If you are a new entrepreneur preparing to start a business, or a business owner who's trying to turn his company up a notch, there’s a lot of uncertainty ahead. Everyone whom you’ve told about your idea has probably mentioned what percentage of small businesses fail. Whether we like it or not, opening a small business is a huge risk. You can’t really tell how your product will progress, whether you’ll manage to get financial support, or if you’ll make it through the many other challenges of owning a small business.
Looking back on my childhood, I grew up with the idea of having my own business one day. That’s why every time I met a business owner I took the chance to talk to them. What I learnt over years is that:
We all have ideas, it’s the implementation that makes the difference. You need good connections in order to succeed. It’s hard to own a business and most likely you will fail a few times before you make it. Pay attention to opportunities and, when they appear, go for them.
I talked the talk, but didn’t really walk the walk.
A year ago, I came across a unique opportunity and decided to start working on a business idea together with some friends. The following year was full of both challenges and learning points. Even though we had all studied entrepreneurship in the past, we realized how little we knew when we started actually doing it. We realized that the further you go with your business, the more challenging the road becomes. You need to dedicate more resources to your “growing baby” and that never comes without a risk. Even if it’s usually one of the last options, external support is always on the table. Whether you need funding, are looking for strategic partnerships, seek promotion, or just want to share your ideas, in the end it’s all about knowing the right people.
The power of Networking
After swimming in the business world for a while and watching professional swimmers for years, I believe networking is the key for all these locked doors. Networking is like an avenue for exchanging ideas, for finding new opportunities. It’s an extra resource library and a tool for getting support from high profile individuals. With time, it can help you reach a growth both in status and in self-confidence, and can also lead to long-lasting relationships. I was dead excited when I became aware of the power of networking. After a while though, I realised that the real problem is getting to know these “right people”. But where to find them? How do you identify such people? And most importantly, how do you approach them?
With these questions in mind I started my adventure in Berlin last year, a city known to be one of the most startup-friendly places in Europe. When I moved there, I decided to attend as many networking events as possible. One week later, I found out that on average there is one networking event per day, in Berlin. Excited about the ocean of opportunities, I started attending at least one event each week, including Berlin TechCrunch. After a while I came to the conclusion that most discussions were interesting, but they were not bringing any value for me. How could this be, with so many founders, experts in sales, marketing, IT as well as investors around? In the end, I realized that I was the problem, so I worked on figuring out how to approach people in such environments. Today, I want to share my findings with you in regards to how to make networking effective in events.
How to approach networking
Before the event
By definition, networking is the exchange of information or services among individuals,
groups, or institutions. This makes it a tool for reaching your goals. So, prior to every event you attend, don’t forget to:
Define your goal(s), the things you want to get from each discussion you’re having. Try to answer the question: “Ideally, what could I get out of this networking event?”
Research what type of people are going to attend the event and make a list of people you must talk to. Usually there are Facebook events or groups where you can see who is going to be there. Afterwards, check the LinkedIn profile of everybody in order to identify your “must talk to” people. You will never be able to talk to all participants of an event. Make sure you will have at least a few valuable conversations.
Prepare a memorable elevator pitch, no longer than 1 minute that should present who you are, whom you represent (company or organization), why you attend this event and what you want to get from it. Prepare a generic pitch and tailor it a bit depending on the person you talk to. Make it succinct, memorable and the most important thing, finish your pitch with a clear call to action. The most common approach here is an open ended question that aims to bring you closer to the goal you set earlier.
Prepare a short list of generic questions you want to ask people in order to get to know them and find out whether you can help each other or not.
During the event
If possible, try to arrive at the location of the event a bit earlier. There are always people that will get there before the beginning of the event. Use this opportunity to get in the mood for networking, practice your elevator pitch or simply spend some time talking to people. For the event itself, here are a few tips and tricks I gathered so far:
Don’t be shy! Best case scenario, you will see people all by themselves and you can approach them directly. However, there will always be groups of people having a discussion and you really want to talk to some of them. Don’t be afraid to join them. It could be out of your comfort zone, however this is something normal for networking events. And let me tell you a secret: "More often than not, some people from the group are waiting for newcomers in order to give them a way out of the discussion."
Always talk about future steps! After each conversation, try to prepare a follow up already. Exchange business cards or social media profiles, schedule a call or a meeting, or simply conclude that you will continue the discussion on email. Talking about future steps is also a good way to finish a discussion that is getting awkwardly long.
Use each other's networks! Maybe the person you talked to can’t help you. Ask if they know someone that might help you and get a contact. Don’t forget, the same goes the other way around.
Use smoke breaks or invite someone for a drink if you target private conversations. This is usually a code for “Let’s have a private talk!”.
Your right hand should always be ready for handshakes. If drinks are involved, hold them in your left hand in order to keep the other one warm and dry.
After the event
The first 48 hours after an event are crucial for contacting whoever sparked your interest. Depending on what you agreed on in the “next steps” stage of your conversation, send some emails, add them on social media or even call directly.
While the number of networking opportunities increases, it gets harder to turn them into valuable experiences. Networking is a skill we are not used to develop. It is more than just being able to chat with strangers, but the good news is that we can all learn it if we really want to. There are also mobile apps for events that make networking easier, but sometimes they happen to crash and they have limitations as well. I want to finish by sharing two more tips that became a mindset for me.
Each event, each conversation you have with a stranger has the potential to change your life.
Always be ready to introduce yourself and what you do in a catchy way, in maximum one minute.
Now that you know the secret behind being a successful entrepreneur, it’s time to go out there and make your dreams come true.