community building

First steps in Networking

This article appeared in Polish here in Pro Seed Magazine 27th June 2013

Dear Richard

I keep on hearing about how I need to “get out there, go to business networking meetings and network” but I have never had any experience and don’t know what exactly I should do.
I don’t have a business yet or even a well formed business idea. How exactly should I behave ? what should I do ? I’m worried I am just going to waste my time

Yours sincerely

Wannabe entrepreneur”|

“Dear Wannabe

Don’t worry – you are asking sensible questions.

You are not the first and will not be the last person to struggle with “how to network”. The first thing to do is to relax. By even thinking about this topic you have put yourself in the top 10% of the population. Many people either never go to such things, or when they do, they don’t know what to do.

Many of these business mixer type events have some kind of speaker, announcements, theme, topic or activities like elevator pitches. You should review these as far as you can before you go. Sometimes events like Open Coffee Krakow have an on line system where you can see who else is going and what they are offering and looking for

The first thing to think about is “what are your objectives?” “Networking” is not an objective in itself. If you are not into software for power stations a “software for power stations” networking event doesn’t make much sense, unless you are going there for cheap food (try to find a new partner), or if you want to sell services that people in that industry might buy, in which case you could do market research.

It is not for me to tell you what you want to achieve, but if you are like most would-be entrepreneurs you might be into

– learning new things
– getting inspiration
– getting motivated
– getting new ideas
– meeting potential business partners
– finding a job (if you don’t have an idea, you can always offer to help someone else)
– finding team members/employees , interns, volunteers
– getting feedback on your idea
– giving other people feedback on their ideas
– practice your public speaking skills (if there is a chance to ask questions to speakers.

As well as thinking about what you want, you also must think about what you can offer. It’s completely wrong, (but all to common) to think “I am only at
Primary School/a law student/a civil servant/a farmer/(insert as appropriate), what can I offer?” and the answer is that everyone can offer something. If you are at school you can help companies that want to sell things to school children find out what kids think. An 11 year old came second in Start Up Weekend Krakow, after presenting in English to 250 people on a Sunday evening.

The underlying rule of networking is “be useful”. Keep in mind what you want, but get practice at asking good questions, find out what is on other people’s minds, and get them talking all the while thinking about how you might be able to help them.

There is no secret about how to talk to a business person, or a would be entrepreneur about their idea, ask open questions, not questions, but the famous who what where why when type questions which inevitably get the other person talking. Ask about the 3 Cs (clients competition and costs) the three Ps (people products and processes) and their strategy. Ask what makes their business or idea special, and how they will keep sustainable competitive advantage. You will learn a lot simply from listening to people’s answers. Not everyone will be smart, not everyone will be clear, but this is not a game of “whose the smartest” it’s a process of trying to understand what makes this person/organisation succeed or believe that he can..

For “beginners in the networking game” the hardest thing may be to imagine how actually get into those first conversations. Start right away in the queue to get in.. Opening lines, like “This is my first time at this type of event, what made you decide to come this evening?” should get people talking. If there is a group of people talking you can often join their circle will a simple line like “May I join you.?” It’s my first time, I don’t know many people here..

It‘s good to have a short clear “personal pitch” to fall back on when inevitably other people start asking you about your background. If you have something prepared it will help you because it will make you more confident. You don’t have kick off with “I’m just a student”,. You can start with, “Well I’ve got one or two business ideas but I’m really here to learn, and hopefully get some feedback on what other people think about them. “ Or “I’m a technical person, and feel I a weak in sales knowledge so I want to meet sales people and hopefully get some coaching, and ideas”. It makes such a positive impression if you can just give the impression of being well prepared and confident.

It is good idea to introduce yourself to the organisers: again. think about how you can be helpful “I’m part of the SGH Student Club” is there any way we can help you? “ , and when you are leaving say thank you. Few people do and it is always appreciated.

Some events like Hive53 in Krakow have “community announcements”. If there are opportunities like this, think how you can exploit them/to get your message across and build your personal brand. Think of something to say, notice what the other announcements are being made. You can always go up to the people making announcements and use that as an reason to get into conversation.

Obviously, you may have networking events where you feel you achieved little. Failure and success are two sides of the same coin. If a thing is worth doing, there has to be a risk of a bad outcome too.

If you have the misfortune to spend your networking evening with boring, corrupt, xenophobic homophobes with body odour and halitosis, at least you can go home feeling happy that the evening is over and you are not like them.