If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d gladly pay to spend a weekend networking in a field, I would have laughed at you. Last month though, that’s exactly what I did.
I packed up my family and we set up home in a yurt as part of a micro business retreat. It was a combination of networking, workshops and family time with a focus on getting our businesses ready for the second part of the year. In our downtime, we sang campfire songs, toasted marshmallows, and even squeezed in some Pilates.
I enjoy networking now, but there was a time when I’d rather sit in a corner checking my emails than start a conversation. It’s only since starting my own business that I’ve appreciated the power of getting to know people and building a network.
It’s helped me get my business known and trusted, it’s helped me meet new clients, learn from people I simply wouldn’t have met otherwise and it’s even led to PR opportunities. I’ve also learnt that networking can just be a really nice way to spend some time connecting with people, rather than being something I have to do for work.
I love to meet people but I’ve always thought of myself as being much better one-on-one than in a room full of people. I’ve had to learn to love networking and some simple strategies and rules have made me get the most out of each event.
Network in groups you like
Knowing my networking days were numbered, I spent my heavily pregnant spring attending every networking group I’d ever heard of. I went to a very busy breakfast networking, I went to evening drinks to trial an exclusive membership group, I took my daughter to a networking group with other mums, and I went along to talks and technical updates with networking built into the agenda.
The most important thing to consider when choosing any networking event is whether it’s going to get you in front of your ideal client, but if you want to love networking, you need to enjoy spending time with the people in that room too. I’ve chosen a couple of networking groups which have great communities which I really enjoy being a part of.
Keep showing up
I know which groups are important for the business. Which ones are important strategically because they help me build the business. I also know which groups are important because they’re full of my ideal clients, so I make a point of consistently showing up to those.
You get to know the regulars. This is helpful if you want to see some friendly faces, but it also means it’s easy to spot the new faces and make sure you connect with those people.
I've found that being consistent in these groups has made me the go-to person if anybody needs a bookkeeper, and we also get lots of referral work through our name being mentioned by contacts we’ve never even worked for in other groups, simply because we’ve built a reputation.
Find a wingman
It always pays to hang out with the people in the room who know everyone. They can make introductions or tell you who they think you’d be interested in meeting, saving you having to work it out for yourself. If I’m going to an event for the first time, I like to get there early because the organiser will often have a bit of time on their hands before the rush, meaning they can introduce me to a few people in the room and get some conversations started.
Join online groups
With two young children, I can’t get out much at the moment, but I can be present online. Most networking groups do something on social media and I’m a member of plenty of Facebook groups. It means I can remind people I’m here without seeing them face-to-face and often Facebook groups are the best sources of referrals. I recently spoke to a new lead who’d asked for recommendations and I’d been tagged four or five times in the thread.
My experiment in the spring showed me how easy it would be for networking to become my whole job, distracting me from what I really need to be doing.
The point of networking is to meet the right people, make connections and follow up. I find it helps me get the most out of any event if I go along with a handful of targets, to find three new leads or to set up a meeting with a specific person I know will be attending, for example. As a competitive person, that keeps me off of my phone, and if I can’t hit those targets then I know that isn’t an event worth going to again.
Networking for me is about meeting the right people and following up. Connections I’ve made have become friends, a support network and advocates of my business. What better group of people to hang out with in a field for a weekend?