Successful Networking, Your Way
When it’s time to raise money for your business, you want to meet enough investors so that you have a choice and some negotiating power. That means networking.
Networking styles tend to run along a spectrum with two extremes, neither of which works. At one end stands the networker. We all know this person. They're always reaching out and feel too slick. At the other end are those who count themselves above networking, and who disdain the idea of asking someone to buy their product or invest in their company.
Obviously, you need to be somewhere in the middle. But where? Here are seven ways to find your natural--and effective--place on the networking style continuum.
Authenticity The best networkers start by just being themselves. Most of humanity has a built-in meter that detects when someone is putting on an act. We’re hardwired to be skeptical of others when they sell or push too hard, or when they try to be something they aren’t. Start with who you are, and don’t try to mimic anyone else.
Mechanics I once had a boss who asked me if I sought money, recognition or power. I told him I liked mechanics. I liked to figure things out and get good at them. When you talk about your business, you will convince some investors with your passion, but you will convince more of them with your expertise in your business. When you network, know what you are good at, and don’t be shy about moving conversations to your business expertise.
Practice Most things go better with practice. Telling your story is no different. Talk it out. See if you can break it down into conversational bits. Think about what you would tell someone first about your business. Imagine the questions that might trigger. Then, think about the next attribute of your business and how you’d explain it. The more you describe your business, the better you’ll get at it.
Schedule Networking is like exercise--you might get to it every once in a while by chance, but you will be healthier if you schedule it. Once you define your expertise and have a little internal practice, target time and events where you can network with people you would like to meet. Yes, you are busy and other things seem more immediate. But putting events on your calendar that force you to get out pays off in the long run.
Communicate You’ve got to tell people what you are doing before they can help you. And networking doesn’t have to be in a formal setting or at a networking event. Don’t be afraid to tell people--just regular people you happen to know--about your business and what you do, so they can find a match or natural hook in your story. Without being overbearing, talk to folks who aren’t your perfect targets, but who might know an investor who would be. These individuals often know someone who might be a better match than those you have identified.
Find Your Comfort Zone A natural conversation with someone you’ve just met doesn’t usually doesn’t start with you spewing out all the details about your business. Without being artificial, find your comfort zone for small-talk topics that you enjoy. The weather works remarkably well, but there are many other topics that are more interesting and help sustain a conversation before you move onto business.
Meet New People The easiest thing to do when you come to a big event is to find people you already know and talk to them. It’s just easier and feels less socially awkward. But you aren’t there to talk to people you’ve already met. Force yourself to talk to those you don’t know. An easy starting point is look for someone else who’s alone and introduce yourself. They usually do know someone else there, and when their connections walk up to talk with them (and now you) your network grows.
Most of these points are about assiduously ensuring you connect with people you don’t know well to see if they could be of value to you and your business. We all squirm when that first type of networker hits us up too quickly or too hard in the hopes of getting something from us. On the other hand, individuals who use their networks and resources to help others feel very different. Whether we admit it or not, we feel a debt to them for their help.
ED POWERS | Columnist | Head of Capital Access Funds, Bank of America
Based in New York, Ed Powers is a managing director and head of the Capital Access Funds team at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Capital Access Funds is an experienced, returns-driven private equity fund-of-funds.