Social Media is Great but There’s Nothing like In-Person Networking

Bob Pohly - SCORE Certified Mentor

 

No man—or woman—is an island.  Neither is your small business.

Yes, it really can be lonely at the top when you’re trying to make your entrepreneurial dreams come true.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Many times small business owners get so wrapped up in the business of their business that they feel a need to reach out to other individuals who are not a part of their business.  There’s a whole world of people ready to provide advice, sympathy, information, help, and sales leads.  Some become customers; others become colleagues, mentors, and lifelong friends.  All you have to do is meet them.

It’s called networking—cultivating ongoing, informal relationships with an eye toward sharing information that can ultimately benefit you and your business.  With the advent of social media, networking has changed dramatically over the years.  It used to be that business networking required you to go out and press the flesh (shake hands) at conventions and trade shows with a big stack of your business cards to hand out.  In turn, you would come home with a big stack of other people’s business cards.  It could be expensive and time consuming.  Now with social networking,  connections can be made almost immediately. 

All of the significant jobs that I have held, or the major sales that I have made, were the result of effective in-person networking laying the foundation for success. 

In-person networking can be especially effective for small businesses offering services.  People trust people they know and they trust referrals from friends.  If I am shopping for a service provider, and we have met even casually at a function, I am much more willing to use your services than someone I happen to find through an internet search. 

“I couldn’t have started my business three years ago and kept it going and growing without my network,” says Rieva Lesonsky, founder and CEO of GrowBiz Media, a Lakewood, Cal.-based marketing consulting firm.  “These are the people I regularly rely on to keep me inspired, impassioned and excited.”

The best networks are those that include a diversity of opinions.  Friends, neighbors, former teachers, friends from college, other business owners, customers—anyone!

“Though I’ve never run a product-oriented business, some of my best business ideas have been inspired by a colleague who’s in retail,” Lesonsky says.  “I also get great insights from former employees—many of whom have become entrepreneurs themselves.”

Although Facebook, LinkedIn, and other online social networks have made networking tremendously convenient, don’t forsake the “traditional” methods of building these relationships.             

“You get different benefits from social networks, in-person networking, phone calls and face-to-face interactions,” Lesonsky says.  “My favorite way to get together with my network is over a lively lunch where conversation—and ideas—constantly flows.”

Business and professional associations are great places for building your network.

The Bend Chamber of Commerce is one of the largest Chambers in Oregon and they offer outstanding networking opportunities.  Every month they offer Business After Hours, and multiple Ribbon Cuttings.  The Chamber has a Women’s Roundtable series and a Young Professionals Network.  They even have a “Connect for Lunch” program pairing hungry members who want to network with eateries who are members.

Don’t worry if you don’t consider yourself the most talkative person in the world, particularly around new people.  Just prepare your own “elevator speech”—a 20- to 30-second description about yourself and what you do.  Or, do what I do at gatherings of total strangers and ask a lot of open ended questions.  Think - “Who, What, When, Where and How” as good open ended words to start a question to ask a stranger.  “What do you think of the event so far?” will get you a much better response than asking “Do you like this event?”   “How many of these Chamber After Hours events have you attended?” is better than “Is this your first event?”. 

But remember that the key to networking is the interaction itself.  Listen, ask questions, and chime in when you feel the time is right.  The conversation may never touch specifically on your business, but the next one with these same people might.  It’ll also show that you’re not there solely to sell your business.  And make sure you always have plenty of business cards to share - yes, business cards do still have a place. 

Finally, remember that networking is a two-way street, one that requires give and take.  Follow up with the contacts you make at an in-person networking event with a quick email telling them how much you enjoyed meeting them.  Reference something that you discussed at the event so they make the connection with you personally. 

“Don’t just take,” advises Lesonsky. “Be ready to give advice, support, and encouragement.  You’ll get that—and so much more—in return.”

The foundation of every small business owner’s network is SCORE.  You can get expert, objective advice and ideas from expert mentors in-person or online—and all for no charge.  For more information, visit www.scorecentraloregon.org .