How to network as a small business or entrepreneur: with pro tips from Bianca Miller-Cole

How to network as a small business or entrepreneur: with pro tips from Bianca Miller-Cole

Rosie Hayes

Rosie Hayes
7th February 2018

Networking is necessary to the success of any small business, and can provide benefits such as expanding knowledge, building vital connections, and providing surprising opportunities. Although networking may not come naturally to everyone, it is a necessary component of driving any business forward, and can become an invaluable source through regular engagement that small business owners and entrepreneurs simply can’t afford to miss.

Knowing where to start can be tough, so this article will provide some tips about some of the main forms of networking that can be utilised. Former apprentice participant Bianca Miller-Cole has shared her tips for networking throughout this article. 

Networking can generally be separated into two main categories: networking through events or online. 

Networking at events

Myriad events exist that can be useful for networking purposes, including trade shows, conferences, speaker events, and roundtables to name but a few. There is no need to limit your prospects to suit and tie occasions, networking events can be formal or informal, and there is an increasing number of alternative business networking opportunities advertised online including breakfasts, coffee meetings, brunch meetings, and dinners. So, if the traditional business networking setup doesn’t appeal to you, you’ll still be able to find ample choices for meetings. Consider the events that you genuinely think will be useful for your business and plan to attend those. There’s no need to attend everything and overwhelm yourself, so be discerning and only choose the events that stand out as being the most appealing and potentially advantageous.

Once you’re able to choose the event you want to attend, there are some key points to consider before and at the event.

Before the event:

Make sure to research before you go. You can research the theme of the event if applicable, and the topics likely to be covered. You should also research about who will be there, which could include attendees or speakers. Make a note of who you would most like to engage with and why. This is particularly useful if there is likely to be a large number of people at the event.

Bianca Miller-Cole’s tip: “Seek out pictures of the event to get an idea of the culture of the event and the dress code. Where possible it is also a good idea to get a list of the attendees in advance, thus enabling the business owner to plan for the people they would like to meet and speak with.”

Prepare an ice-breaker. You’ll need to be conversing a lot and this can be extremely nerve-wracking, especially for introverts. But, starting a conversation is generally quite difficult for everyone and so preparing an ice-breaker can be a handy weapon against potential awkwardness. Ice-breakers could include something as simple as asking the reasons why the others are attending. Alternatively, you could think up some unique questions ready to start the conversation off such as: what is your favourite podcast or blog?

Prepare an elevator pitch. This is a short description of what you do in 60 seconds or less. It’s never good to hard-sell at networking events, but you will still need to explain a little bit about what you do. Essentially your elevator pitch should explain what do you do, who for, and what results you’ve got.

Bianca’s tip: “It is essential for small business owners to attend networking events prepared with an ‘elevator pitch’ to enable them to introduce themselves, their business and their ‘why’ in a succinct and professional manner.”

Prepare business cards. These typically include your name, company, address, email address, phone number, and social networking accounts. Feel free to get creative with imagery and wording, but remember to include accessible contact information that is legible. Keep these somewhere handy and be ready to exchange these when you part from other attendees.

Bring something to make notes on. If you feel like you might forget some details bring a pen and a notepad, or use the notes function on your phone. You can also jot down notes on attendees’ business cards post-event if you feel it will help you to remember important points.

Find out if there is going to be some kind of event community through the use of an app or hashtag. Apps like Grip can be useful tools for networking, which you can use prior to, during, and after an event. You can even set up follow-up meetings on this app, making it another potentiality for networking. Other similar apps may be in use for the events you wish to attend, so see what’s being used that might be rewarding. Likewise, a hashtag for the event might be used which will connect you to attendees and be searchable afterwards. This information may be provided by the event host or website beforehand.

At the event:

At the event, try to circulate as much as you can whilst also investing a decent amount of time in everyone you speak to. It may be worth having a goal of meeting just 5-10 key contacts as this will be an easier number to follow up, and ensures that you invest quality time with those contacts.

