Networking is especially important for entrepreneurs and small business owners. It can provide opportunities to discover and engage with new business prospects, as well as other professional contacts or mentors who can help bring new perspectives into your business.
When it comes to traditional networking, we often think of large conference halls filled with delegates in suits and ties, and an exhausting exchange of elevator pitches and business cards. And for many business representatives, not just entrepreneurs and small business owners, it can prove difficult to develop deep and impactful connections at these larger, more traditional events.
I’m not suggesting that large networking events are ineffective and obsolete. Far from it, if a traditional networking event still attracts exactly the target audience you want to engage with, then it is still an avenue worth exploring. For example, I recently attend MIPIM, a well-established and very traditional networking event for the property sector, because it still proves to be a valuable and worthwhile event for anyone tied to the property industry and so it was important for Student.com to have a presence.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that entrepreneurs and small business owners should invest their networking time and resources wisely, and channel their focus into activities that can bring about real benefits for your business. If you’re strapped for time, this is even more critical. Here are my top tips to for entrepreneurs and small business owners wanting to make the most of modern networking activities:
1. Leverage the power of online
To a certain extent, building relationships digitally is much easier than in real life. Over the past decade, social media has significantly driven the growth of online networking and mobile allows us to be engaged wherever we go. Today, business representatives can benefit from a much broader reach across wider, boundless networks, and there are less awkward silences to worry about too!
When it comes to online networking, one of the first platforms that springs to mind for many is LinkedIn. LinkedIn was built around a purpose to facilitate business networking and offers a host of functions to help you connect and engage with others. In China, where I founded Student.com, the go-to platform for networking is WeChat. WeChat isn’t a channel specifically for networking but is a huge and integral part of business life in China.
Whichever platform you’re using, you’re best off taking a slow-drip approach instead of pushing for immediate results. Expand your network by gradually adding targeted and carefully researched contacts to it. Avoid blasting out generic messages to hundreds of people too – tailor-make your approaches, just like you would do in real life, to make things more personable.
While online networking has the potential to create more impact than its offline equivalents, you should carefully consider your approach. It’s very easy to get ‘sucked in’ and have an ‘always on’ attitude when you’re finding new connections and engaging with them. As with any business activity, it’s important to think about how much time you invest in online networking and constantly evaluate the effectiveness of your approach. It’s also worth remembering when to be ‘human’ again and move conversations from your screen to a phone call or face-to-face meeting.
2. Create your own networking groups
For many entrepreneurs and small business owners, especially those operating in niche industries or markets, it can be difficult to find the right or relevant networking groups to join. Instead of wasting time looking for a ‘perfect fit’ group or waiting for one to appear on LinkedIn, take ownership and create your own.
Aside from LinkedIn, or WeChat if you’re networking in China, there are other tools like Meetup that are designed to make it easy to create and run your own networking platforms, as well as find new avenues to network through.
Ultimately, you’re managing a group to benefit yourself and your business, and the people who engage with your group will appreciate that. However, it’s essential that you don’t get too carried away with your own agenda or expect exchanges in your group to be one-way in terms of who they’re benefiting. As your group grows, listen to your expanding member base, and constantly have in the back of your mind the best ways to engage with and benefit your members.
And while it’s great to grow and have a wide reach, you’re better off emphasising quality over quantity. A small, targeted group of relevant industry professionals is much more beneficial to your business than a larger group filled with irrelevant contacts.
3. Network through hobbies and interests
Just like online networking, engaging with other professionals over a shared hobby or interest takes away a considerable amount of pressure from conversations. The casual nature of a meetup for a hobby means that there are no expectations from any party to bust out elevator pitches or keep conversations high level.
I used to run ultra-marathons in China, through which I have met a large number of individuals who I later did business with. From friends to mentors and business contacts, ultra-marathon running and other endurance sports was amusingly a huge opportunity to build fruitful relationships for the business.
The main drawback of networking through such an unconventional means is that, compared with traditional formats, there’s a noticeable lack of structure. Results for your business may come at slower speeds. However, in my experience, the most impactful relationships are built gradually over time on strong connections. And its strong connections that have the most potential to create greater impact in the long run.
In conclusion, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to networking. And whilst networking is resource consuming, it’s worthwhile and frankly it is a core party of modus operandi for any entrepreneur or business owners. By developing a clear picture of your audience, adopting the right approach and leveraging the most effective channels, you’re on track to building really important business relationships.
Luke Nolan is founder and CEO of Student.com.
Further reading on networking
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