Networking - Is it your biggest challenge when starting your own business?
Top tips for networking for the first time
Very few of us love networking, but it’s a fact of life when you start your own business
What puts you off networking? If you’re new to business and you’ve been in corporate life most of your career, you’ve probably done a little networking - meeting colleagues from other functions, taking part in cross-functional events, a women in leadership network...things like that.
The difference now is that you’re walking in to a room of people you don’t know in order to liberate them from their cash. You may well have paid to be there. And you’re hoping that your future clients and customers are here ready to buy...although you fear (correctly probably) that they have the same goal as you - to get you to buy their service or product.
Based on feedback from my clients, networking for the first time is one of the biggest challenges when you start your own business.
Joining a network is one of the actions on my Escape the Rat Race Checklist which you can download now!
Why do we hate the idea of networking?
The problem begins when we believe something I said above - that you’re walking in to the room in order to liberate these people from their cash.
But there’s more -
Then there’s the discomfort most of us feel in a room where we don’t know anyone.
We’re not sure how to talk about what we do, or how to explain why we’re good at it.
We don’t want to be sold to.
There are a million places we’d rather be than trussed up in our best business-wear at 6.30 in the morning in a slightly grotty hotel in Watford.
It’s time to rethink networking
If this is how you see it, no wonder you’re not excited about the prospect.
Building your network, whether in person at networking meetings, or online, is crucial to your success. If people don’t know you exist they can’t buy from you. While face to face networking has been overshadowed by online networking, I don’t believe there’s any substitute for meeting people in person. The bonds I’ve made with people I saw every week for years at networking groups remain today. These people still bring me business, and vice versa.
So, networking matters. Let’s go through each objection one at a time -
1. You’re not there to liberate people from their cash
You’re not there to sell. You’re there to grow your network. The more people who know about you and what you do, the more people who trust you, the more people who know the kinds of clients you help the better.
And that last bit is important. You are in business because you have ways of helping people with a problem they really have. You’re the best option to solve that problem. If people don’t know you exist and that you can help they’ll continue to have the problem.
All you’re doing in networking is letting the world know that you help people with this problem. You’re not selling. Your clients aren’t the people in this room.
So give yourself a break.
Your job is to get to know people. Networking works when you build trust and that doesn’t happen straight away. Focus on getting to know people and allowing them to get to know you. Don’t start by selling.
2. It’s uncomfortable in a room of people you don’t know
This is true for most of us. And it was true of everyone in that room the first time they walked through the door. Most good networks know this and they have a process to take care of new people.
If you go to a group that doesn’t take care of new people it may not be the right group for you! Or that might be something you can help them improve on in future.
One of the biggest challenges when you start your own business is being out of your comfort zone in pretty much every aspect of your working life. This will not be the last time you have to walk in to a room of people you don’t know. Please don’t let that stop you.
Instead, decide in advance that you’re going to have a curious and ‘learning’ mindset. You’re there to learn about the people in the room. You want to know about their business. Be a great listener. Find out what kinds of people they help and what makes them the ‘go to’ person. Decide on some questions in advance to get the conversation going.
Try these -
Who is your ideal client?
What do you love most about what you do?
What difference does what you do make to your clients?
What’s the most valuable thing about this network?
What have you learnt about business that you wish you’d known at the start?
If you focus on encouraging others to speak about their business you won’t need many questions. People love that opportunity. Your problem will be shutting them up!
3. We’re not sure how to talk about what we do
This is actually a good problem to have when you start networking.
One of the best reasons to network is to refine your elevator speech. Your elevator speech is a 15 second description of what you do and who you help.
Use your early networking experiences to test out your elevator. Be overt if you like.
When someone asks what you do you can say “Good question! Can I try my new elevator speech on you? I’d love your feedback!”. You’re new to business so you’ll be forgiven. Anyway, people love giving advice.
Refine your elevator, develop different versions for different situations and become more confident as a result of saying what you do over and over again at networking events.
4. We don’t want to be sold to
There are often people at networking events who think they are there to sell. To you. Don’t get stuck with them unless you actually want to buy.
Instead, you have the perfect excuse. It’s networking! So after a polite period of time, you can say “It’s been great talking to you. I’m going to try and mingle a bit!”.
If you want you can add “I set a target for myself to meet at least 5 people today” or something like that. You can even ask them if they can help you reach your target by introducing you to someone new.
5. There are a million plaecs you’d rather be
If you’re in business to help people, networking can be fun. Yes, I said FUN!
If you’re not focused on selling then you can focus on trying to help.
Global networking organisation, BNI, has a concept of ‘Givers Gain’. What this means is that you get more when you give more.
Try to help the people in the room find new business -
Who do you know who needs their service?
Who can you introduce them to?
What do you need to know about them in order to trust them to do a good job for your network outside the room?
How can you help them refine their message?
How can you be of service to them today?
I remember being at a networking event years ago before every office had email (yes, there was a time when that was true). I was chatting to a guy who installed email systems in to companies and the biggest challenge he had when starting his business was clients who said they didn’t want email in their business.
I asked why he didn’t offer to install email for a free trial period and then remove it after a month if the client didn’t like it. Of course, no one is going to turn off their email after they’ve had it for a month! But it’s an easy thing to say yes to.
When the coffee and croisants part of the event finished and the more formal meeting began, he stood up and said thank you to me in front of everyone at the meeting and explained how, in 5 minutes, I’d helped him overcome the biggest challenge he had in his business. This made me look brilliant! And I’d only been trying to help him.
Be helpful. Remember givers gain.
Joining a network (or more than one) is one of the action on my FREE Escape the Rat Race Checklist which you can download now!
Networks to explore -
Every local town and city will have a networking group (or more than one). Even if your business isn’t a local service, face to face networking locally can be really valuable. All the business you’ll ever need is in the pockets of the people you know and the people they can introduce you to.
Here are a few well-known networking groups to try -
BNI - Business Network International - I can probably trace all the business I’ve ever won back to my membership of this organisation.
Chamber of Commerce - I’ve been to a few Chamber meetings in my time. Not only can you network but there is tonnes of other advice and support available to new business owners.
Women in Business Network - If you prefer networking with women or you have a product or service focused on the women’s market, check out your local WIBN for upcoming events.
NRG - A bit like BNI, NRG has local groups around the country. Their website has some great tips about how to get the most from networking too.
Don’t forget to search online for local groups too. I joined a CEO group in Somerset for the personal development I would get. But I also ended up getting loads of referrals from the members because we became such trusted friends. If you find a real gem in your local area, share it on our Corporate Escapees Facebook Page.