By Vijay Mehra
You’ve probably read a lot about the benefits of networking already. However, posts and articles encouraging you to network and lauding the benefits don’t often give you the whole story. Convincing you to network is not what I’m here to do. I’m here to bust some myths about networking, which will break down some of the barriers you may have experienced. Then fill in the rest of the story: I’ll give you concrete, actionable steps on how to get started networking, how to do it well, and how to make it an enjoyable (or at least not painful) part of the rhythm of your work.
Busting Business Networking Myths
First, let’s deal with some of the myths of networking.
Myth #1: Most business networking happens at big events
The place where we most think about business networking happening is at big events, like a conference or a business meet and greet. The truth is, the best networking happens in little day-to-day little interactions. Making connections at the big events can get you started, but networking is an ongoing nurturing relationship, not a one-time interaction. So, build networking into the fabric and rhythm of your business.
Myth #2: Handing out your business cards is networking
Handing out business cards, and trying to find people who will stay still long enough that so you can finish your elevator pitch is best classified as sales, not networking. When uninvited and unwanted, it can shut down opportunities and damage your reputation and that of your company. It’s like junk mail. Everyone already has piles of it and no-one wants to be on the receiving end.
If this is your plan – you’re doing it wrong!
The most effective and productive networking is an evolution, but whether you get to that evolution all depends on that first step. How you make that first connection is critical and sets the tone for your interactions going forward.
So instead of your card and your pitch, start by engaging people in conversation. Ask questions and share what you know. Give freely 3 times before you ask for anything. As you build a relationship over time, if what you’re offering is a good fit, you’ll eventually be asked for your business card. At that point, by all means, hand it over and ask what you can do to help.
Myth #3: You can network well even if you hate it
If you dread the very thought of networking, and slog through shaking hands and chit-chat because you know it’s a good business practice, just stop right now. It’s far better to do no networking than to do it when your heart’s not in it.
The truth is people read body language and intention far better than you (or they) realize. No matter what your words are, if your body language is saying “I don’t want to be here,” people will notice, and it will affect how they see you and your business. It can also affect how you feel about networking according to research performed by Northwestern Kellogg School of Business professor Maryam Kouchaki
So, before diving into your next networking opportunity, take a step back and figure out why you dread it so much. It’s quite possible that by asking that question, you’ll find your solution. Be creative, and find a way to approach networking that excites you. Ask yourself if you’ve been tripped up by one of these myths here and see if changing your perceptions around networking changes how you feel about doing it. Measure success differently too. Solidifying one great connection is a far better outcome that having no business cards left.
Myth #4: You can (and should) network with anyone, anytime, and anywhere
Much of the advice I’ve seen makes it sound like you can (and should) network with everyone. And if you can’t close the networking deal, you’ve somehow failed at networking. The Truth is, not every networking opportunity is going to make sense—for you, for them, or maybe just not at this time.
Because networking works best when both sides are benefiting, not everyone is going to be a good fit. And people who might be a good fit at another time aren’t at the right stage to be a good fit. That’s okay. What you’re looking for is for connections where it’s the right time for both of you. Remember that networking connections aren’t always peer-to-peer. Mentoring someone who’s just getting started, or getting mentoring from someone who’s done what you’re trying to do, are also both valid connections.
If, after you’re past the exploration stage, if you’re not able to state how the relationship benefits both of you, you might choose to let it go for now. Check in every once and a while, though; things may have changed and you can re-stoke the fire.
One caveat: don’t make any assumptions about who might be in the “great people to network with now” pool. Put your feelers out everywhere and don’t rule someone out because they don’t seem, from the outside, to be a good fit. Some of your best interactions might come from people who aren’t like you, don’t agree with you, are not doing anything like what you’re doing, and aren’t people you’d normally gravitate to. Explore relationships with people like you and very unlike you. Explore with people who are on the same path, and ones who have taken a very different one. When it doesn’t work out, don’t mark it down as a failure; instead see what you learned from the process.
And again, success is measured not by the size of your network, but by the effectiveness and value of your connections. This article from Empact co-founder Michael Simmons talks about how brokering information between networking clusters is far more effective than trying to network with everyone, everywhere: Why Being the Most Connected is a Vanity Metric.
A Networking Action Plan
Now that we’ve busted those myths, let’s cover some of the things you can do to take your networking to the next level. The ultimate goal of business networking is, first and foremost, about growing your business. However, as I pointed out above, it is not about sales. If that still seems counterintuitive, let me reiterate.
- A networking relationship is mutually beneficial, not a one-way interaction.
- Not every connection you make is suitable right away, and that’s okay. Every connection can still be a valuable use of your time, even if its outcome is knowing that’s not a direction you want to go
So, how do you set yourself up for networking success? It comes down to 3 main steps:
- Make the Time — Fold networking into the cadence of your business
- Make the Opportunity — Put yourself in a position where you have the most chance of finding appropriate people to network with, and having a place to do it.
- Start the Conversation — Listen, don’t just talk!
Let’s go over each of these steps in more detail.
