The concept of “business networking” has developed quite a reputation over the years. In the past, the term conjured up images of schmoozing and self-serving businessmen at a private club. Today, however, most business owners will all agree that networking is an essential part of business strategy.
Why Business Networking Matters
For small business owners in particular, whose business is oftentimes their world, networking can get you out of the day-to-day silo of business ownership and help you work on your business, rather than in it!
Shaking off the “schmoozing” tag, networking can take many forms and help achieve a variety of goals from sharing business advice, finding new opportunities, and helping you build your business profile.
In my early days as a business owner, I networked with a purpose and on a budget by re-connecting with old friends and colleagues at a local Starbucks or sandwich bar. Since they were further down the road of business ownership, they were able to share vital business tips and even leads – helping me keep on track in those tough start-up months.
This is just one kind of networking – let’s call it networking for “best practices”. In reality, networking can take many forms, including social networking, community networking, industry-specific networking, event-based networking. Networking can also serve many purposes, depending on your goals.
Making Networking Work for Your Small Business
So how can you make networking work for your small business? Networking, by definition, is about establishing and growing a web of mutually-beneficial relationships where business ideas and information are exchanged and support is given.
Don’t think that you have to be the best conversationalist or have the biggest expense account to succeed at networking. Here are some tips that every small business owner can employ to derive value and revenue from business networking.
1.What Is Your Networking Goal?
If you are new to networking, you might want to consider where your priorities should lie. For example, if you need expert advice but also feel you can share your experiences with other business owners and experts, then local community small business organizations might be a good starting point. Check out your local Small Business Development Centers and Chamber of Commerce In addition to hosting workshops and seminars for small businesses, these organizations also enable business owners to build professional and potential client relationships within their local market. (Business.gov helps you search by state for your local Chamber of Commerce.)
The great thing about these groups is that “networking comes naturally” – because you are in the relatively “safe” environment of meeting like-minded people looking to learn and share. But be sure to perfect your business elevator pitch before you step through the door! For tips on how to do so read “Why Your Business Needs an Elevator Pitch (and Tips on How to Target it to your Audience)“.
If networking isn’t new to you and you already have an established networking strategy – take the time to assess if your strategy is working for your business. As your business needs change, so should your networking priorities. New markets, economic shifts, etc. all require a change of course in your business planning – how can you align your networking strategy with these shifts?
2.Don’t Be Afraid to Mix It Up a Little
Whether you are an accomplished networker or not, having an integrated approach to your networking strategy is essential.
This sounds a little more complex than it really is. Essentially, it simply means being creative about your available resources. Start by digging up the names of old bosses, former colleagues, and customers from prior business incarnations, then do some good old fashioned “reconnecting”.
Online social networking tools, such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are ideal for this kind of networking. Not only do they help you dig up old contacts, but when used properly they can also help enhance your online profile through joining groups and showcasing your knowledge and brand.
If you are new to LinkedIn or Facebook, read “Entrepreneurs Need Both Facebook and LinkedIn” (from Small Business Trends’ Anita Campbell) for tips on getting the most out of these tools. If Twitter is your tool of choice, read how other small business owners are using Twitter to network, build their brand and generate leads on the Business.gov Community.
You can also mix up your networking strategy and extend your outreach and influence simply by using different networking vehicles, such as attending low-cost industry-workshops and seminars. These are sometimes hosted by other local businesses and industry or business associations. They can draw the kind of customer and expert crowd that you need to be mixing with – either in the line-up for coffee, in your seat, or at the post-event “official schmoozing” hour.
3.Treat the Competition as a Tool
An innovative networking concept and additional revenue opportunity is “co-opetition”. Small business expert As Rieva Lesonsky wrote in her article, “Forget Competition-it’s Time for Co-opetition“, co-opetition is “…the gentle art of cooperating with companies that might traditionally be considered your competition. Co-opetition means teaming up with complementary businesses to market your companies together. Done right, it can boost business for both of you.”
For example, a local gourmet food store might partner with a nearby gourmet wine store to cross-promote each other’s products and wares.
How does networking come into all this? As Rieva explains, networking can get you started: “A good place to get started with co-opetition is at your Chamber of Commerce or local business association. Bring up the concept to the other members and see what they think.”
How Do You Network?
Share your networking tips and experiences with other small business owners on the Business.gov Community discussion boards.
- Small Business Assistance & Training – This page from Business.gov consolidates all the in-person (SBA offices, etc.) and online resources (including Web chats and videos) available to small business owners to help them start-up and grow.
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