For some small business owners, networking comes naturally. Maybe you started your business in part to expand your personal network, or maybe you just identify as a social butterfly. Other business owners fall firmly into a different camp—after all, a passion for your products or services doesn’t necessarily translate into a desire to spend social energy at conferences and cocktail hours.
The good news is that effective networking isn’t an inborn personality trait—it’s a set of skills that can be learned. With a bit of practice, anyone can become an engaging, competent networker—and small business owners can use those skills to attract customers, stay up to date with industry trends, and generate peer support.
What is networking?
Networking is the process of building relationships and making connections for the purpose of social or professional advancement. It can be informal and organic, like a water-cooler chat with the new intern, or structured, like an industry conference or a local young professionals meet-up.
Why should you network?
Networking can help professionals of all stripes land a job and elevate their personal brands.
For small business owners and entrepreneurs, building a strong professional network is particularly critical. While some professionals might only network periodically (e.g., during a job search), business owners face an ongoing need to raise brand awareness, reach new audiences, and stay up-to-date with industry trends.
Here’s how networking can help:
- Increased brand awareness. Making new connections increases your audience size and can help you gain recognition and support with key demographics.
- New customers. Your new connections can represent potential clients or referral sources for your business. You might even create a prospect list and let that guide the networking opportunities you seek out.
- A larger talent network. Forming new relationships can also support the hiring process. Next time you need to add to your team, you may be able to skip the lengthy recruiting process and approach somebody in your network with a job opportunity that matches their skill sets and career goals.
- Industry insights. Building connections in your industry can help you stay up to date with changes or trends and leverage the expertise of industry leaders to gain a competitive advantage.
- Peer support. Running a small business is hard, and entrepreneurship can be lonely—especially if you’re a solopreneur. Building relationships with other business owners allows you to seek guidance on specific issues. When times are tough, you can also turn to key confidants for validation and support.
8 networking tips
- Be prepared
- Arrive early
- Always be networking
- Build your personal brand
- Be a giver
- Ask for help
- Be yourself
- Follow up
Anybody can learn how to network effectively. Consult these networking tips to boost your skills and maximize returns on your efforts:
1. Be prepared
Most clichés contain a fundamental truth—and preparation really is the key to success. Here’s what to consider before you start networking:
- Talking points. Prepare talking points including a few key questions, some interesting small-talk fodder, and your elevator pitch, which is a brief introduction to you and your company. Workshopping a concise description of your experience and objectives can help you make a strong first impression.
- Goals. Take some time to list a few goals. Are you hoping to meet vendors, connect with key people in your industry, or solve a specific problem? Remembering why you’re there can help you maximize your networking efforts.
- Reconnaissance. If your event publishes information about attendees, do a little bit of internet sleuthing on the front end. Identify potentially valuable connections, note company name and job title, and dig deeper into those individuals’ career histories and other interests. You might find that you have a mutual connection or uncover other information that will help you shape the conversation.
- Practice. Becoming comfortable with the networking process takes time. Practice networking by working your talking points into conversations with friends and family and attending frequent low-stakes networking events.
2. Arrive early
Being fashionably late isn’t helpful for professional purposes. When it comes to networking events, you want to be one of the first people at the party. You can ease into the environment and casually chat with other early birds in a small group setting.
3. Always be networking
Attending events is a great way to network—but so is waiting in line at your local coffee shop, taking a flight, and catching up with old friends.
Skilled networkers are good at building relationships in every context—and research shows that this personality trait is correlated with business success. You never know when you might have the chance to help somebody (or when they might be able to help you).
4. Build your personal brand
People rarely buy the first time they hear of you; rather, it takes multiple touchpoints to reach a new customer or make a sale. The same is true for building a new relationship. An in-person conversation represents one powerful touchpoint, and elevating your personal and professional profile can increase the likelihood that your new connections will encounter your name a second (or third) time.
You might post on your small business’s blog, start a newsletter, or seek out opportunities to appear on podcasts or panels. These strategies can help you refine your talking points and improve the chance people will reach out to you as a networking target.
5. Be a giver
Seek opportunities to help people. You’ll build relationships, generate goodwill, and activate what psychologists call the reciprocity principle—when people receive help, they’re inclined to return the favor. For example, if you’re chatting with somebody at a networking event, you might offer to make helpful introductions or schedule a follow-up call to offer advice on a specific situation.
6. Ask for help
Don’t be afraid to make requests. Research shows people tend to underestimate others’ desire to help. Asking for help can also build relationships—when you seek help from somebody, you’re making yourself vulnerable and implicitly complimenting their expertise, both of which create trust. Studies also suggest that somebody who rejects a request for help will seek ways to help you in the future, which means that even if your new connection can’t help you now, making the request can pay off down the road.
7. Be yourself
Old networking strategies are prescriptive: use somebody’s name frequently in conversation, wear a suit, hide your quirks. But today’s professional environment is more welcoming of diversity and prioritizes authenticity in relationships. So, go ahead, let your quirks show.
Your professional persona might be a more polished version of you, but it will still reflect who you are. If you love to crack jokes, don’t stifle your instincts. If you dress in bright colors, work some into your professional outfits. If you’re naturally soft-spoken, that’s absolutely fine. You don’t need to imitate somebody else to build authentic connections—you just need to develop a professional persona that leverages your innate talents and personality characteristics. A recent Harvard study found that this strategy can decrease anxiety, improve performance, and increase your odds of making a lasting impression.
8. Follow up
Make sure to follow up after every connection. Request a business card when you meet, and send an email or LinkedIn message after the event. If applicable, include some reflection on your conversation, a link to a relevant interesting article, or an invitation for future connection. You can also follow your new connection on social media platforms to stay in touch.
Bonus tip: The firm handshake
The firm handshake is one piece of old-school advice that still applies in most cases. While you don’t need to have the world’s strongest grip or use a handshake to express dominance, offering a completely limp hand can be disconcerting for your new connection. Stand, smile, make eye contact, and match your partner’s level of pressure.
Networking tips FAQ
What should you bring to a networking event?
Here are a few key items to bring to a networking event:
- Business cards
- A brochure or one-pager, if applicable
- Breath mints
- A pen and a small notepad
- Your elevator pitch
- Curated small talk
- A list of questions
How do you listen actively during a conversation?
Actively listening is the process of attending to a speaker’s words, using non-verbal cues to gauge intent, and communicating attentiveness through verbal signals and body language. Here are a few tips:
- Make periodic eye contact with the speaker.
- Listen without planning what you’ll say next.
- Nod, smile, and interject short agreements, like “Yes.”
- Resist the urge to interrupt.
- Ask questions during natural pauses in the conversation.
- Demonstrate and check comprehension by paraphrasing or summarizing what you heard.
Should you only attend networking events within your industry?
No. Attending networking events outside your industry can help you build connections with other business leaders, raise your brand profile, and stay up to date with trends in other industries that could affect your business.