I'm always saying that there comes a point in an entrepreneur's life when success is no longer down to what they know. It's down to who they know. They succeed because they have the right partners, a big support network, and contacts that can land them the big sales.
That means you've got to go elbow to elbow. You have to go to conferences and workshops and conventions, and do more than sit in the audience and listen. You have to get into the lobbies, and talk.
If you're the kind of extrovert who chats easily, that's great. But few people are. Most people find idle chats with a stranger about the weather and plane journeys difficult and uncomfortable. But there are a few things you can do to make the experience not just easier but also enjoyable and valuable.
First, prepare. Small talk is easier when you're with a friend, so if you're going by yourself, find someone who can become a friend quickly. If you're going to an event that tells you in advance who will be attending, scan the lists and look for two or three people you'd really like to meet--someone working in your field, someone who knows someone you know, or someone whose products you've bought and loved. When you see them hanging out in the lobby, you'll be able to tell them that your friend told you to look out for them or describe what you liked about their work. Everyone likes to hear a compliment, and everyone loves to be told their work is appreciated, so you'll have the start of a happy conversation.
You'll also have a social node that can introduce you to more people. Once you know one person, you'll have something in common with the people they know, and an easy way to start the next conversation.
You can also try to get people to come to you. That's easier than walking up to a stranger and trying to start a conversation cold. So if your event needs help, volunteer to lend a hand. It might mean taking part in a panel or, if it's a small event, helping with the organization. Once you have a role in the event, people will have a reason to talk to you, and you'll get that first, cold contact out of the way.
Some social experts also recommend thinking up a few opening lines in advance. Conversations with strangers often begin with "So what do you do?" but you can also ask how they heard about the event or what their connections is to the group. It can feel a bit awkward but it works, often because so many other people also find networking difficult. The person you're speaking to will be so grateful that someone's talking to them, they'll want to keep the conversation friendly and flowing, and they'll also want to make a friend quickly.
Entrepreneurs need good ideas and strong organization, but they also need to talk a good game too. Making small talk might be hard but it quickly leads to big conversations.