When someone tells me that an event could be a “…good networking opportunity…” my palms get sweaty and I feel a little sick to my stomach. I’ve never been good at schmoozing or selling things or bragging on myself in anything other than sarcastic tones. At said “networking opportunities” my usually charming personality goes out the window and I start telling awkward jokes, using bad puns and find myself talking just a little too loud.
All of that is very unfortunate, because any successful business owner will tell you that networking is vital to growing your business. As you’ve probably been told, opportunities have a lot to do with who you know—and who they know. A professional network will fill your proverbial rolodex with people who know people. Even better than that, your network will supply you with allies in business who will inspire you, collaborate with you, recommend your services and help you grow. But where, oh where do you find these people?
At its core, networking is simply meeting people and making friends with people who happen to be in business. Lucky for you, while I get nervous at professional events, I’m really good at making friends. Because of my husband’s work in the military we move every few years. This means I’ve gotten really good at making friends and establishing professional networks. If you (like me) don’t shine in the realm of organized schmoozing and aggressive self-selling there is hope. Today I’m going to help you take the intimidation out of networking with these 10 tips for the non-schmoozer
You are Already Better Off Than You Think
Most people you know and interact with are employed. BAM! Just like that, you’ve already started growing your professional network. Take a look at the people already floating around your social bubble and you’ll find lots of good network contacts. You don’t need to be aggressive or awkward to extend already existing relationships and acquaintanceships into business relationships.
Know What You Do and Why You Do It
Networking is a lot less awkward when you can easily and conversationally talk about what you do and why you do it. Don’t brag or feel pressure to sell yourself. Just talk about your work, why it’s important, and how it serves a need—the ability to articulate your passion will attract new network friends.
Be Interested and Genuine
Everyone around you brings something valuable to the table. Humble yourself to recognize value and quality in the people you cross paths with. Talk to people. Ask questions. Ask questions until you lock in on common ground or something you find interesting. I’ve collaborated with my hair dresser, gotten accounting advice from a whiz I volunteer with, and brainstormed with a barista who happened to be starting a small business—all because I took the time to be interested in the people who cross my path.
Find an organization that speaks to you and offer your services/goods to them for free or for a discounted rate. Non-profit staff are usually extremely well connected (since they are engaged in the community and consistently work with businesses for donations and sponsorships.) They seem to know everyone in town, and have invaluable insight into who may be willing to help out a start up and who to avoid. I’ve found that after you spend some time working for a non-profit, they’ll be more than happy to pass your name along, pass along their contacts, put in a good word, or call in a favor on your behalf.
Try Things and Do Things
Your network will grow naturally when you do things and try things. This is a very low-key method for finding friends in business. You’ll be amazed at the people you meet. Maybe it’s a non-profit director on your curling league, an entrepreneurial guru from cooking class, a tax genius from Spin class, or a fellow start-up owner who volunteers at the soup kitchen. You’ll have fun, and your professional peers will see that you are a person who likes to learn and is eager to try new things.
Become a Regular
Grow your network by picking a few favorite places and becoming a regular. You’ll get to know the staff, the manager and probably other professionals who chill out at the same sweet coffee stop.
Join the Club
Things like a Young Professionals organizations and the Chamber of Commerce are sure fire ways of growing your network. But if that isn’t your scene, find a service club to get involved with or sit on the board of a non-profit. Since you will see this group on a regular basis and will be working alongside them, your relationship will grow organically. This environment is a safe place to show off your skills. Take the lead on projects, offer your professional services or products, volunteer for sub committees, and learn from other leaders. Because clubs and boards include a wide range of ages and abilities, they are a perfect place to fish for seasoned business mentors as well.
Seek out Start-ups
Do a little looking, a little asking around and a little Facebook stalking to find other start-ups, like you. These connections are often easy to make, since they too are probably actively trying to expand their network. Drop them an email and ask to meet up for coffee. Spend a little time getting to know each other, then look for ways to collaborate. Pass each other’s names along, tap them as a resource for your business. Have their back and they’ll have yours.
Keep Track of Who You Know
You don’t need to create one of those creepy movie-serial killer cork boards, with photos and tacks and string connecting the dots—but you do need to keep track of who you know. Keeping an organized sheet of who you know, how you know them, and their professional basics will help you stay in touch with your network and easily find the right contact when a need or opportunity arises.
Be a good friend and stay connected with the people you meet. I know a guy who only messages me when his organization needs a favor. I like him…but I dread his texts. Don’t be that guy. Remember to be genuine and interested in your network. Cheer them on when good things happen. Meet up. Offer help. Wish them happy birthday. A strong network requires intentionality and time. Be nice and treat fellow professionals as friends—not simply names in a book to call on for help. Stay positive, don’t be discouraged, be your passionate self and soon a vast network will develop.