How to develop a knack for networking
As a startup founder, you’ve done everything right – you’ve validated your business idea, pitched your product or service at competitions, conducted extensive research into your key competitors and ideal customer profile; you might even have a go-to-market strategy in place that you’re ready to roll out.
It’s an exciting time for your company, to say the least, but if you and your team have been eating, sleeping and breathing your product or service, does anyone outside of your roster know what’s been cookin’ in the kitchen? Likely not.
Even if you are your own product expert – someone who has experienced the pain you are trying to solve first-hand – sometimes, to grow your business, it’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know.
When you’re growing your company, bringing other people, such as founders, innovators, potential investors, lawyers or consultants, into the conversation, for a much-needed fresh perspective can help accelerate your progress.
From startups to scale-ups, this is where networking functions play a critical role for professionals in all fields. They are the perfect opportunity to hone your skills, and meet like-minded individuals or potential mentors. It can also be a great way to practice your elevator pitch, hash out any ideas you’ve been working on, and provide your unique insights and approaches to another company’s idea or issue they have been experiencing.
Understandably, it can be difficult to justify taking an hour or two away from your work to mingle when you are hyper-focused on research and development, busy navigating a complex problem, applying for grants and completing funding applications, or you are simply introverted. But trust us, you could be putting your idea in front of the right people who will help elevate your company beyond its current state.
You might not grow, unless you go. Here’s how you can – and should – make the most of the next networking event near you:
Scour the Internet for the right event:
In the age of social media and the Internet, it’s hard to not hear about networking events if you’re subscribed to the right channels and know where to look. For tech startups, there is an abundance of resources across the Halifax Regional Municipality.
Do your research on associations that best reflect your interests and networking goals, then use your preferred platform – social media, a company website, newspaper listings – and mark your calendar. Aim to attend as many as possible, but once a month is a great place to start.
Volta hosts a number of networking functions, like Women in Tech Taking over the World events, Founder Socials, and much more. Our events are listed on Eventbrite, shared on social media and through our weekly events newsletter, as well as posted on our website, so keep an eye out.
Digital Nova Scotia, the Halifax Partnership, the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, the Halifax Social Network, as well as local branches of the Halifax Public Libraries and local universities, host regular networking events. Most are cross-posted on websites such as Eventbrite, Digital Nova Scotia, Ticket Atlantic or Meetup.com.
Prepare and Plan:
Before you register for a networking event, take a moment to assess your reasons for attending. Going in with a strong understanding of your intended outcomes better equips you to be successful, and make the most of your time.
In addition to your specific goals, aim to meet a minimum number of people with diverse backgrounds or experiences to see things differently and meet unique individuals who have as much to offer you, as you do them. You may come to learn how other organizations or sectors could integrate your product or service – opening up a whole new application for your business or idea.
Whether you’re hoping to meet a potential investor, future employee, or someone to mentor you throughout your journey, there are a few pieces you must have in place before you show up.
Research the location, dress code, who’s expected to attend, and dress the part. Keep your attire and overall presentation clean and conservative; an outfit that has pockets is ideal, so that you have somewhere to put business cards, a pen, or your phone. Free hands mean you can focus on what’s being said, so you can have real, meaningful conversations.
Be sure to have a pen, small notepad, and business cards with up-to-date information. Whatever you do, keep your phone in your pocket and avoid using it as a social crutch. But, be sure to bring it as a means of checking your calendar or adding a new colleague or mentor’s contact information (if, by chance, they don’t have business cards).
It is also extremely important that you update your online presence and portfolio. This is not to say that you will get all types of friend requests after the event, but it is human nature to dig in and see what someone is like outside of the professional realm. Clean it up, make it private, or do whatever works best for you.
Similarly, if you are attending networking events, it’s ideal to be part of a social network such as LinkedIn to keep your contacts and professional networks in one place; LinkedIn is slowly becoming the everyday professional’s Rolodex, to put names and faces to organization’s employee rosters and determine how to best contact them. Plus, there are online discussion groups that exist on LinkedIn, allowing for unique, industry-specific conversations or brainstorm sessions that help with professional development.
If you’re looking to grow your business, make sure your website or portfolio is a strong reflection of you and your company, successfully communicating your mission, value proposition, key features and more.
Finally, show up on time, prepare your elevator pitch, key talking points or questions you may have for others, and read up on current affairs so you can keep up with small talk. Most importantly, since you have established your goals for attending, come with your best foot forward.
Speaking of feet, wear footwear that is comfortable; it sounds silly, but if you’re thinking about how those heels are crunching your toes while you’re mid-conversation, you aren’t fully listening to what could be game-changing advice for your startup.
Be bold and approach others. That’s the first step in building meaningful relationships in the community. It can be tough to go to a new place where you don’t know anyone all by yourself, but for networking functions, this is the best way to maximize the opportunity. If you’re really shy, bring a friend or co-worker, but plan to divide and conquer. This is not the time or place to sit together and catch up.
Also, don’t be afraid to start out with small talk – yes, the dreaded weather conversation can be fine – but make sure that you get into the nitty-gritty. Share who you are, what you do and what brought you out to the event, then go from there.
Remember everyone should walk away feeling like their interactions have added some value, so remember to listen attentively, and don’t just scan the room for your next chat.
On the flip side, don’t get too caught up in one conversation. You’re there to meet more than one person or talk about one idea. Swap emails or phone numbers, and suggest meeting for coffee to continue the conversation at a later date; this way, you’ll both meet more people and can circle back at any time.
Probably the most obvious, and yet most important piece of advice to note, is that, these events are often focused around food and beverages. Be responsible about your consumption, because overdoing it won’t help your professional reputation. The best policy is to treat these events like you are at work.
As soon as you get home or back to the office, make notes on some of your key takeaways and who you learned the most from.
In the next few days, reach out to those people you connected with and thank them for their insights, listing specific examples, if possible, of ideas or concepts you hope to apply. Nurture that relationship and express an interest in staying in touch; perhaps ask to meet for coffee if you’d like to learn more from them. It could very easily turn into a mentor-mentee relationship – it’s up to you which role you play in the relationship.
Ideally, when your initial conversation ended, you swapped contact information and indicated that you would like to meet again and continue the conversation, be it in person or online.
However, it’s important to note that extending yourself in a professional capacity at a networking event can feel like you’ve made a friend. Regardless of the formal or informal nature of the networking event, it’s best to approach this relationship as strictly professional. After a few days, follow up on LinkedIn, phone or email – choose one and only one method – and ask to meet again at a specific day or time.
It may or may not – eventually – feel so formal with the person, but you’ll never know unless you follow up and grow your network – that is what it’s about after all.