Regardless of the marketability of the product or the talent of the team, there is no way around the age old practice of networking for the entrepreneur. The advantages of networking are numerous, and the outcomes of persistent networking can be customer discovery, an effective word-of-mouth campaign, a portal to potential investors, a reservoir of insights and knowledge, or simply a social outlet. Of course, there are many other positives, yet many entrepreneurs find networking to be a buzzword as mysterious as the inner workings of the Sun and as pleasurable as a root canal, sans Novocain. Even if an entrepreneur has the epiphany to add a team member to do all the networking (aka “the marketing guy”), which is itself a spurious goal, how is that same entrepreneur expected to find such a team member without making connections and spreading their story? Simply put, it is often unlikely that such a person is already known. With that little reality check, this article will highlight some tools that can ease even the most reluctant entrepreneur toward the goal of having and benefitting from a strong network.
NETWORKING SITES AND THE NET
The most obvious networking tool in this silicon age are the networking websites. These sites can be very specific to a market sector, company, research institution, or research topic. However, they all function in a very similar way with a similar purpose, which is to let someone enjoy the benefits of networking virtually with others from nearly anywhere. Of course, Facebook (FB) is the 800 pound gorilla of these groups. Yet, for business purposes, LinkedIn seems to have a grip on the commerce community. That is not to discount the utility of FB in a business world. Yet, many people, do not like to mix contacts through work with the more social contacts on FB for several obvious reasons. Overall, these virtual networking sites provide a forum for communication with those people with whom you have some sort of personal relationship. In contrast, there are some nuances to LinkedIn that are effective for “targeted networking” with those people who you may have never known. In this context, targeted networking involves searching for a certain type of professional in a certain type of field or simply a specific individual with whom you may or may NOT have a prior relationship. To facilitate a connection to this potential relationship, LinkedIn displays the name of your personal “link” to the object of your search. This means that a researcher who has developed a cold-tolerant orange tree may have a 1st level colleague who is connected directly to the president of the Alaska Commercial Fishing and Agriculture Bank. Failing to resist the obvious pun, that researcher now has a “lukewarm” lead to promote his cool idea to a key individual through the mutually warm contact of his colleague. Undoubtedly, it is well known that a warm lead is better than a cold one. Naturally, the researcher can reach out to his colleague and ask them to either pass along information to or facilitate some sort of contact with the bank president.
To expand on the idea of targeted networking, there is a way to use LinkedIn as a facilitator of sorts for contacts you may find OUTSIDE of LinkedIn. The internet is rich with access to those who are directors of companies, non-profits, trusts, and organizations. A LinkedIn search alone may provide you with some leads, but a diligent Google (Yahoo, Bing, etc) search casts a wider net. Consider the GMO citrus example from above. From an internet search, the researcher finds the group “Seed Fund for Cold-Tolerant Seeds (SFCTS)” which has a board of directors listed in the “About Us” page. This is a good source for a cold lead, but, by searching those fund members on LinkedIn, the researcher may find a lukewarm connection similar to the previous example. Specifically, from an innovation standpoint, there is a wealth of contacts in the databases of the Small Business Innovation Research program. For example, www.sbir.gov and other sites can help identify potential partners or customers by searching for previous awards. These are not just contacts, but they are contacts who have been funded by a very rigorous SBA administered program. This process can be applied to other grants and contests that publish the names of previous awardees, such as NC Idea, Charlotte Venture Challenge, etc. Again, searching for these potential contacts in LinkedIn will likely produce a more solid connection than a cold call.
Speaking of solid connections, there is seldom a more solid connection than a face-to-face meeting and eventual colleagueship or friendship. While it is possible to strike up a conversation with an eager investor or million-dollar client while chewing on a hotdog at a ballgame, it will most likely be a connection of a connection that leads to the opportunity to make your elevator pitch. Going everywhere and meeting everyone is a possibility. However, that is simply neither practical nor desirable for most, so efficiently locating key people who run in key circles is a necessity. Luckily, there are some good outlets that make the process quite efficient. For example, Meetup.com combines virtual networking with traditional techniques. Meetup is a nationwide site that focuses on local networking opportunities for both social and professional interests. In lieu of virtual meetings, Meetup provides an online forum to register for, comment on, and ultimately attend in-person functions that are often quite interesting and may or may not be sector specific. From a more traditional perspective, other organizations, such as co-working spaces and entrepreneurial support entities, will have functions that include pitch presentations, lunch-and-learns, and short seminars. These learning events are a great way to connect with others in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Finally, local chambers of commerce are a very effective way to expand your network. Whether it be through sitting on a committee or simply attending events, activities of chambers and other general business organizations expose the entrepreneur to a wide variety of business-minded people from LLCs to multi-national entities.
While there is no substitute for “pressing the flesh”, networking in today’s business environment includes techniques and tools that would have been foreign those who first made networking popular. However, what has not and will likely never change is the importance of getting to know people to benefit from their knowledge and to meet others with more knowledge and more contacts. In the end, it may be members of your network who simply provide a smile and a distraction from the stresses of running a business, and that is a pretty valuable minimum result.
– Christopher L Veal