“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” That old saying is as true today as it ever was. When you want to get ahead, it helps to know people. So a key business skill every small business owner needs to master is “networking”–how to get out in the world and make lots of acquaintances and friends.
And I do mean “get out in the world.” Sure, you can connect with tons of people through social media sites, but even with all the technology advances, meeting people face-to-face has great power. People like doing business with people they’ve met.
And networking can change your life. It sure changed mine. In the early years of my consulting business, I was a regular attendee at networking events. I landed my first clients through networking groups, got referral sources, learned more about my market, and eventually met the person who would lead me to write my first book.
Yes, real-world networking takes time, and you–as a small business owner–probably think you don’t have time for such events. I understand. Every networking event took me away from my desk and “real work.” But, as hard as it was for me to leave my desk in the middle of the day, get on a bus to go downtown for a lunch networking meeting, and spend $25 or so that I barely had at the time, it sure paid off.
Networking is affordable and effective because people like doing business with people they know. So the more people you know—and the more people who know what business you’re in—the more potential customers and referral sources you have.
At networking events, you’ll meet people who can help you grow your business by:
- Becoming customers themselves
- Becoming referral sources and sending business your way
- Helping you find good employees
- Providing products or services you need
- Helping you learn about your market and/or industry
- Partnering with you in some aspect of your business
Every community has its share of organizations where business owners and professionals come together. Types of groups you can join include:
- General entrepreneur’s or business groups. These are business organizations with attendees from many industries–like local startup groups or Chambers of Commerce. They’re good for meeting lots of business people in your community.
- Industry-related groups. With more than 37,000 industry and professional associations in the US, there’s almost certainly an association related to your industry in your own town. Participating in industry-related groups helps you improve your knowledge, skills and find more resources, as well as serving a networking function. I’ve compiled a list of many trade associations for you. Visit https://planningshop.com/associations
- Group-specific entrepreneur associations. Some business organizations are aimed at specific demographic groups, such as specific ethnic or religious groups, women, youth, immigrants, and more. Examples include the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Women Business Owners, National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce
- Non-business groups. Of course, you can also meet people at groups based on shared interests, such as sports, alumni, non-profit organizations. Just don’t be too aggressive in soliciting others in a social or volunteer setting.
To find a group in your town, check local newspapers and websites of local papers, Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), trade association websites, even “Meetups” at http://www.meetup.com/
If you want to make the time you spend networking really pay off, be sure to:
- Practice your elevator pitch. You’ll often be given 30 seconds to introduce yourself to other members or people will ask you what you do. You need a clear, concise description at the ready.
- Don’t just show up. If you want to get the most customers and referrals, don’t just attend one or two meetings. Come regularly. Join committees. Volunteer to help out.
- Come early, especially if you’re a “wallflower.” Early arrivers all start talking to one another before the crowd arrives.
- Follow up. Enter business cards you’ve collected into your contact management system. Send personal emails to people you met. And if anyone wanted to know more, send catalogs, set up appointments, or follow up with a phone call.
Although networking takes time and energy, it can be one of the most powerful tools in your small business toolkit.
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2017
This article originally ran in USA Today on July 5, 2017