Plugging into the network


Following the high-octane process of quitting your job and working every waking hour to get your start-up off the ground, the prospect of stilted conversation with a faceless middle manager at a dull conference is unappealing.


No wonder that so many start-ups dread networking. A recent UK study shows that half of all small business owners don’t enjoy donning their name badges to gather contacts and business leads over wilting sandwiches and mocktails.


However, if you are the anti-networking camp, then it is probably your own fault. Start-ups often lack the ability to communicate effectively in huddled groups, choose the wrong events to attend and lack a strategy of what to gain from the process.


Why network?


“A common problem for start-ups is that they don’t think about why they network,” says Sue Henry, networking specialist at Small Business Accelerator. “You should go to develop skills, use it as a social outlet or in a business context. Once you’re clear on that, it helps set up the right mindset to networking.”


“People who don’t get anything from networking haven’t thought about the reasons they’ve gone there. Start-ups go to events and pick up lots of business cards, 90% of which aren’t relevant to them.”


Henry adds: “Networking should be part of your marketing plan. It shouldn’t be done in isolation. It’s not something that you just do at events either – talk to your neighbour, family and friends. That can be the best networking you do.”


Henry advises networking novices to research the event they plan to attend to see if it’s relevant and call ahead to get extra help from organisers. She says entrepreneurs should steer clear of gulping down lots of alcohol for Dutch courage and should employ the concept of “two ears and one mouth – use in that proportion” when chatting to others.


Brendan Lewis, founder of entrepreneurial community The Churchill Club, says that start-ups should go as far avoiding any event with the word “networking” in it.


“People at those events just look at you as an opportunity, like some kind of desperate date,” he says. “It’s also a horrible, shallow way to live your life.”


“Go to events that interest you and network there. Go where your target audience goes – if you want to meet a hospital CEO, he or she won’t be at a networking event.”


“Do something different. If you go to a law conference and you’re a lawyer, so what? But if you’re an advertising creative then you’re suddenly different and interesting.”


Beating the fear


Approaching strangers and striking up conversation is enough to trigger an outbreak of sweaty palms among budding entrepreneurs. Lewis says that this is best countered by sheer practice.


“Try and practice being a friendly person,” he says. “I talk to strangers everywhere, such as taxi drivers and people in elevators. Start liking people rather than evaluating them. Senior people are actually very friendly – I’ve spoken to army generals, politicians and people with $1 billion budgets and they are all very good at making you feel at ease.”


Lewis says that entrepreneurs should have two resumes – one that outlines their professional achievements and another one that delves a bit more into what makes you an interesting person. The former CV shouldn’t be the focus of conversation when networking, he advises.


“Talk to people about something they can relate to,” he says. “Be likeable and interesting, whether it’s about your kids or that you went to school with Elle McPherson. Once you’ve got their attention and awareness, they will consider you in a positive way. You’ll stick in their mind more than if you say ‘Hi I’m Brendan Lewis and this is my business.’”


A major mistake by many start-ups that pluck up the courage to talk to someone is that they stay locked in conversation with that one person for the entire event.


Try and set a target of speaking to at least three people at a gathering. Give your business card at the end of the conversation – it’ll be less formal than handing it over at the start and it acts as a natural full stop to a chat that you want to conclude.


Work out if the person you’re talking to you can offer something to your business, whether that be marketing, supply or just the odd morsel of reciprocated advice. But don’t treat them as a piece of business meat in a shirt or blouse – people want to be connected to on a human level.


Following up


Follow up promising conversations promptly, but maintain the friendly tone rather than sending reams of information about your business. You not only need to build an extensive network of contacts, but also a deep one. Will this person take your phone call? Will they think of you if an opportunity comes up? The answer is less likely to be ‘yes’ if you are just a faceless pusher of your company’s product or service.


“I follow up within 24 hours by sending cards in the mail,” says Henry. “People get hundreds of emails a day, so it stands out. It’s a big mistake to not follow up. Many don’t do it because they are lazy or forget. I schedule time in the diary for those follow-ups.”


“People ask what to say in a follow-up. ‘Hello’ is a good start!”


Online networking


Networking isn’t confined to draughty conference centres or industry parties. Increasingly, start-ups can find business opportunities by interacting via online forums and social networking sites.


Even those who do most of their networking face-to-face have to bear in mind how the digital world impacts their prospects.


One of the first things someone who you’ve made contact with is to look you up on Google. Some US universities are teaching their graduates how to manage their online ‘brands’ and these lessons are equally important to Australian start-ups. Make sure you have an approachable but professional presence on the web.


According to Jamie Pride, partner of Deloitte’s online practice, social networking can prove a valuable tool for start-ups, as long as they contribute properly.


“Online gives you an amplification of your business that you can’t get face-to-face,” he says. “But it’s about finding the right channels and contributing and adding value to online communities, rather than just taking,” he says.


“You should first listen and observe and understand the relationship dynamics of others. Find your authentic voice online rather than a polished PR tone. People see right through that.”


“Be a net contributor rather than a spammer. Be aware your interaction history will be available online. The amount of referrals you get will say a lot about how you are approaching things.”


Getting the best of both


LinkedIn is arguably the leading online networking forum for businesses, although Facebook, YouTube and, particularly, Twitter are gaining in popularity among start-ups. But don’t let online networking take over from physical contact with others. Failure to interact meaningfully with others puts you at risk of stagnating.


The Hive is a network for entrepreneurs that drives interest via the internet but holds its events, usually informal affairs held in bars, in the offline world.


Ross Hill, who founded The Hive, says: “Face to face still wins, but online helps. The digital native now is used to an open conversation. Three or four people locked in a conversation isn’t compelling.”


Five tips to assist your networking:

  • Go to something that interests you, even if it’s not directly related to your industry
  • Don’t be afraid of moving on from a conversation. Politely explain that you’re aiming to speak to as many people as possible.
  • Don’t give a sales pitch or bombard people with information about your business.
  • If you want to talk to the speaker at an event, try and corner them before they address the room. They will probably be mobbed following their speech.
  • Follow up your conversation promptly and give your contact a good reason to stay in touch.