1. Make the time
Start thinking of networking as an essential part of your work, not as something extra. Once you get into a rhythm, you’ll start seeing the rewards of consistently making the time to network:
- Exponential growth—The exchange and the fresh influx of ideas that come with it both refresh your passion and expand your thinking. Done on a regular basis, this effect builds exponentially – far more than possible when you’re doing it only occasionally.
- 1+1 can equal 5—That same growth that you’re experiencing: your networking partners are also enjoying it. That makes your connection with them more valuable as well. You can benefit from their increased knowledge, success, and influence.
- Rapid prototyping—Having access to second and third and fourth opinions for the little decisions can add up to saved time and effort.
- No big deal—Little interactions are easier to fit in to your busy schedule, and so are more likely to happen.
Have I convinced you? Good! The first step is to put networking on your calendar—make time for it every day (or at a minimum every week). Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Practice What You Preach – Get It Done!
Why does this step come before planning how to do it? Because when it’s on your calendar, you now have a deadline for getting the planning step done. Got it on your calendar? Good! Now let’s move to the next step.
2. Make the Opportunity
You’ll notice I said “make,” not “take,” and that was intentional. Taking opportunities that fall in your lap is a no brainer. I encourage you to take all of them! Making opportunities, however, yields more consistent results. Here are some ways to make opportunities to network:
Expand your contacts
Here are some places to look for people to network with, beyond the standard industry conference or business-to-business meet-up:
- Coworking spaces — Working from a home office, or hidden away in an office building, you have very little opportunity to network. To get those opportunities when you’re working at a home office, getting out of the office is just one more barrier to getting out there and doing it. One of the most effective things you can do is put yourself in a position where it’s almost impossible not to network, and coworking facilities, like our very own atx FACTORY, is one of those places.
- Professional niche and meetup groups — Find professional niche or meeting groups with members who specialize in your field or related fields. There are fewer people in these social groups, but you’re more likely to find a match for your networking needs. One place to get started with this list of niche social networks: 10 Niche Social Networks for Small Business Marketing
- Online — Yes, meeting face-to-face is better, but don’t limit yourself to only those contacts you can have coffee with. Follow someone on social media, start participating in the discussion, and you can build strong relationships virtually.
- Potential customers — There’s selling to potential customers, and then there’s networking with them. The point is not to sell to them, but talk to them about how they go about business and what their problems are. These discussions are great for informing your business decisions and refining your approach. They’ll appreciate your interest in their struggles, and if from your explorations, you are able to create a product that rocks their world, you’ll likely have a customer who’s also in your network.
- Related Companies — Look around at companies that are related to yours. People at these companies may have unique insights on your customers, plus you may be able to collaborate to provide both of your customers with more complete solutions.
- Start Ups and Entrepreneurs — There can be a lot of ways networking with people just at the start of a company or idea can be beneficial for both of you. Entrepreneurs, startups, and the buzz that surrounds them can really push and challenge you. You’re all striving to dominate your respective niche, and a community or tribe can quickly build where you all benefit from the collaboration and competition.
3. Start the Conversations
Start the conversation by asking questions, and seeking to understand where they are, what their needs are, and what kinds of things they’re struggling with. Just listen at first. Be present, and practice active listening—check in to make sure you’re really understanding what’s being said. What I’m recommending is summed up in this quote:
The most important thing to remember when you start your conversations is that little myth we busted about being able to network when you don’t want to be there or dislike the process, or if you go into it with the intent of getting something from the other person. So first, think of your intent, and how this relationship might benefit you both. You don’t have to have all of the answers to those questions, but your goal at the beginning should be to explore that.
So, how do you go about making first contact? As I’ve mentioned, the first interaction is crucial. Remember these guidelines:
- Give before you take: Do your homework, and think about how you can help them. Not by selling to them, but by retweeting, putting a link to their company on your website, participating in a brainstorming session, referring customers to them.
- Be prepared: Don’t waste their time. Plan out questions and what you want to cover. If they do ask “what can I do for you,” make sure you have the answer.
Be respectful of their time
The other important part of the conversation is knowing when to end it. You want to be respectful of their time. One networking guru mentions that at a coffee meeting, when the other person’s coffee is empty, it’s time to stop. If you want the conversation to continue, make sure they’re having a great time. If they’re talking and engaged, they’ll be drinking more slowly, and that’s a good sign that the conversation is going well.
If they’re done quickly, don’t hold them up, and don’t take it personally. Thank them for their time and end on a positive note. Also, like any good meeting, follow up in a timely manner on anything you’ve promised, and thank them for their time. Don’t be shy in following up with reminders about anything they’ve mentioned sharing with you, either. Express your excitement about reading that article they mentioned, and how much you appreciate their willingness to share it, and they won’t even realize it’s a gentle reminder.
Become a Networking Guru
I hope these steps will encourage you to fire up your passion, get curious about other people’s passions, and look for connections between where you’re going and where they’re going. If you’re both going in the same direction, joining forces for part of that road may be just what you both need.
If you’ve learned something from this article, I encourage you to dive in right away. If you don’t, it’s likely you’ll never quite get around to it. Make the time, make your opportunities, and get out there and start having conversations! If you need more inspiration, see this article: Learn to Love Networking
If you’ve got great tips on networking, we’d love to hear them!