I’m sure that if I were to say the word “networking” to you, the first vision that might pop into your head is a computer lab in your school, the joint network that they all sit on that allows you to jump on any computer (that you have authorisation for!) and access the exact same desktop and files. That is networking, yes, but did you know that it is also the name of a concept that can take your business from a twinkle in your eye to reality, for almost no cost except your time?

According to the Small Business Encyclopedia, networking for business is developing and using contacts made in business for purposes beyond the reason for the initial contact. To me, The Balance tells it like it is, and pretty much puts it into the exact same words I would use- “Business Networking is a skill and a low-cost method of marketing that is used to build new business contacts through connecting with other like-minded individuals.”  

Networking for business can happen anywhere and at anytime (you never know who you could meet!), and is generally done in person face-to-face, though online Skype events are becoming increasingly popular. Often times, formal networking takes place at events hosted either by a community group or organizations focused on business networking. Most times these events are free of charge to attend, and only cost the time you invest in attending. As I said, networking can take place just about anywhere a conversation can happen, and sometimes it can happen in the least likely of places, like around the dinner table during the holidays or in a coffee shop. You never know! Some of my best networking moments have come from going to an event completely unrelated to my business or someone asking what I was up to while I was working away diligently on a blog post in a cafe! Just in case, it’s always best to be ready to sell yourself and your business (or idea) to the other person in the conversation. A quick 1-2 minute intriguing descriptor of who you are and what you do. Mine starts of with “Hi, my name is Rachael. I am a lifelong advocate for youth and am the founder of Youth Beyond Enterprises, an online resource page for teen entrepreneurs…“.

That’s all well and good, but what are the benefits of business networking?

There are tonnes, so I will leave with what I think are the top 5 benefits of networking. 

  1. Wicked fantastic confidence booster!
    • If you are not normally a “talker”, this will push you outside of your comfort zone and into the growth zone by forcing you to talk to and interact with different people you may have never met  before. 
    • As you do more and more networking, your ability to tell your story (and the story itself) will become more refined. 
  2. The opportunities are limitless! 
    • As a result of a conversation, you can potentially generate joint ventures, new partnerships, sponsorships, client leads, presentation/pitch opportunities, and the list goes on. 
    • Be careful to not jump at every one. My advice is to not commit to something on the spot, but take a step back, explain that you need to seriously think about it, and then promise to get back to them shortly. If you choose to jump or not jump, it is critical that you still get back to them!
  3. Oh the connections you will make! 
    • In business, sometimes it really is who you know vs what you know. 
    • In order to get your message out there, you need to have people in your network who you can reach out to and who will help champion you, your message and your business. If they know you, they may recommend you to someone they know who is having a problem you can help solve! 
  4. Ask and ye shall receive advice! 
    • When you are starting out as an entrepreneur, regardless of age, advice may come at you in abundance. Every entrepreneur has been in your shoes before, and for the most part, they are willing to help out the next generation.
    • This is an opportunity to access expertise that you may not be able to otherwise. Be cautious though, when the advice is given make sure it is from someone with the experience and knowledge you need to tap into, not someone’s opinion. 
  5. Think positively!
    • Being both an entrepreneur and young at the same time is tough/stressful enough. This can drag you down pretty fast if you don’t surround yourself with positive people who can help you grow and thrive.
    • Networking events tend to be electric with the positive energy that is coursing through the room. You really can feel it deep in your bones. The people these events attract are highly engaged and working hard to be successful. 

How can I prepare for planned and unplanned business networking opportunities?

What’s the difference between a planned and unplanned opportunity? To put it simply, planned opportunities are most often planned and structured events put on by an organization for the sole purpose of getting people in a room to network. Unplanned opportunities are ones that pop-up randomly, most often times in conversations that may not even start out being about business (think family dinners or conversations at an event not even remotely meant for networking). 

When it comes to unplanned opportunities, there isn’t much (or any) time to prep yourself, beyond what I said previously about always having a short 1-2 minute blurb about you and your business. For planned opportunities, there are a few best practices you can follow to make the most of the opportunity, including:

  1. Be early. 
    • If you get in late because you think you can slip in unnoticed, you won’t have much success at the event. People will already be deep in conversation, and it will be difficult to break into a group. 
    • If your early, it shows earnest to the event organizers. It also gives you the chance to maybe let them know that this is your first time doing something like this. They’ll ask  you what you do, and will likely connect you with someone they know they think would be a great fit for you.
  2. Be you. 
    • Be authentic and genuine. You don’t want to mislead anyone or make them think you know/are something you’re not. This can do serious damage to your reputation before you even get started. 
    • It will also help you to relax and be more approachable if you don’t have to worry about being someone other than your true self. People can generally see through it anyways. 
  3. Don’t make the conversation all about you. 
    • The other person came here to network too! Making it all about what you can offer to them may switch them off, because it will feel more like a sales pitch than a conversation. 
    • Have a conversation, and look at it from the point of view of how can we potentially work together and provide mutual benefits. This will make the conversation more engaging and more likely to lead to the development of an action plan. It may be as simple as cross-promoting each other’s business on social media, or it may be a brand new partnership!
  4. Let your passion shine through! 
    • Remember what I said about networking events generally being very positive? This is because everyone is sharing their passions! It’s pretty infectious.
    • Tell the true story about the reason(s) why and how your business came to be. This is also a pretty great icebreaker if you’re nervous, as it can help you relax. No one else knows your motivation for starting your business better than you do! 
  5. Make sure you follow-up!
    • The networking event was just the beginning to the relationship, not the whole thing. Use it as a great way to make a memorable first impression. 
    • By the end of the conversation, make sure that you discuss the best way to keep in touch. For some, it is through email or a phone call. For the younger crowd, they may prefer to connect through social media or texting. Regardless of the arrangement, make sure you connect with them within 2 days of the event. Don’t wait for them to make the first move either, a simple message indicating that you are interested in keeping in touch about what was previously discussed can do wonders.  

Happy networking!