Every would-be entrepreneur, small business owner, startup starter, sole trader and budding career-builder in the UK is joined together by a common goal: to climb the professional ladder, make a success of themselves, and ultimately to have a reasonable enough time doing so.
For many, whether they’re just starting out in the job hunt, or they’re applying a wealth of several years’ experience to starting a new venture; the first step for any professional advancement is simply being sociable. Networking, building lasting professional relationships, and finding new potential partners, employers or employees need not be difficult – and these relationships can then be leveraged to create new business opportunities!
It’s not what you know…
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is a saying you hear a lot in business. For the most part, this is absolutely true – as, just like maintaining visibility for your business, you need to make yourself visible to potential contacts, too. Putting yourself in the right place at the right time can make all the difference. This fact, of course, means one thing – you’re not going to meet new people if you don’t go looking!
First things first, keep an eye out for potential networking opportunities. Where do people in your industry (or the industry you’re trying to break into) regularly meet? There are plenty of online resources you can use to track down events, such as Meetup and Eventbrite – you just need to sign up for an account, let people know your name, your industry and occupation, and you’ll be able to search for networking events in any industry you like, as close or as far away as you’re willing to travel. Some of the events are ticketed, but many are free to attend – and have drinks bars sponsored by bigger companies looking to gain some exposure.
These kinds of networking sites make it easy to sign yourself up for a few events to start off with, just to see how it goes. Of course, once you’ve got your first event planned, there are some other steps to consider…
Nobody likes to turn up to a party just to stand around on their own, not talking to anyone. The same rings true for networking – why go where all the people are if you’re not going to engage with them? You need to put on a professional, yet casual demeanour – showing yourself to be friendly and approachable, whilst still remaining someone others could see themselves working with. Breaking the ice should be your first main port of call – using something simple, like a “what are you doing here?” or, “what do you do?” works well – before moving into friendly conversation.
Seriously… Do actually socialise.
Just remember: you are there to socialise, not interview everyone on how they can help you! Your ultimate goal when networking shouldn’t be, “how can this person help me?”.It’s far more worthwhile to consider, “How can I help others?”
Not only can the prospect of assistance show others your value to them, but it also opens more people up to the possibility of helping you in kind. It’s much more within your interests to understand the needs of others in your industry – firstly, as this can help you to identify trends; “why do so many people have this certain issue, and how can I solve it?” and secondly, understanding more people in your industry helps to further your overall understanding of the industry itself.
Having an in depth, welcoming conversation should tell you whether you’d be interested in working with someone, as well as showing them you’re a good prospect for their ambitions. Contacts made through social gatherings are always more likely to get in touch in the future if they remember having a decent conversation in the first place.
Time is of the essence.
Everyone is busy these days, especially in entrepreneurial circles. Time is money, after all. What the majority of would-be networkers will most likely be thinking as you approach them is, “How much of my time is this going to take?” Being mindful of this can work wonders.
Firstly, introducing yourself and vaguely quantifying the length of the conversation, such as, “Hi, mind if we have a quick chat about this particular subject?” will show your fellow networkers that you’re aware that their time is also valuable. Secondly, less is always more – it will show them that you value your time as well, that you’re efficient, and have a lot of potentially interesting projects in the pipeline. Both of these things will show you in a positive light when approaching an interaction with people from your industry – and should allow you to come away with favourable results.
Quality over quantity. Always.
Machine gunning your contact details at everyone you can pick out with your networking eagle eyes isn’t the way to do it. Firstly, you’ll dilute your efforts and know less about everyone as a result, and secondly, it’s just exhausting – you’ll take nothing practical or profitable away from the experience.
Instead, focus on specialising your networking targets. The more relevant someone is to you, and the more interests and values you share, the more likely it is they’ll want to work with you – and you’ll both benefit from working together. Having one or two contacts that are actively willing to help you will always prove far more fruitful than having 100 people who know your name and that you’re “a hot shot go getter from West London.”
Go above and beyond.
Ever heard the phrase, “preaching to the choir?” If you don’t occasionally step out of your comfort zone – that is, your industry, your more frequented networks, and your usual geographical areas – you’ll never know what’s out there. Not only are you missing out on a massively untapped source of networking, but you won’t stumble across anything new – any new ways of thinking from professionals in different industries, any new ideas for how to progress, or any new methods of upskilling you or your staff.
Make a concerted effort to step out of your industry, and speak to other professionals in networks both similar and wildly different to your own. Nobody’s forcing you to take their advice on board, so you’ve got nothing to lose. Taking some time to socialise when you’re visiting other areas of the country – or even the world – is also a good idea, as cultural differences can really open you up to some new concepts, both professional and otherwise.
As well as putting your own industry and practices into perspective, travelling out of your comfort zone has the added bonus of making you far more valuable to people in your industry who haven’t – you can become the bridge between multiple industries.
Nobody is irrelevant.
Too many networkers make this mistake, and are worse off for it. It doesn’t matter if potential contacts make less money than you, are significantly older or younger, have little experience or work in a seemingly unrelated field. Working attitudes and adaptable (and developmental) skillsets are the most relevant aspects to consider when networking – and cannot be measured by a five minute conversation. Reaching out to people you get on with, regardless of how much you think they can help you, could produce fantastic results later on. Plus, if it doesn’t – you’ve still made a new friend.
Be memorable for the right reasons.
We’re not talking vague, incoherent platitudes about wearing a loud shirt or telling someone a ridiculously profound factoid to appear learned yet enigmatic, either. You could have the most meaningful, in-depth and valuable conversation in the world at a networking event – but it won’t mean squat after four glasses of Merlot has wiped any recognisable traits of your person from your potential future playdate’s memory. Of course, being interesting and impressive (and memorable as a result) will push your networking skill further, but don’t leave it to chance, and don’t neglect the classics.
Firstly – and this is an easy one – get some business cards printed up. And make sure to remember to bring them with you. The two easiest methods of getting your name out there are also the two most forgotten. Getting business cards printed need not be expensive, either – in fact, there’s an entire section on it in our mini-guide to Promoting Your Phone Number. As long as the business cards have your essential information on – name, email address and phone number – you’ve provided your fellow networkers with everything they need to remember you and get in touch. Of course, it couldn’t hurt to have a particularly upmarket business card, but this will require a bigger budget.
Be sure to follow up!
It’s so easy to think that once your business card is in the hands of your newly found conference friend the job is done. Wrong! Relationship building takes time so make sure you follow up with a friendly email the next day and organise a follow meeting with anyone who you think can help you going forward.