Try not to remain just with the people you know. It can be tempting to huddle with the people you came with or the first people that you meet, so it’s best to avoid staying with these same people the entire event.

Bianca’s tip: “Arrive early, where possible introduce yourself to the organiser and ask for them to introduce you to anyone relevant. Stand in a position that faces outward and find someone to begin speaking to. I am a true believer in having good conversations even if you don’t deem it relevant, you never know what you might learn and who they might know or how you can help them. Don’t become absorbed with the idea of meeting as many people as possible, it is better to have quality connections than quantity.”

Show interest in those you speak to by being a good listener. Talking about yourself too much will certainly decrease what you get out of the event, so remember to listen well to those you engage with. This could not only increase your knowledge base, but also provide insights that you can use as a way of making your follow-ups far more personal and meaningful.

There’s no need to do a hard sell. People will be more likely to work with those whose company they enjoy. Be sociable, friendly, ask questions and enjoy yourself. Try to relax and let go of any tendency to be pushy.

Help others to connect and make introductions. This not only makes you feel good, but others could reward the favour in future.

Networking online via Twitter/LinkedIn

If you are unable to attend actual events, or want some more tools to accompany your efforts at events, there are various opportunities to cultivate your network online.

LinkedIn is an ideal resource for small business owners. You can find contacts via LinkedIn groups, reach out to fellow alumni, and start reaching out to contacts that interest you. Be prepared to do research on who you wish to connect with, and if you don’t know them personally offer an explanation to them about why you want to connect.

Twitter is another useful tool wherein you can easily interact with like-minded individuals, potential customers, and other contacts. You can find a wealth of information by seeking out your competitors and seeing who they follow, how they engage, and who follows them. The ease of interaction on Twitter makes it ideal for quick customer service replies, and you might also consider creating polls to find out more from your audience. Pursuing these kinds of insights will enable you to tailor your networking with finesse.

You can also join relevant online forums on other sites wherein you can comment and engage with other users. You can use these to post questions, reply to threads, or simply to peruse and learn.

Bianca’s tip: “If you have met someone new at a networking event, it is traditional and common place to exchange contact details but beyond that, I think it is important to connect with the person on LinkedIn within 24 hours. This additional connection is an essential part of the continuation of your network, emailing and meeting is one thing but being able to update one another online is an additional layer to the relationship.”

You in the driver’s seat

Don’t wait for opportunities to appear, sometimes you can network by creating the groups or events that you would be most interested in.

If you can’t find the perfect networking group, you could always create your own. This could be online, via apps, or offline.

Put yourself out there as an expert. You could give a talk, a lunch and learn, or host a webinar to name a few ideas. You might want to become a resource, not just part of a network, and this can be a good way of sharing insights whilst cementing your status as a leader in your field.

Get involved in the local community. Look at what your local area has to offer in terms of networking, and use these to your advantage. You might be able to create shop local partnerships, or join community clubs and organisations that further your professional cause.

Bianca’s tip: “Take a leadership stance on your networking, you are in the drivers seat. I truly believe that networking should be reciprocal, with that in mind if you meet someone who you believe can helps someone else make the introduction. Networking karma is often at play, so lead relationships by proving value to the connection.”

Follow everyone up

Establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships is paramount to networking effectively, whether this is a regular message, phone call, or face-to-face catch-up with your contacts. Post-event, it is advisable to connect with your new contacts through a request on LinkedIn, which can then be followed-up by other methods. This might be through an email subscriber list, social networking, direct messages to people you have met at events, or meetings for lunches, coffee, dinner, breakfast, or brunch.

Bianca’s tip: “Build relationships that will be long-lasting, the connection may not seem relevant now but they may be in the future or you may able to help them. Or they might know someone who can help you. It is important not to disregard anyone.”

The important thing is to regularly touch base with your most important contacts when you are not in need of something. The consistency and loyalty that you provide will be admired by your contacts who will be able to see you not only as respectable in business, but a likeable and trustworthy person.