By Ed McLaughlin and Wyn Lydecker
As the owner of a small business, you are responsible for the basic care and feeding of your business, but there’s another vital element at play. You need to reach out and increase your business network in order for your business to grow and develop.
A recent Knowledge@Wharton article, Making Entrepreneurship Contagious, speaks of the value of networking and the lifeline it provides for growth. The authors, Linda Rottenberg and Chris Bierly, show how the right community can nurture and positively impact your business. “We have groundbreaking evidence that the most vibrant entrepreneurship is developed by high-impact entrepreneurs when they operate in tight-knit networks, nurturing fellow risk-takers and trading know-how, capital and tough love.” Rottenberg and Bierly write about the value of building a “local ecosystem” that includes role models, mentors, and investors.
Here are 4 steps you can take to build your professional ecosystem:
1. Spread the Word
Start with word of mouth. This grassroots approach still has value because it encourages you to start with the people you already know: your customers, your suppliers, and the people in your everyday social circle. Don’t underestimate the chance encounter on the street, at the store, at lunch or some other social event. These ordinary encounters can become serendipitous business opportunities.
For the likely question, “What are you doing now?” or “So, what do you do?” have your 30-second elevator pitch ready to succinctly communicate the need your business serves and why it does so better than anyone else. This will pique interest in the conversation rather than make your new or old acquaintances regret they asked.
2. Join a Professional Community (2 Tips)
Choose a professional group that functions as a source of continuing education. Groups with programs such as a Speakers Forum will keep you abreast of the trends in your market, the best practices in the industry, your competition and allies, and the ever-changing marketing platforms of social media. You may even offer to speak on your area of expertise.
Within this context of learning, you will socialize and make business contacts. Here’s how to start:
A. LinkedIn is a very effective online social media platform that you can use as a tool for also finding offline meetings. Find a LinkedIn group with your common interests. Once you find one or more groups that share your professional interests, join the groups and engage with the groups’ online postings. If the group manager allows you to post questions, inquire about professional networking groups.
You can search for contacts in close proximity to where you live. Go to the homepage of one of your groups and click on “Search,” which appears just under the name of the group. Then on the left sidebar, enter the name of the main city near your hometown into the search bar. Local members in the group should populate on the page. You can invite these people to connect via a “friend” invitation or a LinkedIn “inmail” message. Once you are connected, ask your local connections about professional networking groups in your area.
B. Find a Meetup. Meetup is an online social networking portal that facilitates offline group meeting in various localities around the world. Enter your zip code and begin your search for meetups with people that share your common interests.
You will find that Meetup unites people of many interests, social as well as professional. If you don’t find what you are looking for, it also allows you to start a Meetup group. The nice thing about Meetup is that the website/app spreads the word about the type of group you’d like to form, its meeting time and place, and the topic that will be covered. You just wait to see if anyone RSVPs to attend, and you can build the group from there.
3. Get to Know Your Customers’ Connections
One obvious way to build your network is to optimize the connections of your sales people. If you are a very small operation, you may have one salesperson, and this may be you!
A salesperson is the front window to your business, and he or she should already have the soft skills to find new contacts, engage with them, and bring them in the door through completed sales. At this point, you have an opportunity to follow up with your customers with great customer service. You can get to know them and ask them for referrals. Then you have the opportunity to start the process all over again.
Your customers can be the bridge to other clients and to many other professionals in your industry, such as investors, consultants, and mentors.
4. Take it One Step at a Time
One of my uncles had a favorite quote by Lao Tzu: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Don’t be overwhelmed with the effort ahead of you. Build your network one step and one person at a time.
Ed McLaughlin is currently co-writing the book, The Purpose Is Profit: The Truth about Starting and Building Your Own Business, with Wyn Lydecker.
Copyright © 2015 by Ed McLaughlin All rights reserved.