You’ll notice that I’ve used the phrase ‘creating a network’ rather than ‘networking’. I don’t know about you, but when I used to think about networking it always conjured up visions of ‘selling’, of highly confident, established people ‘doing business’ together formally in a room.
If you are new to the networking concept, it’s important to understand that it’s actually so much more than that.
Of course, none of us attends networking groups and events for the good of our health. Our ultimate goal is to raise the profile of our business in a community and make connections that may at some stage become lucrative. But along the way, come numerous other advantages. And they don’t all come in the form of pound signs.
Making the switch, as I have, from working in and with large organisations, to starting up your own small business is a bit like relocating to a different town. You need to make friends and contacts. You need to know where to go for advice. You need to learn about your new community. If you’re a sole trader, you need some conversation and company. You want to establish and explore opportunities.
Creating a network is an invaluable way to achieve all of this. So in case you are in two minds, here’s why…
1. Okay let’s start with the obvious one; generating leads and business.
Of course this may not happen straight away. In fact, it’s fairly unlikely to. But what you do have is a captive audience of business people in a room, who simply by being there will listen to your message, take your card, get to know and remember you. Compared to most other types of marketing, it’s a pretty effective and cost effective way to spread the word about your business.
But don’t forget that the scope for lead generation and connections goes beyond the room. If you get across what you do effectively and make meaningful relationships, people will want to pass on your details whenever the opportunity arises. This is why building a network is a long game. It’s about developing, maintaining and nurturing business relationships, so that when a need for what you do arises, you’re the one they’ll call.
2. You may just solve a problem of your own.
Networking is not just about what business you can secure. It can be about finding a supplier or contact who can help you. You may have been tearing your hair out with your IT system, and in walks a friendly, local IT consultant. You may have been putting off some home improvements because it’s so time-consuming getting quotes and hey presto, you’re sat next to a builder with ringing endorsements from the group. You may be grappling with a staffing issue and across the table is a HR Consultant, willing and able to help.
And if there’s no problem that needs solving now, with your collection of business cards from all sorts of trades and services, help will never be far away or hard to find.
Learning about your local business community and the challenges. Finding out about other networking groups and events (often people will attend more than one). Understanding the local economy, its challenges and opportunities. Perhaps you’ll find out that your local area is littered with competition, meaning you’ll need to step up your marketing and spread the net wider. Maybe your particular business is in high demand and low supply, and there’s an opportunity to collaborate through passing work and leads between similar companies in busy times.
You may also learn of social enterprises and fundraising events through which you can fulfil your corporate social responsibility and simultaneously raise your profile in the local community. Hints and tips on all aspects of business will circulate the group, which will enrich and strengthen your business strategy.
4. Self development.
Creating a network successfully will necessitate a number of things.
a. Getting your patter straight so that you’re crystal clear on what you do and why you do it, forcing you to evaluate the proposition and USP of your business so that you can explain it to the group.
b. Being a clear, confident communicator, as even very informal networking groups are likely to entail a short introduction or the occasional voluntary presentation. You’ll want to sound articulate and engaging, not look like a rabbit in the headlights, so this may require some practice.
c. Honing your social skills and confidence to engage people and develop relationships. Hint: Ask lots of questions and you’ll learn, sound interested and get the other person talking.
If you’re new to the networking scene entirely, or used to working in a company with its own sales and pitching team, these may well be brand new skills for you. But they are skills which are invaluable to SME owners and will stand you in good stead in business meetings and negotiations. So don’t underestimate the power of your new social network to help you develop both personally and professionally.
Yes, believe it or not, developing a networking is actually highly rewarding on a personal level. Many business people have developed lifelong friendships gained within a business network. The network will be there for you through difficult or challenging professional times and offer support and a friendly ear. Networking meetings are usually a hive of bustling conversation, exchange of news, laughter and support. It’s a place where business is actually combined with fun.
Of course, like anything, networking groups vary widely, and you need to find the right one for you. I struggled to find one that felt sufficiently supportive and informal, and that I could manage to attend as a working mum. Networking at 6.30 am when you are a single parent is pretty impossible, which is why I set up the Biscotti networking group that meets monthly in Colchester.
To find out more about the Business Biscotti networking group in Colchester, contact Jo or follow ‘ColBiscotti’ on Twitter or Facebook. There’s no barriers for competing businesses or start-ups. There’s no formal speeches. There’s no restriction on the types of business – the more interesting and quirkier the better. There’s just a positive vibe which is all about supporting each other to be the best business we can be.
And what can be more valuable than that?