships which, makes it even more important to nurture the connections that you have made via networking.
Although there are various ways that you can build up your connections don’t forget that everyday can be a networking opportunity. You never know who you might meet; your next employee, supplier or even investor could be sat opposite you on the train to your next meeting.