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Ensuring your small business’s success requires a ton of personal investment. But that investment is hardly limited to cash—you’ll also need to invest your time, energy, and attention into promoting your company and building a professional support system. Business networking is the best way to start in on this intangible, but crucial, investment.
But networking for business is something of a catchall. Realistically, your reasons for business networking will shift during the life of your company and your career as an entrepreneur. As a small business owner, you might want to network to publicize or your product or service, find a mentor, establish yourself as an expert within your field, seek investors for business financing, discover opportunities to invest in other businesses, or simply connect with other professionals in your industry.
Whatever your professional goal is, walking into a trade show, happy hour, conference, or any other business networking event at which you’re expected to mix and mingle and impress and schmooze and sell your vision and convince people of your awesomeness can be… a little overwhelming.
Happily, you’re far from the first small business owner who’s felt a little stressed out by the prospect of business networking.
Before you head out to your next networking event, consult this list of 20 business networking strategies provided by small business owners and other networking pros. By following these tips, you’ll be better able to promote your business, create real and lasting connections with other professionals, and even have fun while you do it.
“The most important lesson I’ve learned in networking (and which I wish I’d known years ago) is to take every opportunity possible to meet new people. Don’t dismiss a single soul—you never know who you’re talking to, who they might know, or how they might be able to contribute. As my father always told me as a kid, ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ That statement has proven so true, especially in a business networking setting.”
—Lori Cheek, Founder and CEO of Cheekd and Networkd
“People often go to networking events seeking individuals who can help them. But I think this is the wrong approach: Networking is all about helping others. Engage in meaningful conversation, share your interests, and see how you can offer your resources to the other party.”
—Anayet Chowdhury, Cofounder of ArgoPrep
“I find that it’s best to go to networking events alone so you’re forced to talk to new people. I also think it’s wise to do your homework in advance. If the attendee list is publicized, make note of who you’d like to meet beforehand.
It may seem scary to go on your own, but remember that everyone is there for the same reason—they all want to make new connections. So don’t be shy; just walk up and introduce yourself! The only thing you have to lose is an opportunity.”
“Never, ever leave home without your most essential, ‘old-school’ networking tool: Your business card. Even in the digital age, business cards are still the single fastest way to share who you are, what you do, and how you can be contacted.”
“An easy way to find your tribe is to take classes. I particularly like attending General Assembly classes. Many are free, and they’re typically populated with knowledgeable teachers who are willing to help you troubleshoot beyond the classroom, as well as other experienced business owners in your industry.”
—Orion H. Brown, Founder and CEO of The Black Travel Box
Sticking with what you know has its place, but meeting people from other industries can be highly rewarding for your business and career. We’re an ed-tech industry, but we’ve recently invested in and partnered up on amazing projects in the entertainment industry after meeting impressive individuals at networking events.”
“Find networking events through your local Chamber of Commerce website, Business Network International, Board of Trade, industry associations, Facebook events, and more. Start by setting a goal of going to one networking event per month. Hold yourself to it, regardless of how badly you may not want to go the day of the event!
I set up meetup.com as my default homepage on my internet browser so I can regularly keep my eye on upcoming events. This simple trick has helped me attend networking events more regularly.”
—Mazdak Mohammadi, Owner and Founder of blueberrycloud
“In the early stages of my business, I was fumbling with networking and obtaining leads. But then I thought: I have a business plan and a marketing plan—so why not draft a strategic networking plan? I outlined my objectives, my target networking audience, the type of events I wanted to go to, and a budget. I encourage anyone, especially those going through a career transition, to create a networking plan. It’ll help you navigate that new environment with purpose.”
—Michelle Ngome, Founder of Line 25 Consulting
“Put yourself wherever your customer is, whether that’s networking in person at trade shows, or virtually through online forums or social media. Either way, connect with your customers on their home turf and hear them out on their pain points. That way, you can better design your business or service to solve those problems.”
—Erica Wassinger, Cofounder of The Startup Collaborative
“People you already know can be the best resource for meeting new people in your industry. I typically send an email to 50-100 people already on my list, bcc everyone, and just write from the heart—I ask for feedback, make announcements about my business, or just plain catch up on the latest thing I’m working on. And always end your note with an ‘ask.’ I shamelessly plug that I’m looking for funders, product developers, and word-of-mouth referrals. So far I’ve yielded all three, just by emailing my existing network.”
