Networking: what, how, who, and where? Post #10 of “Startup Briefs”

Networking: what, how, who, and where? post #10 of “Startup Briefs”

Most people have no idea how to network or why it’s important. But for entrepreneurs, establishing a strong network is not a nice-to-have but a must-have. This post was written to share some obvious rules about networking and give basic guidelines on building a strong and useful network.

network effectWhat?  Networking is the art of meeting and interacting with people (my definition). It’s essential to have a network in order to ask for advice, get referrals (to investors or subject matter experts, for example), and to recruit team members. But you can’t wait to build a network until you need it. You have to build it so that it’s there when you need it. Your network should be broad and deep. It should not be limited by age, geography, industry, or other constraints. Not everyone in your network will be the right person to ask for a particular issue. BUT, if you have a great network, someone will be able to connect you to the right person. That’s how networks work. It’s called the network effect.

How?  You may be young, inexperienced or nerdy; you may be outgoing and social – no matter your personality, you need to build YOUR network. How do you do this? One person at a time. Don’t pressure yourself to take on the whole world. But do put yourself out there in situations where you can build a network of individuals. Talk to one or two people at an event. Exchange cards. Ask questions. Find out about THEM. Are there synergies between you? If so, then follow up with an invite for coffee. A coffee meeting is innocuous. They are easy to schedule and you can be surprised at how helpful they can be. Nothing replaces face time. And most people are flattered when asked for their advice. Few will refuse to meet with you, or to have a quick phone call, if you are not asking anything of them but basic advice.

networking: useful and funWho?  Sometimes when I am waiting for someone who has arranged to meet me for coffee I wonder, “Why am I doing this?” After a coffee meeting with a new person, I sometimes still ask myself, “Was this a waste of time?” But, more often than not, I don’t have that reaction after the coffee. Why? Because I spent the time to build and refresh my network with new people, new faces, new areas of expertise – and that’s useful. Not to mention that it’s fun to meet and engage with new people. So, who do you want in your network? People of all kinds, with a broad array of skills. Don’t worry too much about trying to build a network that matches to specific needs. You probably don’t know who you need in your network because you don’t know your own needs as you start and grow your business. But what you do know is that you will need advice and you will turn to your network to provide that OR to provide introductions to others. Many times it is this latter that turns out to be the best use of a network – to get to the right person that has the exact expertise that you need. So my advice is to build a strong general network and make sure that those individuals are connected to others so that you can ask them for referrals when you need them. Find some folks who are key connectors. They know lots of folks – they have invested in building a strong and wide network. That will be very helpful to you in expanding your own network.

Where?  There are zillions of opportunities to network every day and night. Find events where there will be smart, experienced folks: other entrepreneurs, investors, service providers and others. Go there, talk to them. Give them your short pitch. Ask them what they do. If there is a point of interest or synergy then take it to the next step. Find out about them and what makes them tick. Are they connected to others? You have to be generally interested in them and make them generally interested in you – there has to be a mutual value proposition here just like you have to find for your customers of your startup product or service. Suggesting coffee might happen then or later but it’s an easy way to find out if you have been compelling enough that they will spend time with you. Don’t forget to ask your network for referrals to others. I meet with a lot of folks because they came in through a certain person that I respect – a quality referral. And, when I refer someone on to an individual within my own network, I trust that person will recognize me as a quality referral source. Go to casual events and formal events, attend panel discussions, and open coffees. Meet with those in your network and ask them about others whom you should meet.

Don’t be afraid to practice your networking skills. I used to assign my students a simple networking assignment. Go into a public place where there are lines, like a grocery store. Talk to the people in front of you and behind you. Talk to the check-out clerk. See how much information you can get about them in the short time that you are in line. You’ll be amazed at how much you can learn. You might get their whole life story! And, believe me, networking gets easier the more comfortable you are with talking and interacting with people. This is an art that you can practice and improve.

Make sure that you stay in touch with those in your network. Otherwise, they might forget you. Seek out events where you can casually run into folks that you know and continue to build the connection between you.

Building a network takes time. You have to provide value to your network by using your own network to help others. That’s how this works – you scratch my back…

And remember, you have to have a network in order to utilize it. Don’t wait until you need it to build it. Surround yourself with experts and people who can help guide you as you move forward. And build your network as you grow.

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