Last year when I canon-balled myself into the entrepreneurial world, I knew that networking was going to become a huge part of my life. I’d experienced it in the corporate world, but it basically meant showing up to an office happy hour once a month just to throw back a couple cocktails with co-workers and managers who I would ordinarily never be caught dead with in public. But I’d laugh at everyone’s jokes, commiserate about first world problems, and then a couple hours later say I needed to use the restroom and instead duck out the front door. Pretty basic routine.
But for a small business owner, networking is do or die. No joke; get your ass out there and build connections or your business will die. Digital and print marketing are cool, but people need to see you, get to know you, and hear your pitch, sometimes a dozen times before it registers with them that they need whatever it is you’re selling. Or that they know someone else who does. They also need to know if they LIKE YOU, because let’s be honest, we really only want to work with people we like, which is a luxury you don’t often have in the corporate world. So at the beginning of this journey I had to do some serious soul-searching and ask myself: how was I going to handle this whole networking thing, now that it really mattered? How was I going to find “my people” without having to bounce around between a ton of different networking groups and events that would eat up all my time?
Well, being a strategy guru (LOL – ok, maybe an overstatement; let’s just say over-analyzing shit is my jam), I came up with a renegade plan for how to “defiantly thrive” in the networking world without losing your shit or your sanity. I’m sharing it now in case you’re like me when I started out and feel overwhelmed by all of it.
HOW TO NETWORK LIKE A RENEGADE:
Look for niche groups.
Networking needs to be mutually beneficial in order for it to be effective. Are you a photographer? Then what the hell are you doing mingling with a bunch of real estate agents, chiropractors, and insurance salespeople? Take a step back and think about this strategy. For some businesses (like the ones I just named), it makes sense to take any client, any time. If you’re trying to sell a house, you don’t care much who the buyer is as long as they can afford the property. And if someone comes to your chiropractic office for an adjustment, you’re not going to sit down for a consultation first to decide if they’re a good “fit”; you’re going to crack the hell out their back and send them on their way. But if you offer a specialty service like say fashion photography, you’re probably more selective about your clients, so it makes sense to build connections with biz owners who have either similar target markets or offer complementary services like clothing design, hair/makeup, boutique management, or influencer blogging. It’s unlikely the real estate agent or life insurance salesman is going to have a lot of this type of business to throw your way, but hey, I guess there’s always a chance!
Can’t find a niche group? Start one.
I’m biased because I did this IRL and it worked out hella good. So if you try a dozen different meetups and local networking groups and none of them feel like the right fit, launch your own damn group. Is it more time-consuming? Yes. Do you have to be aggressive in marketing and recruiting for your new group? Hell yes. But the potential pay-off is HUGE once you are surrounded by others who fit your niche and can finally stop dragging your ass all over the county. Be organized and strategic in executing your vision, and others who share it will be happy to join you.
Visit many but join none.
Ok, so maybe join ONE. But only if it fits like your favorite pair of leather pants (or jeans, whatever you prefer). Otherwise, why waste your precious time and money on such a big commitment? Unless your business runs like a well-oiled machine and you know for a fact that you’ll be available every Wednesday morning from 8-10am for basically the rest of your life. This kinda…sorta…not at all fits a lot of small business owners. Networking group rules can be rigid AF, and I get it. An organizer’s goal is to get people to show up consistently otherwise the group fails. But be realistic about your own time and business model. If your schedule is chaotic and or some days you wake up and just don’t feel like standing in front of a group of people and repeating your elevator pitch for the 1000th time, don’t get pressured into joining these groups. I know they don’t want me to tell you this, but you can utilize the free “visitor policy” that many of them offer and still make some great connections.
Ask 3 questions before agreeing to that 1-on-1 meeting.
This is SO key. 1-on-1 meetings typically end up being either 1) a total time suck, or 2) the beginning of a rad collaborative relationship. Obviously you want to increase your chances of the latter, so ask yourself these 3 questions before you agree to meet privately with a networking contact: 1) Does this person seem as interested in hearing about my business as they are in talking about their own? Usually you pick up on this in the first 5 minutes of meeting someone. If they hand you their card with ne’er an ask for your own, it’s safe to say they DGAF about what you do. 2) Do we have similar target markets? If not, there won’t be a lot of opportunities for referral or collaboration, which is pretty much the point of networking. And 3) Did I like this person when I first met them? This one sounds kinda shallow, but it’s important to preserve your time and energy. You may have to deal with difficult clients on occasion (because they’re paying you), but there’s no reason to network with someone you just don’t vibe with.
