Are you as comfortable "working a room" as you are working a chat room? Are you finding profitable ways to "press the flesh" with local business decision makers, your peers, and potential partners or investors? If so, can you share your insights after you read this?
Networking, at least in "First Life" or the real world, can be an intimidating, often frustrating process. Going to many networking events may feel like a pressure cooker of business referral obligations, business card trolling, and forced conversations. Getting out from behind the laptop or away from the whiteboard and the comforts of your own team can be like striking out into uncharted territory. Especially after an extended period of incubation, working with accelerators, or having become used to marketing yourself a part of a larger organization.
Many articles, blogs and books have been written about how to network in business. From the best way of entering a room, to striking up a conversation with a stranger to the fine art of the handshake; you can find sage advice on the mechanics of networking in other places. However getting out amongst the name badge wearing, business card slinging, elevator pitching ladies and gents of the networking world as a startup, it.s a whole different experience than "Working for The Man Inc."
Here are some tips as to what to do, in many cases learned from making mistakes.
1. Look for networking opportunities that allow you to be yourself. Seek out your peers, and potential partners/allies not your clients in the early going. Get some business cards printed. Good ones. Have someone give you feedback on the business cards before you get them printed. You would be surprised how much a business card says about you as a startup if you have a cheap business card with poor artwork or font. Be genuine, have a sense of humour, and if you do make mistakes, don.t be too hard on yourself.
2. Seek out a wing man or wing woman to go to the event with. It may be a friend, a business partner or someone else that has an interest in being at the event. But divide and conquer while you are at the event and reconnect and regroup occaisionally. Sticking with your wing person at a networking event is just like when you were on the dating scene. If you are chatting with your buddy the whole time you aren.t approachable and can miss out on connection opportunities.
3. Have your elevator pitch/infomercial planned and practice it before hand. You never know if you will meet a potential investor, client, or referral source. Don.t try to sell people when you meet them, make the goal of the event follow up contacts but being too sales-y turns people off.
4. Be a good listener, don.t try to dominate conversations. If a conversation doesn.t seem to be going well, ask the people that you meet questions about themselves outside of work, without getting too personal. If you get someone.s business card, ask for permission to follow up with them and do so. Don.t put business cards in your glove box/wallet and let it sit. Set a time within a day or two to follow up but don.t try to sell everyone at the networking event with your follow up.
5. If your business might benefit from attending referral oriented networking groups, but funds are tight, be a visitor at some of the groups, and offer to be a substitute if someone is away. You can become a friend of the group and save money at the same time. Make sure you find out if someone else in the group provides the same product or service that you do if you are visiting and if so you might want to look elsewhere.
6. Seek out groups and or events that have a mix of people in and adjacent to your industry, but aren.t a bunch of people just like you. When you talk to people, focus on what your startup is all about, and not what you have done in the past or dwell on the fact that you are new. Be as confident as you can be in what you are doing, and others will have more confidence in working with you or they will want to know more about what you are doing.
7. Seek out events like Startup Drinks, Startup Grind, and Startup Weekend. These events are like a petri dish of entrepreneurial potential. Prince George has a regular monthly Startup Drinks event at the Copper Pig. Smithers, BC has Coffee Chat and High Noon Luncheon meetings for their startups. Ottawa has Startup Grind, Startup Drinks, they just had a Startup Weekend, and Cheryl Draper our Communities Leader keeps the Startups busy with other events in the nation.s capital along with other Startup Canada leaders and volunteers. Accelerator Centres like ventureLAB, Youth Entrepreneur groups like CYBF, and coworking spaces like Startup Edmonton also hold great networking sessions and peer group meetings.
What have you been doing to expand your professional and social network? Facebook, LinkedIn, FourSquare and Twitter are all great virtual networking tools but it.s great to get out into the physical networking world to kick start your business into high gear!