Growing connections – not sure where to begin? Starting, establishing and growing a business needs some very specific skills, knowledge and support at each stage. But across all three stages, one of the key things you will need to do is selectively grow your network of people who will not only support you, but also become business partners or refer business to you.
My background in growing connections
While my employed life was about working in large global businesses, I always knew that who you connected with, and who you chose to build your relationships up with, was very important.
“Networking” (as a concept) was completely alien to me when I chose to go self-employed back in 2008. When a former manager suggested that I look at owning a networking franchise, I naively said: “What’s networking?”
Ignoring the fact that I knew nothing about networking – I took a bold step and bought a franchise. That was 2008, and today I have around 170 members and have had the pleasure watching businesses grow, in some cases, incredibly all through belonging to mine and other business networks.
What is networking really?
Now, I know I said I knew nothing about networking – I will rephrase that: I actually did, but I just didn’t realise it. Networking is actually something we all do quite naturally. We seek to connect with people, find a commonality and look to help where we can.
What’s important to note is that successful networking is a “giver’s gain” environment. There is no hard selling – just taking an interest in other people and their business, and actively seeking opportunities for other people and ourselves.
Now, there are lots of different networks around so how do we choose what is right for us, and our business? It is crucial for you to test a few different types of networking to work out what works best for you (and your business). Finding the right network can take time, so I will say, don’t give up to quickly.
One thing to also bear in mind though, is that you need to make good choices. Your time is precious, and you can’t be networking 5 days a week if your business only depends on you – you will have to deliver your service to your customers as well.
Look at the events or meetings you go to and make notes on:
- Who goes there
- The types of businesses who are in attendance
- How effective they are
I always recommend people end up with a combination of different types of networks that they commit to, and evaluate over time.
The different types of networking
I’m going to run through the different types of networking, to give you an idea on expectation on structure and purpose.
Structured vs. Non-Structured
Structured meetings usually have a clear agenda and are normally chaired. Usually there will be a smaller number of attendees, maybe up to 30 and this is great as the process of getting to know everyone can happen quicker and because it has a structure, you can usually prepare for it.
If the organiser doesn’t send an outline or let you know of any prep you may need to do, please do ask. If it’s membership based, even better, as there will be some commitment on the part of attendees to regular attendance.
Regular attendance is important, as networking is about building relationships. And that process is easier if you meet with people regularly.
Non-structured meetings normally involve a larger number of people with no clear or set agenda. They can feel daunting to those who are new to networking, but they can be exciting as you never know who you are going to meet!
Professional Local-out vs. Open
Locked-out networks are usually in the form of membership-structured meetings. These are groups where only one of each profession can be represented. It means all of the meetings are non-competitive.
These are great for building long-term relationships and can be a supportive way to find partners to collaborate with and source strategic partners. For example a web developer can find a graphic designer and marketing communication specialist members who will work well together as synergistic services and they will be able to pass clients together or join together to work on projects.
Open networks (or non lock-out) are where more than one of each profession is attending. It can be good to sit next to your competitor – you may find areas of difference that could help your customers and strengthen your offering. Also, with a strategic partner, you could be in a better place to outsource some work if have too much come in (and do it all under your business name).
These are bigger events which you may choose to attend because either you will be able to meet specific synergistic partners, or indeed your target customer. These are generally not held to too much structure in order to network, so I would say: find out as much as you can before the event and then be strategic about your time spent at the conference. Have some clear objectives before you go, then you will feel like your time was well spent.
Next steps for you
I hope the above has given you some idea of what the general “purpose” could be for any networking group, meeting or event you are planning on attending. I always advice people to do a combination of networking – perhaps one lock-out, and one drop-in (open). See how comfortable you feel with the people in the room, if you are considering a membership.
Remember you are not looking to sell to the people in the room – you are looking to build good, strong connections that could lead you to a piece of business.
If you are new to networking, or still thinking about doing it – take that first step and good luck! Feel free to ask some questions below if you like – I’m happy to help where I can.