Whether you’re a budding or seasoned entrepreneur, there never seems to be enough time in the day for networking. Between generating new sales, developing products and servicing clients, squeezing in time to meet new people and establish new business relationships can be challenging.
Every business workshop I attended when I began my entrepreneurship journey emphasized that networking was the best way to expand my business. However, no one provided guidance, so I quickly became overwhelmed. I attended every event, fireside chat and conference. Some were helpful; some were not. Sometimes I left without connecting with more than a few attendees. Wasting billable hours and seeing no return on my time or the cost to attend these events felt very discouraging.
I decided not to give up. If networking served other entrepreneurs well, it had to be useful for me. After discussing my issues with some business experts, I realized that I was networking with a purpose but without a strategy. Yes, there is a strategy to networking. Successful business owners understand how important it is to realize a return on billable hours. Similarly, you need to realize a return on your networking investment. Once I recognized that I wasn’t recouping the time and money I was spending on events, I knew I had to network smarter, not harder.
I decided not to give up. If networking served other entrepreneurs well, it had to be useful for me.
Since then, my networking strategy has helped me expand my business as well as my circle of supporters. Here are five quick tips that helped me triple consulting practice revenue and expand my business partnerships:
- Be strategic - Working on your business is about expanding your network to find new opportunities. Focus on your networking goals as they relate to your business. Answer the question: “What do you want to achieve through networking?” For example, do you want to develop a strategic partnership? Increase sales? Create at least two specific networking goals, e.g., I want to establish one joint venture partnership that will lead to a new contract by December 31.
- Create a networking schedule - Start with one networking event per month and commit to it. If you have more planning time and want to diversify your networking contacts, create two lists, one of trade/industry events and one of professional association events. Alternate the type of event you attend each month. This will ensure that you are expanding your business relationships in various industries and meeting other owners who can relate to your general business challenges.
- Do your research - Your goal is to network with a purpose, so some preparation is involved. Scan the list of attendees/event hosts and learn more about them. This will come in handy when you want to have a conversation with them at the event. Don't forget to practice your 30-second pitch and relevant talking points.
- Collect five! - If networking is still new to you or you are uncomfortable being in a room full of strangers, arrive early and set a target of collecting at least five business cards. Typically, the flow of attendees is slower at the beginning of the event, allowing you to meet people as they arrive and before it gets crowded. I enjoy arriving early because it allows me to meet more people and feel as if I “own the room.”
- Follow-up is key - The event was a success and you collected five – or more! – business cards. Now you have to seal the deal by emailing your new networking contacts. Too many entrepreneurs forget to follow up. I was definitely one of them. I learned to schedule time on my calendar to send out follow-up emails, which can take as little five to 15 minutes total if you prepare an introduction template in advance and save it to your email application. (This is a new feature for Gmail users but many programs have this capability.) A template or mail-merge email (for ambitious networkers) will help you create emails quickly so you can continue your networking connections well beyond the event.
Networking can be a daunting, time-consuming process for anyone, including a busy entrepreneur. A little advance planning, creating a strategy and setting aside adequate time to follow up will ensure that you get the most out of all your networking activities.