Networking is a crucial skill for any entrepreneur. But if a person has been building his network with getting the biggest stack of business cards in the state, that network can be useless. The key to creating a network you can rely on is building a useful network — making connections for specific reasons and finding people that will help you and you can help in return. There are a few connections in particular that you need to make, in order to get ahead.
Making these connections isn’t just a matter of seeking out people who you think can be useful to you. Building a network is just as much about helping out the people you connect with as it is finding solutions for your own problems. Furthermore, your efforts to connect with others will be far more enjoyable if you seek out people with whom you actually want to have some sort of relationship or friendship. It is possible to build up a network without a whole lot of sincerity, but it’s not worthwhile. In most communities, though, you can find your connections among people you actually like joining for coffee.
- Your competitors
It’s worthwhile to know your competitors as well as possible. Get their newsletters, pay attention to their advertising and go one step further — introduce yourself. Even competitors can do your business some good: if you’re on friendly terms, your competitor may just send customers your way if he or she is too busy. And, if a project comes up that you know your competitor would do well at, you can bring in their expertise. At a bare minimum, join the local professional association for your business and make some contacts among the other professionals in your area.
- The local media
These days, media can take many forms: newspapers, television, radio, blogs and more. But it’s worth making at least one or two contacts with members of the media that cover your niche. You’ll have a much easier time of getting a story in the news if you can attach a personal note explaining why you think that the story fits a reporter’s beat — many media members see this sort of help as a favor done to them. If you bring up industry-related stories, where your business isn’t the main focus, you’ll have a better chance of becoming your contact’s go-to-guy for quotes. It’s a long-term strategy, but sharing stories on a regular basis can get your business in the news far more often than even a perfectly crafted newsletter.
- A non-profit
Networking is, in part, about giving back. As an entrepreneur, it’s useful to have connections to local non-profits far beyond the tax break you’ll get for any donations you make. You’ll get word of sponsorship and PR opportunities far faster, learn about projects that might help your business along — and you may even have the chance to do something good for your community. A non-profit doesn’t have to be related to your industry, either: if you’re ready to do some good in your community, why not work on an issue you’re passionate about?
- A lawyer or two
Want the scoop on whether the lawyer handling your business is any good? Have another lawyer in town that you can ask. The same goes for other professions, as well. It’s hard to work with more than one lawyer at a time — and it’s often better to work with a lawyer who isn’t your best friend — but you can know quite a few, and you can keep close tabs on situations that may affect your business. Of course, you don’t want to spend every moment of a lunch pestering a friend for free legal advice, but it is okay to ask the occasional question.
- Local politicians
There isn’t a business in existence that is entirely exempt from local politics. From zoning to licensing, there’s sure to be an area or two in which local politics affects your business. It makes sense to meet the men and women making those decisions: if you do find yourself involved in a political issue, knowing the politicians mixed up in the same issue will at least ensure that your side is heard. Politicians’ influence isn’t the only reason to get involved in local politics, either. Your business is part of the community and that means you probably have some ideas on how your community should operate. Supporting like-minded politicians is a personal decision, but it can have some major ripple effects.
There’s nothing wrong with going to a networking event with a shopping list of sorts. After all, as an entrepreneur, there are certain people that are going to be better equipped to help you with your business than others. If you have a good idea of who you want to meet — and why — you’ll have a better ROI on every networking event you go to. You can get the introductions out of the way quickly and get down to building a relationship with your new contacts. You may even find yourself on the must-meet list of other entrepreneurs when you attend networking opportunities. You don’t have to limit yourself to events, though: if you’ve heard about someone interesting in your area, there’s nothing mercenary about setting out to meet them. Invite them out to lunch, arrange an introduction through a third party — it’s worth taking a few extra steps to see how you can help a new connection (or maybe even how they can help you).
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