Know your (drink) limits.
Who doesn’t love to DRANK, but stick to like, one. If the reason for this isn’t obvious, you’re likely either under 25 or maybe fresh out of the corporate world. Alcohol and networking just don’t mix well, at least not if you care about why you came to such an event in the first place, which is (or at least should be) to build and promote your business. Unless you’re in the booze business (in which case, bottoms up bitches!!), you probably want to keep your head about you when talking to potential clients or collaborators. Lest you be remembered only as “that one drunk chick from the networking event…she was hilarious, but wtf did she say she did again??”
Honor they budget.
Networking is not cheap, yo. Every group has a fee, every event has a ticket price, and even if it doesn’t, you still need to pay for your gas, and generally some kind of drink or food item. The costs add up quickly and can skyrocket out of control if you’re not sticking to a budget. Even though your accountant may advise you that some of these expenses are tax-deductible, it doesn’t help you with short term cash flow issues…unless you’re consistently picking up macdaddy clients whose business more than offsets what you’re paying out in networking costs. In which case, party on Wayne. For the rest of us, I recommend figuring out how much you can afford to spend on this kind of thing each month/quarter/year and STICK TO IT.
Calculate your gain/loss from networking.
Ugh, MATH, I know. Sorry. But seriously, sometimes you need to run some numbers to see whether you’re spending your time wisely. It’s simple: figure out how many hours you are spending each week working on client projects that can be directly linked to your networking efforts. Multiply those hours by your average hourly wage. BOOM, that’s your networking gain. Then add up how much money you spend on networking activities, including membership fees, gas money, restaurant tabs, and don’t forget YOUR AVERAGE HOURLY RATE MULTIPLIED BY NUMBER OF NETWORKING HOURS (this is important because the time you spend networking is time NOT SPENT on actual income-producing projects). Break this down into a weekly figure and BOOM, that’s your networking cost. Compare numbers; they shouldn’t even be close! Especially because you haven’t even accounted for other ordinary business expenses. If they are close, or if the cost exceeds the gain, it doesn’t take a mathematician to understand that something needs to change.
Going to an event is always more fun with your ride or die crew, but when it comes to networking, I recommend flying solo. Because spouses and besties, who are always well-intended, will inevitably distract from networking goals. Here’s a scenario I may or may not have experienced: you bring a close friend to a networking even as your “wing person” but shortly after you arrive, they launch into a story about some big issue they are dealing with at home. Not wanting to be rude and interrupt, you let them continue as your eyes dart helplessly around the room at all the other people you know you should be talking to. Not because you don’t care about your friend’s story, but because she could have told you on the drive home, rather than during a 2 hour event that cost you $45 to attend.
Try the buddy system.
If you have ish about flying solo in a room full of strangers (#relatable), bring another entrepreneur or small biz owner. This can actually work really well as long as you agree to DIVIDE AND CONQUER. Don’t circle the room together like you’re joined at the hip; a better strategy is to split up at the beginning, do some solo mingling, and then regroup to decide whether there’s anyone specific that you recommend the other person hit up for conversation. This saves time and energy for both people, hooray! Alternatively, if two events are being held on the same night, or even the same week, send a network buddy to one while you attend the other. Then you can both swap contacts and event gossip afterwards.
Maintain your referral integrity.
I saved the best, and arguably the most important, tip for last: Do NOT whore yourself out when it comes to referrals. Pardon my crudeness, but listen…your integrity is on the line here. If you’re an active networker, I’m sure the stack of business cards you’ve collected is starting to rival Jack’s beanstalk, and each contact has asked you to “please share my card with someone you know who can use my services.” That’s all fine and dandy, and I’m sure most of them are lovely people, but how many of them do you actually KNOW well enough to refer?? Whose work have you actually experienced or seen firsthand? Those, my friends, are the only cards worth holding onto and the only contacts you should be referring to your grandmother, or neighbor, or best friend from college. We know business cards are a dime a dozen…and so are business owners. So take the time to get to know the people that you’d truly like to build a referral relationship with, so that you can do so with confidence rather than saying, “this contractor gave a great 3 minute elevator speech…so you should hire him!” The last thing you need is to muddy your own reputation by referring someone who does shitty, or even mediocre, work.
So fellow renegades, what are some your networking tips and tricks? What works for you?