Building relationships is so much more than a business card exchange. This how you meet future customers, team members and friends. You’ll also find the people who will help you run your business better, like the accountants and lawyers and payroll companies and others who will help support the decisions you’ll have to make. Here's how.
No matter if you hate the pressure it creates or love the opportunities that can come, there’s a fair bit of dread among us all when it comes to networking. It takes time, effort and a degree of vulnerability — will this person get value from speaking with me?
“I hate networking,” said Megan Anthony, the community manager at the Wilmington, Del., coworking space 1313 Innovation. From hosting meetups to her previous more corporate jobs, she’s had to build relationships at lots of work events. “I’m pretty sure half the battle of networking is just choosing to ‘show up’ and another 20 percent is trying to remember to smile and not look like a deer in headlights.”
But there’s no denying networking is invaluable. If you’re going to help or do business with someone, it’s natural that you would want to know and like them.
“I think in any business, relationships are important,” said Lee Mayer, CEO of Denver online interior design company Havenly. “And I think one of the things that I really place a lot of faith in is the fact that when someone likes me, they’re more likely to want to help me out.”
Instead of thinking of it as a necessary evil, consider networking an opportunity to build important relationships with customers, team members and your community. Many dismiss the word networking altogether, since the word has come to be associated with forced business card exchanges. But Networking can be the beginning of true connections.
“It takes time to build a genuine network of people,” said Robert Herrera, a Delaware architect who worked on developing some of the early locations of WeWork, the coworking company, and is creating his own called The Mill. He’s seen young entrepreneurs get flustered when they try to rush things. “They would be better off taking the time to listen to what the people on the other side of the table need — particularly if they are already established and experienced.”
The key difference between a typical ‘schmoozer’ and, say, a social entrepreneur is that the latter has a sincere vision and commitment to change the world. You’ll have to make this clear from the very beginning, especially when you are thinking or engaging in any networking. As a founder with a clear mission, you are more interested in how your innovation can be scaled or replicated in order to bring about change and improve the lives of people. To do so, you need to be able to grasp the big picture of networking that goes far beyond typical ‘schmoozing’.
“I think your experiences at the edges and the intersections are really powerful. Like that’s where networking happens, relationships happen. You need to be out on the edge just like pushing the envelope, doing things that people say, “You’re crazy. What are you doing?” said Chuck Sullivan. As founder of Denver events and entrepreneurship organization Something Independent, Sullivan seeks to provide a platform to find those intersections and edges.
You can network in lots of ways and at lots of places, but many in entrepreneurship communities point to local industry events as a great place to begin. You can find a support system, future employees, potential clients and, yes, inspiration and motivation there.
“Dedicate a portion of your week — perhaps one or two nights — to going to happy hours, meetups or talks,” said Ryan Harrington, another 1313 Innovation team member. “By consistently attending, you’ll slowly start to meet more people within those networks.” He also advised becoming a connector for other people when possible — something that others will then be more likely to do for you. Find two people who might be able to work together and do an in-person introduction or in an email after the event. That provides value and will encourage others to do the same for you.
Harrington’s 1313 Innovation counterpart, Megan Anthony, recommends bringing a “hype-man” with you. “Having someone who genuinely believes in you who will advocate for your business or services is the best way to network,” she said. “And remember to advocate for people who’ve done a great job for you.”
"Half the battle of networking is just choosing to ‘show up’ and another 20 percent is trying to remember to smile and not look like a deer in headlights,” said Megan Anthony of 1313 Innovation, an incubator space.
Find the event: Entrepreneurship communities across the country are booming with events. There are series like Startup Grind, Girl Develop It, Ignite, Barcamp, Creative Mornings, Refresh, Tech Breakfast and others that are held regularly in many communities. Also many communities have annual series meant to welcome new members, like Philly Tech Week, Denver Startup Week or Baltimore Innovation Week. See if any of them are active where you are. Use Meetup.com, Facebook or local entrepreneurship or tech groups or news sites to find others. Many of these events have programming (a speaker or panel discussion) and then time to meet new people. Attend many until you find the style event you prefer, likely determined by the other people who attend.
Follow the rule of odds: That’s the latest trick for John Himics, cofounder of the web design and development company First Ascent Design. “Try to only join conversations that are groups of an odd number,” he said. “People tend to pair off, and you won’t be able to as easily get into the conversation if there are two, four, six people.”
Say Hello: Everyone knows networking can be a bit awkward, if it’s forced. Remember that you’re simply there to meet other people, potential friends or collaborators. You’re not “networking” for the sake of it. So if you spot someone who is in between conversations, simply offer a warm welcome and begin. “Don’t worry about having awkward conversations,” said Chris Hackney of Atlanta insight marketing firm Insightpool. The long-time exec said people will be willing to share. “Go up, shake someone’s hand. Tell them what you do and see what happens.”
Have a first question: Prepare yourself with a strong first question to kick off a conversation. Maybe it is “What do you do,” but it might also be “What is your passion?” Or “What are you excited or learning about lately?” Find something that grounds the conversation and puts everyone at ease.
Have a Goal, but remain Open: It’s good to go to an event with a general sense of what you need the most help with — an introduction or type of person or obstacle you’re facing. But also be open if a conversation goes a different way.
Go for quality, not quantity: Instead of meeting as many people as possible, focus on making two to three strong connections and then follow up with those people afterward, Harrington advises. Leaving with a stack of business cards might feel valuable, but they can be difficult to follow up. Walk away with a few clearly actionable relationships.
Walk Away: Getting in a deep, meaningful conversation is a great treat, but don’t hesitate to find an opportunity to move on to a new conversation. The point of networking is to meet multiple people to try to find the best connection. At a break in the conversation, go grab another drink or simply suggest you and your conversation partner follow up later and go meet someone else now.
Be nice: “Sometimes what stands out most is a small gesture of kindness,” said Bob Downing, cofounder of Delaware Sports League. “Hold the door for someone, even if it means you have to wait an extra 15 seconds. You would be surprised at how meaningful to someone else those ‘meaningless’ 15 seconds could be.” Those small things are often overlooked as people focus on business leads, and so they start conversations and allow people to connect. “Don’t look to get something out of the relationship initially. Look to give something.” said Napoleon Suarez of Philadelphia’s Fishbox.
Be human: Don’t be afraid to have a meaningful conversation, even if it’s not work-related. If you find someone who has a similar hobby or passion, that could start another conversation or lead to a future collaboration. “Build a relationship first and offer your pitch second,” Downing advised. “A good conversation is NEVER a waste of time.” Ultimately, business comes down to helping each other, said Mayer. “You’re building relationships with people who will look out for you. You kind of have to depend upon other people’s willingness to help. And that’s hard but I think what’s really cool about it is it becomes a human business. It becomes doable,” she said
The follow-ups: Send follow-up notes to the people you met. And, whether it’s mentioned in the note or at a future meeting, Downing says it’s a big plus to remember something about them or a detail they mentioned in a story. “It communicates to them that not only were you paying attention to them, but you found what they had to say worthy of committing it to memory. That feels good. People like other people who make them feel good about themselves. People like working with people who they like. You do the math.”
Host your own networking event. Be known as someone who is an excellent networker and community organizer. Be at the top of the list and at the back of people’s minds. Have people think of you and your venture whenever applicable.
Right now: Find an event you’re going to attend in the next two weeks this these tips in mind.
So drop the stress. Networking is simply a tired word that describes trying to find new friends. Your next cofounder, employer, employee or client might be in the room right now.