I am new to the entrepreneur life and hence new to the networking approach needed when you work for yourself. I was not prepared for this! I didn’t know about all the choices open to me. There are groups of men and women, just women, business people, artist/creative groups, groups with all kinds of missions. There are MeetUp groups and groups of organizations. Some are expensive and some are free. At the core, they’re groups where people hope to meet other people with similar interests AND who can help them grow their business either through direct or indirect referrals. The bigger the network, the bigger the business growth is the message. That’s not the whole truth though. Quality wins over quantity, but that's just part of the truth.
So, here I am. Thanks to some recent health problems and too many long hours working, I find myself 20 pounds heavier than my healthy weight. That means my clothes don’t fit me anymore. I’m not willing to buy much new clothes because I know I’ll be back to ‘normal’ soon. Then I got plantar fasciitis which means I can’t exercise the way I want to (20 min a day on my feet limit!), so I wear the same dorky clothes over and over. Anyway, needless to say, I’m not my usual semi-confident self. That’s okay. I still go because I know most people are wrapped up in their own insecurities to judge me, but I'm still not feeling like myself.
Imagine this: you walk into a room filled with strangers who clearly know one another in search for a friendly face to help bring you into the periphery of what might one day become ‘your group.’ It sure doesn’t seem like ‘my’ group though. I remind myself that everyone feels a bit insecure no matter how self assured they come off. I remind myself that I can still turn and run. I remind myself that everyone in the group was new also unless they founded the group. I remind myself that I could be home in my comfy clothes in front of the computer working. I remind myself that there will be food and I paid to be there. I silently curse the mentor who told me that face to face networking is essential to my business.
I introduce myself over and over and practice that aged old ‘elevator speech.’ It’s not perfected because I only practiced in front of my mirror at home and that just felt silly. My brief intro to what I do is a bit challenging because yes, I’m a nurse, but I don’t practice clinically anymore. I’m a photographer, like so many of us out there but in a brief moment, it’s hard to talk about the kind of photography I do and most importantly, why I'm special. I forget to say that my years of nursing prepared me to be an intuitive and empathetic photographer with a great eye. I’m also writing a book about dementia but it’s not a downer or clinical book that they expect from a nurse-it’s the beautiful stories of love and devotion. So my intro of myself sounds like a litany of ‘yes, but…’ and others might wonder if I know what the heck I do. It doesn’t matter though, because they lose interest quickly and move on to someone else.
Then, a light in the darkness shines through! A friendly face who is eager to introduce me to someone else. I find myself intrigued with their stories and find that this is really the winning ticket of networking-20% me and 80% them. This says I’m interested and a good listener-both true. It says I’m not totally into myself which is also true. As a writer and photographer, I’m a story teller and that means the stories of others really do intrigue me.
It doesn’t take but one or two different networking meetings for me to walk in with my head high and a big smile-even in clothes that make me want to frown. This is me now and that’s okay. Nobody knew me before, but they’ll know me now and hopefully in the future. I introduce myself and quickly ask about whoever I might meet. I’ve got my intro speech more precise so I no longer sound like I don’t know what I’m doing, which was partially true of course. I find new people and help them feel welcomed like the wonderful people who found me.
In the last 6 months, I have visited many groups, but only stayed with a small handful. Not every group was for me and that’s perfectly alright.
How to Survive Networking
- Change your perspective. When you walk into the room be delighted and realize that you’re suddenly not alone. There are a room full of people who were also ‘new’ to the group.
- Ask about others. Ask open ended questions so you don’t find yourself in that dreaded empty space after you get a yes or not response. Ask about their business and what made them go into it.
- It’s okay to admit that it’s your first time but you are looking forward to meeting new people. It’s likely that whoever you are talking to will introduce you to someone else. BAM- you are not alone!
- It’s okay to be imperfect. This gives others permission to not be perfect-or to keep it real- to stop pretending to be perfect. Nobody is perfect after all. Anyone who knows me knows that I can be a little quiet, but I laugh really loud. I can’t help it. I rarely pass up dessert. Anyone feeling uncomfortable reaching for the sweet goodness that is usually part of a luncheon will feel a quiet sense of relief too!
- Get a name tag for yourself. Those paper name tags fall only after you try numerous times to keep their curling edges affixed.
- Networking is great, but realize that you are there to learn about what others do also. I like to go from the perspective of ‘how might I collaborate with this person.’ People may hire you or they may refer someone they know to you. In the end it’s not about how big your group is, it’s about the quality of those connections.
- Take the time to get to know people and let them get to know the real you. Be real. We can all see through someone who is not authentic. Life is too short to not keep it real.
- As painful as it is to be new, try different groups. Don’t let one group turn you off from networking groups. They’re not all going to be a good fit for you. Look for a group that you can be comfortable with and that would serve your business goals. I always ask myself, how will this serve me? I belong to one group that is more fun than helpful for my business (at least so far) but I’m sure the connections I’ve made have brightened my life. The next step is that they’ll help my business in some way.
- Don’t spread yourself too thin. Only you know how many groups you can be a member of. You know how much time you have for networking. Make them count. There are so many great things out there in chamber of commerce groups and MeetUp groups that you can stay really busy. They also typically cost something to belong. Choose wisely.
Smile and Have Fun!