By Andy Lopata

One in four people across Britain are currently running or considering starting their own business. This is confirmed by the report published in 2004 by the Small Business Service, an agency of the Department of Trade and Industry*. Small businesses are becoming a larger and larger part of the economy and the needs of the entrepreneur play a growing role in Government policy, as can been seen by the DTI’s focus on developing an ‘Enterprise Culture’.

With the economy moving away from a corporate culture, there has naturally been a shift towards new methods of exchanging information, supporting business and marketing. Whereas corporations have traditionally been able to rely on their global network of offices and huge banks of employees, many small business owners find themselves on their own. The entrepreneur can rarely afford large scale advertising and PR it is not always relevant for their business.

For both business support and to market their services most entrepreneurs are now turning to networking. The practice of ‘networking’, connecting with others for the general good, has been prevalent in both business and in life for many years. However, it is only in recent years that it has appeared in marketing texts and business books and is recognised by companies as a valuable part of their strategy.

In addition to people relying on their existing contacts, many are turning to the growing number of structured networking organisations springing up around the UK. These range from ‘quantitative’ networking events, where the aim is to get to know as many people as possible to ‘qualitative’ organisations that focus on a smaller number of people helping each other by generating referrals. Monthly and less regular events such as those often hosted by Chambers of Commerce, alongside online networks such as Ecademy would be good examples of quantitative networks, while referral groups such as Business Referral Exchange (BRE) are qualitative.

Many business people still shy away from breakfast meetings and networking events and remain sceptical of them. There have been, however, many success stories from networking in the UK. Wherever you network, it is likely that you will find individuals who have built thriving companies on the back of the contacts and referrals they have generated; business people who will tell you that they would have failed without their network and tales of personal development, such as David Summers of BMW Park Lane, who was announced as BMW Corporate Sales Executive of the Year in 2004 and who attributed much of his success to networking and to his membership of BRE.

Andrew Colwell, of Surrey based Kanda Solutions ltd. said, “For me as a small business owner, networking allows me to meet people and discuss business issues with others who have been before. I also get new business and introductions to suppliers.”

It is a positive step that so many people now recognise the need to network. The next step is to do so with a clear direction and recognition of what can be achieved and how to get there. The number of people using networking to achieve direct sales is falling but more people need to understand how to make the most of their opportunities.

For people to want to buy from you, they should have a need for your product and service at that time. How many people will you find at a networking event in that position and how will you recognise them? You can increase your chances of success by considering the extended networks of the people who you meet at these functions and benefit from the introductions they can provide.

Of course, you can’t just walk into an event and be referred to key clients through people you have just met. They need to get to know you and build strong levels of trust in you and your business. After all, people buy people and they also buy through people who they trust.

Once strong levels of trust have been built up, the people who you meet still need to recognise opportunities for you. It is vital that you can communicate clearly who you want to speak to and how you can help them. When people want to help you, paint a clear picture for them how they can do so. After all, if you don’t ask, you generally won’t get what you are looking for.

Benefits from networking do not stop with referrals. Jackie Barrie of Comms Plus, a small business based in South East London, gave her view of the benefits of networking. “I started my own writing and design business four years ago. My marketing budget is now down to zero as 100% of my work comes from people I know. It’s therefore essential for me to spend a lot of time networking and meeting people. Previously, I spent twenty years in corporate life, so networking also provides all the support and friendship I used to enjoy.”

It is important for business owners to decide which route is the best for them to take and which they can commit to. There is no benefit to anyone if people attend events without the forethought of what they want to achieve and the commitment of following up on their promises. With a growing number of organisations offering networking opportunities ranging from referral-building to network building and education, decide which ones are for you and commit to them.

As more new businesses start up, networking now will provide you with the platform to develop your business and maintain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Place your business at the centre of this new Enterprise Culture by grasping the opportunity firmly with both hands now.

*The SBS Household Survey of Entrepreneurship — July 21 2004

About the Author
Andy Lopata is one of the UK’s foremost speakers and trainers on business networking. He is the former Managing Director of BRE Networking, one of the UK’s largest referral-focused networking companies and has developed successful tips and tools for building networks and referral based marketing strategies.

Andy is the co-author of two books about networking; ‘Building a Business on Bacon and Eggs, published in 2005’ and ‘….and Death Came Third’, which reached number Two on the Amazon.co.uk Hot 100 on publication in 2006 .

Should you wish to contact Andy for advice on networking effectively, you can email him at andy@lopata.co.uk.

powered by Typeform