Networking intentionally can transform your small business into something greater. General networking events, industry-specific events, and events you know possible connections might attend present tremendous opportunities for your small business. Even if socializing isn’t one of your primary skills, intentional networking offers great potential contacts for your business with little social pressure. Put simply — successful small business owners seek connections.
My name is Haleema Shafeek, president and founder of GOFS: an interior design firm with a sustainable focus. My networking methods have landed me work with The EPA, NASA and The US Army Corps of Engineers. In my years of service in the army, I learned the importance of reconnaissance. Here are some of my tips for smarter networking through recon for small businesses.
Know who will be at the event: research key figures and those connected to them.
If you have an opportunity to attend an event, do your research beforehand. Know who’s going to be there. Know who the people are who you want to talk to. A treasure trove of business information is available publicly, deliberately. Use it to your advantage. Sometimes the guest list is available publicly. If not, email the event contact and ask for a list of attendees.
At every event I attend, I make a list of the organizations and people I want to meet with. I already know what they are buying — I look at their fiscal reports. You don’t need to know the COO’s cats’ names, but doing reconnaissance on businesses and their leaders is a worthwhile pursuit. Try finding your potential contact’s profile on LinkedIn and look at their previous positions, education and organizations they follow. If you have a contact or interest in common, note that.
When I go to events, even if the person I needed to talk to isn’t there, I make sure to share my information with someone from the company so they can connect me with that person. This is a smart move for two reasons. Not only will you pass your information along to the person you want to speak with, but you’ll also make another contact within the company. This new connection could yield fruitful results immediately or may help you down the road if they get promoted or change jobs.
Look around you.
Most importantly, when you find yourself standing in line to talk to that key person, talk to the people around you — that’s how I’ve met a lot of business partners. The people around you may be the people you’re looking for, not the person you’re waiting in line to talk to.
Flexibility is crucial in networking. You never know who might be able to help you next. Make sure to talk to those around you, even if they don’t appear to be in a position to be your next client or partner.
If you can introduce them to someone helpful to them, do. This is not only a kind practice — it’s a crucial part of networking. Business dynamics change constantly, and someone you help today may help you tomorrow.
Organize and strategize.
I put all the business cards I get together and organize them in a notebook just for that event. That notebook contains information about who I want to talk to, why, what their fiscal goals are, and how we are aligned to provide solutions for them.
Create easily accessible and searchable records, either physically or digitally. Customer relationship management software can help you keep track of what you learn and whom you meet. Something you learn at this event may be helpful four or five years down the line, so keeping clear and detailed records is critical. Even seemingly trivial bits of conversation could prove useful later. For instance, if you find out a new contact loves antiquing, learning new languages, or attending local hockey games, write it down — and bring it up in your next conversation. Even if you have nothing in common, showing you remember personal details is a great way to show a contact you’ve paid attention and care about what they say.
Follow up and don’t give up.
I think everyone knows it’s rare to get that big opportunity on your first phone call or email. I make sure to keep track of how many times I’ve contacted a potential customer or partner and if you can’t follow up, have someone on your team who can.
People are busy. Even if you haven’t heard back for a long time after contact, chances are you aren’t being ignored. Persistence and patience are essential here. Get into the habit of following up at regular intervals. Don’t bombard them with emails but don’t give up after a week or two — or eight. Find a balance for reaching out that you feel shows dedication without annoying your contact. Ask your contact when their best time to connect is to be respectful of their schedule.
Keep an eye out for events and an open mind to new connections. From the smallest businesses to government organizations, your contacts can shape your business and determine your future. Consistent, intentional networking and good recon will give your business an edge over the competition, and it might be the thing that elevates your business beyond your current vision.
I shared these tips at ECDI’s Big Insight: Small Business, a roundtable discussion with wisdom from successful small business owners. If you’d like to learn creative ways for your business to adapt and thrive, give it a watch.
This mutli-part sponsored series highlighting ECDI’s work in Columbus is presented with paid support by ECDI.
Since 2004, ECDI has assisted Ohio’s entrepreneurs through its one-stop shop business services model, suited to meet the needs of all entrepreneurs, regardless of what business stage they’re in. From providing capital to entrepreneurs looking to expand their businesses, to providing focused, business-specific educational opportunities to enhance entrepreneurial skill sets, ECDI works with their clients to meet their unique needs. Whether assisting a new client with a business concept or an accomplished entrepreneur opening a fifth location, ECDI’s “never say no” approach has allowed over twelve thousand entrepreneurs to take advantage of the services it provides. Visit ecdi.org today to learn