I recently finished teaching another 3-week session of Start Smart, a class offered by WESST on business start-up basics. In class #2 we look at cost-effective ways to market a business (hint: advertising is nowhere near the top of the list), and networking is a major part of this discussion. As I share with every class, I consider networking to be a self-employed lifestyle more than an activity. Every entrepreneur needs to create and nurture relationships with others in order to maximize opportunities and stay in touch with trends that could positively or negatively affect your business.
Inevitably, there are several in the class — if not the majority — who express anxiety and insecurity about networking. My response usually helps calm them down: Networking is not sales. For some reason this distinction is often lost on people, who think that networking means relentlessly pushing your product or service on potential customers. Not so! Folks that do this (and there always seems to be at least one at every networking event) are big turn-offs. Instead, think of networking as sharing with others the key details about what your business does (and listening to them share similar information), to open the possibility of some sort of interaction in the future. Making a sale to your new contact is only one possibility that might materialize, and not necessarily the most valuable one! If your new contact turns out to be a key supplier or strategic partner for your business, it could be the key factor in your business’s success. Viewing networking as a sales-driven activity is far too limiting.
In the book Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust, Chris Brogan and Julien Smith outline the qualities and behaviors of those who earn and are able to leverage credibility online; they call these people trust agents. This description (and much of the rest of the book) could easily apply to offline networking:
Trust agents are at the center of wide, powerful networks. They make building relationships a priority because it’s a human thing to do — long before any actual business requires transacting. They are people who jump at the chance to meet others online, at events, or in mixed social settings, and who then often connect these new acquaintances with other people in their personal networks. They realize the value of our networks isn’t in their ability to ask for things, but in their ability to complete projects faster, find resources more easily, and reach the right people at the right time. Because having a wide network is very powerful and opens doors, [being a trust agent] is about developing access.
In other words, networking is not about the short-term gain of “asking for things” but in the long-term power that results from having a strong network in place.
I use a simple trick when coaching clients and students to network more effectively. To get away from the “short-term gain” mindset in networking situations, imagine that your goal is to share enough appropriate, compelling information with your new contact that she recommends you to her relative, neighbor, co-worker, or whomever she knows that might be in the market for your services. In other words, your “target” isn’t your new contact, but someone else in the contact’s network. If you’re a wedding photographer, for example, imagine that your new contact has a cousin getting married in three months. That cousin is your target. Thinking this way can help you refine your approach and focus your networking on relationships, not sales.