What we’re talking about

This is about developing relationships with people whose business interests and pathways align with yours. Think: other founders, former colleagues, investors, suppliers, distributors, journalists, engaged customers, experts in your field – the list goes on. You might not be inviting these people to your birthday (although the more the merrier, right?) – these relationships are likely to be based on LinkedIn contact or sporadic coffees where you talk business. The word ‘networking’ carries a lot of baggage, and the idea of doing it can make even the most outgoing of people cringe. It’s better, instead, to think of the process as being about mutual support. Sharing knowledge and opportunities with like-minded people is fun and productive if you do it right.

Why it’s important 

First things first: the personal. Having a diverse group of people you can speak to about business is one of the best ways to mitigate the feeling of isolation that many founders experience. You’ll also be passively shaped by the attitudes, perspectives and experiences of those you keep in touch with – and build up confidence as a voice in your field. 

Then there are the more tangible benefits for your business, like connecting to new customers and contracts, laying the foundations for brand partnerships, increasing your chances of getting press features, staying up to date with industry trends and innovations, finding great hires and generally accessing new opportunities for your business. When LinkedIn surveyed its members on the value of networking, 35% of people reported that a casual conversation on the site led to a new business opportunity, and 80% stated that networking was important for career success. All too often, though, founders think it’s something that’ll happen naturally, but networks don’t build and maintain themselves. 

Things to note 

Be a relationship builder. There’s a difference between old-school networking and the more modern, less transactional approach (as fully outlined in Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha’s The Start-Up of You). Forget ideas of working the room or asking for favors: this is about trying to help people first, not keeping a running score and not solely thinking about maintaining relationships when you need something. 

Be smart with your time. Being time-stretched shouldn’t mean you avoid networking, but you do need to manage it properly. One idea is to allocate half an hour a day to making and maintaining connections. As with friendships, you can only sustain a certain number of business relationships at once, so don’t just introduce yourself to anyone whose interests appear vaguely aligned to yours. Likewise, don’t hold on to professional relationships that are no longer interesting or constructive. If you aren’t selective about who you meet and how much attention you give them, you’ll end up with a network that’s oversaturated and ineffective. 

Use your social profiles. As Covid-19 showed, social media is a great tool for relationship-building. LinkedIn remains the most natural and best-suited platform for this. Prioritize having a compelling, up-to-date profile and being active on there.  

Don’t forget the value of face-to-face. You’re more likely to make lasting connections through real conversation. Around two-thirds of communication is non-verbal, and face-to-face interaction is generally seen as more trustworthy than sending emails. Meet up with people who really animate you IRL: your conversations will be more honest and less awkward; you’ll get to know each other’s personalities properly; and you’ll form genuine bonds you feel compelled to maintain. 

How to make and maintain new contacts 

1. Work out what you want. Before you start thinking about individuals, decide on the main things you want from your network – that could be finding collaborators or growing your voice in your industry. Then think about the different people (and their roles) who might be able to help, and who you can offer something to. Ideally this will be a diverse bunch with different skill sets and levels of experience. 

2. Polish your offering. Given that this is a mutually beneficial relationship, make sure that it’s clear you have something to offer. First impressions matter, and more often than not come from browsing through a person or business’ online presence. Get these looking as fresh and appealing as possible – and make sure your personality comes through. 

3. Set measurable goals. It doesn’t matter if you don’t quite meet your goals, but aiming high will force you to get out there and begin relationship-building. That might be meeting five new people a month; attending one meet-and-greet a fortnight; checking in with three new people on LinkedIn a month; or hosting a small-business meet-up once a year. 

4. Use your pre-existing network. It’s time to get out there. The best place to start is with the people you already know – they’re your best asset when it comes to meeting new people. Think through your list of personal connections: from friends and family members to college acquaintances and former colleagues. Then think about relationships you’ve formed with your business, like suppliers or distributors. Your existing friends and business contacts all know people you don’t, so consider actively reaching out and seeing if they’d be OK with linking you up. 

5. Get out there in person. It’s worth going beyond your social circles (and comfort zone) to cultivate a much wider pool. A good place to start is among people who are actively looking to network – like at small-business meet-ups organized by the likes of Meetup, Eventbrite and Shapr. Otherwise it’s about being proactive: sticking around for the drinks at the end of talks; popping into local businesses; or even organizing events for professionals in your area or sector. 

6. Get out there remotely. You might be able to reach more people online, but it’s not as simple as sending out a few unsolicited emails to your icons. Look for industry-specific groups and communities on platforms like Reddit, LinkedIn or Facebook. Follow and interact with similar brands or those you aspire to emulate on Instagram and Twitter. Contribute and comment rather than being a passive observer. 

7. Get your first meaningful interaction right. Whether you’re being introduced or introducing yourself, you want to be prepared – and come across as casual, friendly and engaged. Put in some research beforehand: find out about your new connection’s experience, recent accomplishments and interests to show you’re serious about building a relationship. 

8. Get your first meeting right. If all goes well with your first few exchanges, touch base on the ‘what you want’ and ‘what you can offer’ dynamic. This could be tangible – for example, getting work commissioned by them – or less tangible, such as hearing about how they expanded their business internationally. Get clear on what you can offer this person in particular. Keep it in the back of your mind as a way to give your interaction some purpose, and so that you always have points to return to. 

9. Be proactive with the follow-up. You may have come away from your first interaction with actionable tasks or maybe you just had an informal chat. Either way, lead the way with keeping in touch and adding clear value for the other person so they know they’re a priority for you. 

10. Keep checking in. Relationships require constant maintenance. Find the level of interaction that works for you and each of your connections. For the most part this is about intuition, but if you get too lax you’ll notice people start to fall off the radar. Use social media for small, low-effort and frequent interactions and try not to just reach out when you need something.

Key takeaways

• Relationship-building in a professional context is a two-way thing – it’s not a case of just thinking about what you can gain from other people.  

• You need to be specific in how others can help you. Set goals and make sure the people you approach, and the conversations you have with them, align with an overall purpose. 

• The people you know already are your biggest asset and will likely be more than happy to make some introductions.  

Learn more

Perspective. Everyone’s likely to have their unique networking style. In this , four small-business owners detail how they arrived at their individual way of networking. 

Example. Via American Express, three entrepreneurs share stories of how networking changed the course of their business for the better. 

Tool. If you need some inspo on where to look for connections, browse this list of the 14 best networking apps for entrepreneurs, which includes staples like Meetup and Eventbrite as well as just-for-business platforms like Shapr, Bizzabo and SummitSync.

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