—Orion H. Brown
“Prospective customers and jobs can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time, so always be on your best behavior. Focus on making friends with people before you need them for their connections—you never know who is in, or will be in, a position to help you out down the line.
A few other networking tips: Remember to bring plenty of business cards, don’t try to monopolize anyone’s time, send follow-up notes to the best prospects, and don’t get into political discussions with people you don’t know!”
—Paige Arnof-Fenn, Founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls
“I know not everyone likes to drink, but grab a club soda with lime and get out to industry happy hours. Not sure where to find them? Keep it simple. If you sell a product or service, then you are a marketer. Try your local American Marketing Association chapter. They typically hold monthly events that attract all industries.”
“It may be tempting to get as many words in as possible, but I’ve found it’s a much better strategy to focus on the quality of your words, not the quantity. That way, everything I’m saying is worthwhile, and, more importantly, it lets the other person fill the empty space. People are much more likely to remember an engaging conversation than a single thing that someone told them.”
—Jerry Haffey Jr., President of Business Development at Ambrosia Treatment Center
“It’s much easier to build successful business relationships when you connect with people on a deeper level than simply business.
Most successful networking experiences I’ve had began with topics that weren’t work-related at all, like hobbies or book recommendations. Even when at a business event, be willing to share what you’re truly passionate about.
Once you establish common ground, you can build a strong network of friends and experts in diverse fields. With that common ground, you’ll feel comfortable asking for advice when you need it, and you’ll be happy to offer your advice in return. All in all, networking is about building trust, and giving as much as receiving.”
—Rune Sovndahl, Cofounder and CEO of Fantastic Services
“When I was just starting out, I reached out to anyone and everyone who would take a few minutes to share their story with me and listen to my pitch. It was so helpful for me to get an idea of what it’s like to be a business owner, and I received some excellent feedback on my business model and product.
When I reached out to those experts and small business owners, I was straightforward about my inexperience and my desire for help. I think my honesty made people even more willing to chat with me and share their advice.”
—Ally Compeau, Founder of Woof Signs
“Don’t get discouraged if you don’t meet people who can immediately help you. Many of the most valuable network leads I’ve gathered came from people who remembered me, then later introduced me to people they knew who would be beneficial for my business.”
“There’s a saying in business that ‘People do business with people.’ It’s important to remain professional at networking events, but you should try to approach everyone with a kind and informal attitude. People may be slightly put off if you’re overly formal or stiff. And everyone there is looking to make new connections and gain valuable insights from each other. So, eventually, something will naturally come up in conversation that you’ll find relevant and useful. (This is especially likely if you researched the attendees in advance.) Just relax, enjoy the event, and the right insights will come your way.”
—Steve Pritchard, HR Consultant at AngloLiners
“Nervous? Keep on networking. Socializing is like a muscle; the more you do it, the stronger your socializing skills become.”
—Jason Patel, Founder of Transizion
“Networking should not be mistaken for the face-to-face version of a ‘cold call.’ Instead, focus on building relationships and adding value to those relationships. Whether you’re just meeting someone or following up with an existing contact, ask yourself the magic question: ‘How can I help you?’ By making it about them and not you, you’re more likely to build the trust needed to sustain a working relationship and add value to those relationships. Ultimately, you’ll get as much as you give.”
—John Baker, Chief Technology Officer, DeployBot
“Following up is absolutely key in networking. Boomerang on Gmail lets you schedule emails and set reminders in case people don’t respond to an initial email. If you just met someone and want to keep in touch with them, schedule an email that asks how they’re doing, and offer a chance to meet again when your schedules free up. This keeps you from writing emails in real time when time is of the essence. It’s a big time-saver.
Also, connecting on LinkedIn is a no-brainer. Don’t have a LinkedIn? Take 30 minutes to create a profile. It’s free.”
Whatever your goal is, the most important thing to keep in mind when you walk into a business networking event is that it’s simply a form of socializing. True, it has the word “business” in the title, and that can add on the pressure.
But, as so many of the above small business owners and networking professionals reminded us, everyone networks for the same reason: To meet great people.
So, even when you’re at a formal business event, try to have fun. At the very least, approach people with true curiosity, and be open to hearing their stories. When you’re relaxed, you’re more receptive to connecting with like-minded people—and they’ll be excited to help you out with your business venture, or link you up with someone else who can.