According to dictionary.com, the formal definition of networking is “a supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups having a common interest”. (1) In other words, from a business perspective, networking is simply when people or a business works with others for a mutual benefit. As a small business owner just starting out, it is very advantageous that you start networking immediately. By doing so, you can open doors for you and your business that you would have never thought of.
The key thing to keep in mind when it comes to networking is that it should be a mutual benefit between both people/parties. Networking is definitely a “two-way street”. The actions that take place between you and your contact could very well determine your relationship in the future, so it is important to keep their considerations in mind as well.
When networking at a function or community event, do not take any contact for granted. You can usually benefit from that person in one way or another, whether it is directly related to business goal or not. They could know of someone who is more adequately suited to your business desires. It is also vital to remember that whether you are a college student, professional, or manager that you treat each and every contact with respect and follow through with what you say you are going to do. By doing so will dictate how they are going to treat you in return. For example, if you were to meet someone and they asked for help from you, and then you blew them off, they will most likely not want to do business with you in the future. It is all about the relationship that you build with that person.
Another thing to remember when it comes to networking is that networking is not always easy and it sometimes takes time. All in all, networking is inexpensive, sometimes even free, so there should be no reason for you not to use it. (4)
How to start?
When you think of networking many think of it as meeting new people and building relationships with them, but there is more to it than that in the small business aspect. A simple hand shake is not sufficient networking that will get you to where you want to go or fulfill your desires. Many entrepreneurs wander around trying to meet new people and hoping to come across that perfect idea that will get their small businesses to the next level, but wandering around with no plan will get you nowhere.
There are three main points that we describe in our presentation and they are; know your purpose for networking, do your homework, and get involved. Knowing your purpose for networking is very important because you have to know what interests you are trying to fulfill and the reasoning behind it. When you meet someone that can possibly benefit you and they ask you what you’re trying to accomplish, you have to be able to explain in depth what it is that you are trying to do. Talking to someone with no course of action will get you nowhere because they have no idea where to start helping you at. You need to have a course of action that you want and an implementable plan to execute it.
The second main point in helping you get started is to do your homework about what it is that you are trying to learn. By doing your homework, I am referring to researching and constructing a background to help you gain knowledge about your topic. Learning about it will help you get a sense of direction that will lead you to the right people and places. When speaking with someone it is important to be able to carry on a knowledgeable conversation to give the impression that you are serious and competent. Questions that can be easily answered by doing a little research are not questions that you want to ask them because you should already know what the answer is from your research.
The third point is to get involved and make connections with other people that share your common interest. Getting involved with organizations and clubs will help you meet people and gain more knowledge about the ideas you are trying to construct. Socializing and meeting new people will help build relationships and set a solid foundation for your goals.
Where to go?
The most significant part of networking is getting involved and meeting people, so any community event or function where you would meet people could lead to potential networking. Although any situation where you are meeting and talking to people could lead to some business relations, there are some places to start that could lead to a greater number of promising connections.
One place to start would be your local chamber of commerce. According to dictionary.com, a chamber of commerce is an association of businesspersons and merchants for the promotion of commercial interests in the community. (1) Most communities have these, and they can be a vital resource in the small business world. Besides promoting local businesses, the chamber of commerce can also set rules and regulations that could concern your business. It is also a good way to hear about the local news affecting commercial activity in your community. You can find your local chamber rather easily online. The Bryan/College Station website is www.bcschamber.org. This site offers an array of services for local businesses, and gives information on how to become involved and when community events are taking place. Once you become a member you can also have your business listed on the website with the other businesses so that potential partners and customers can find your business’s products/services easily. Your local chamber of commerce is made up of people who want to see your business and the community’s commerce flourish, so this would be a great starting point for a new small business owner. For the reasons listed above, it would be a wise decision to begin building and strengthening your network base in your local chamber of commerce.
Local business journals/magazines/newspapers are also a great way to find and advertise for potential connections. Many times small businesses publish services or products they are looking for and begin initial connections in this manner. This goes both ways; you can get your name and business out in the public through these venues and then wait for possible connections to contact you, or you can look through these publications and contact people that you think would provide a helpful connection.
As I said earlier, any time in which you are meeting and interacting with people there is a potential for a network connection, so don’t think that you must solely pursue events that are business oriented. Volunteering, church groups, and little league sports could help establish a connection in a slightly different kind of way. When meeting someone in a non-business oriented social context it can sometimes be easier to come off as a less threatening business contact. It also gives the contact a view of your character that wouldn’t necessarily be seen in a business setting. This can lead to a stronger connection down the road.
Tips to remember
While networking, there are some things that need to be kept in mind. Unlike what most people believe, getting to know every single person in the room can work against you. Finding at least one person and having a genuine conversation is the key to future business relationships. It is about quality, not quantity. “Working the room” can make you look eager and even to the point of being desperate. Before handing out your business card, be sure to connect with another individual and look for commonalities where you can help them and they can help you. In the middle of connecting with someone, look for reactions that may show a level of discomfort and change the topic accordingly.
Networking events are a definite way to meet potential contacts. But do not forget that there are other places that networking can occur. Volunteering in your local community and sharing a passion for service with others can help in the end form a business relationship. Professional, sports, and alumni associations are also another great example of where you can network. Do not limit yourself to one piece of the whole puzzle.
Also, take into consideration how much you ask for help. Asking for too much help can burn bridges, especially if you are not doing what you can in return. Even if you do support a fellow business owner do not expect anything in return.
In the end you want to become a powerful resource to others. People will always remember you and contact you for ideas, suggestions and other contacts. (3)