Here's how to make networking work for you--and your business.
Networking is at the top of the list of things that make me the most uncomfortable.
Most people who know me are surprised to learn this, because I am a consummate extrovert, but, in truth, I find it daunting to talk to people I have never met, and I hate pretending to be interested in people who are clearly networking to social climb. In the past two years, however, networking has become a very important part of how I grow my business.
Consider these three ideas to take the discomfort out of networking and use it to create real value for your business:
Listening is the best way to start a conversation.
Most people think about networking from the perspective of what they are going to say. Instead, think about networking in terms of what someone else might have to say to you. Last week, I was at an event with other business owners, and a woman mentioned a new sales manager who had just joined her team. Rather than bringing up my own recent hiring challenges (which happened to be at the top of my worry list), I asked her how long it had taken her to find the new recruit, and when she confirmed that the process had been long, I asked what resources she had found most helpful in her search. She gave me several ideas I had never even thought of, let alone tried.
Honesty begets honesty.
Networking tends to bring out the braggarts, the people for whom everything is going just great: stellar sales, smooth cash flow, and growth potential to last a lifetime. We can all spin our stories to sell the audience on how great our businesses are, and doing so is sometimes a great survival skill. However, I find that ditching the PR pitch and honestly talking about my challenges has saved my business more than once. About a year ago, at a networking event, I had a powerful conversation with a business owner I had just met about some financing issues I was having, and it's a damn good thing I did. He gave me excellent tips on how to assess the potential peril my business was in, and several specific ways to reverse the problem. Had I kept quiet about my woes, I would have missed a valuable learning opportunity.
Everyone has something interesting to impart.
Networking makes people nervous, because they worry they may be thrown together with people with whom they have nothing in common. In my experience, the people who are the most different from me are also the most likely to teach me something valuable. Stepping outside of your circle is one of the most effective ways to begin thinking outside your box--and networking is the perfect chance to get access to a bevvy of different types of thinkers, all in one location. At an entrepreneurs breakfast earlier this year, I sat at a table with no one I knew. I gave myself the assignment to learn about each person's business, and in the process, I discovered--from a leadership researcher!--a print-on-demand method I could use to make T-shirts to promote my brand. I also found out from the owner of a consulting business about a website-creation tool that would let me sketch out how I want my site to be reorganized. And, just by chance, I wound up talking to an IT guy who tipped me off to an alternative resource for searching for new suppliers, and they proved to be more effective than the one I had been using. None of these people are in my industry, nor did their products overlap with mine, yet they each told me about something I could use.
So think again before you consider skipping a networking opportunity or contemplate hiding out by the buffet table. Networking can make the entrepreneurial journey less lonely, provide you with great nuggets of advice, and force you to do something outside your comfort zone--all of which are fundamental to growing your business.
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Vanessa Merit Nornberg: In 2004, Vanessa opened Metal Mafia, a wholesale body and costume jewelry company that sells to more than 5,000 specialty shops and retail chains in 23 countries. Metal Mafia was an Inc. 500 company in 2009. @vanessanornberg