to interact with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts
When I first started my VA business, I hadn’t really thought too much about networking. I knew it was something I would need to do, and that I wanted to do, but that was about the extent of it. What I didn’t know was how many networking events there are, how scary they are (to begin with), how time-consuming they can be and that I would need to make some strategic decisions about which ones to attend.
When I was starting out, a friend of mine recommended that I meet her wedding planner, Helen*. The idea was that I could talk to someone else who had set up their own business and chat through ideas, questions, fears, etc. I went along armed with a list of questions on topics such as business banking, tax returns, business plans and branding. Helen and I met in a coffee shop where we seemed to be surrounded by all sorts of people doing things designed to start conversation or make us laugh – a man furtively eating a sandwich he’d bought in a well-known supermarket, an exhausted mother momentarily putting her hand over the mouth of a baby who wouldn’t stop crying, a lady kneeling on the floor to plug in her phone charger and making us very happy she was wearing trousers!
During our meeting Helen told me about three networking groups that she attended regularly, and recommended that I do the same. She said that I would get more out of some than others, but that I should try them all.
And so it was, that just two days later, I found myself at my first networking group. It was held in a coffee shop and there were between 15 and 20 people there. I was petrified! Luckily, it was a warm and friendly group, I wasn’t the only person who was there for the first time, there was an interesting talk about how to drive more traffic to your website, and there were free croissants!
I also had to talk for one minute about me and my business, for which I was totally unprepared. As I spoke, I was sure my face had gone bright red and my voice was shaking. I felt like a fraud and thought that everybody would see right through me. Afterwards, though, when I asked Helen for feedback, she said it had gone well. I then spoke to three or four other people who asked me some more questions, and wished me luck with my new venture. What a relief!
Since then, I have attended several other networking events. They have different set-ups: some are for women only, some are held during traditional working hours and others in the evening, some are very local and others a car or train journey away. They are all different.
But they are all also the same. You only get out of them what you are prepared to put into them. If you approach them only as a sales pitch and a way to find clients, that will become obvious. Instead, think of them as an opportunity to meet new people and find out about their businesses, whilst also telling them about yours! Networking is a great way to meet other business owners who will more than likely have some really useful experience and tips that you can learn from. Ask lots of questions and you will find that others will do the same. Try and remember something unique about each person, so that when you connect with them afterwards, you can mention it in your email or LinkedIn message.
In addition, for business owners who work alone and can sometimes feel isolated and unsupported, your network will become an alternative forum where you can discuss ideas, give and receive support, share skills and co-create.
So, when you are thinking about networking, think about these three things:
What will you learn?
What can you give to others?
How you can help others by introducing them to connections you have already made.
It is well known that those of us who feel out of their depth at such events – perhaps because we are newly-established in business – often feel we have little to give, will take more, and are therefore less likely to attend a networking event, despite the fact that we will probably gain the most from it, Those people who are perceived to have power – the experienced, successful businesspeople – are usually far more comfortable with networking because they know they have much to offer in terms of experience, leadership, and advice. For them, networking feels easy.
Thinking about it, every meeting you have – every conversation you have – can be viewed as a networking event. That first meeting I had with Helen was, as we were both talking about our businesses and finding information out about each other. And I, being the one with the least experience and the most to learn, certainly gained a great deal from it.
Now, I really enjoy going to networking events. I have chosen the ones where I feel I will flourish, and I can give back as much as I get. I’d like to say it has been easy, but it wasn’t. However, it has been and will continue to be an essential part of my learning as I continue on this fascinating journey!
*If you are looking for a wedding planner, get in touch with Helen - http://aphroditeweddings.co.uk/