Business networking is one of the most effective ways for a startup founder to find mentors, investors, and even key executive candidates. The prospect of where and how to network, however, may seem daunting if you are an introvert, or if you have never networked before.
There are established protocols for the process of building business contacts, just like there are for building and maintaining other social relationships. Here are a few important steps to take:
- Get introductions from your existing contacts: Start with the people you know who can attest to the quality of your work so that they can recommend you to others. Their initial introduction may lead to other contacts that will pay dividends.
- Post your profile on LinkedIn, join Twitter, and engage in relevant discussions: There may be other networks that will also benefit you, depending on your circumstances and location, including sites such as Ryze, Plaxo, and Facebook. Others, such as MySpace, are not likely to help you.
- Join and participate in local networking groups: Business groups like TiE – The Indus Entrepreneurs and EO – Entrepreneurs Organization are places to meet people so that you can both offer and receive assistance. Remember it helps to build mutually beneficial relationships in the business community. In addition to business organizations, the local Chamber of Commerce offers networking resources as you begin the process.
- Volunteer to help out with entrepreneur activities at your local university: All universities love and need to get help from people with business experience for coaching and judging activities in their Entrepreneurship and MBA programs. Your investment in time may allow for you to meet or be connected to many people who can help you.
- Attend an investment conference: Conferences are full of potential investors who are actively soliciting new opportunities. Hand out your business card with confidence at breaks, lunches, mixers, or scheduled activities.
- Join a local investment group: If you can meet the SEC “accredited investor” criteria ($1M net worth or $200K annual income, although these standards will change with the recent passage of the JOBS Act), this is a great way for potential investors to view you as a peer. In addition, you will see how the process really works from a variety of perspectives, which will offer you the best preparation you could have for your own approach later. In most cases, these groups don’t require that you invest in others as a prerequisite for membership.
Many initial steps to building a professional network may seem self-evident but there are also several key things to avoid as well:
- Don’t do all of the talking. Networking is about listening and understanding other people’s needs. Think of how you can help the other person. You will get your chance.
- Avoid cold calls and email blasts of your resume and business plan to potential investors.
- Do not monopolize the time of an important investor at a social gathering or share too much information about your personal life.
- Don’t forget to follow through on your promises. If you tell somebody you’ll be in touch to schedule a meeting over coffee, or that you’ll introduce her to another person in your network who may be helpful, be sure to follow through.
- Don’t let your network grow cold. A business network is like friendships – you must constantly work at keeping your relationships warm.
Although networking may seem daunting to introverts, it also offers them a unique opportunity to focus more on listening than on talking. Most successful investors will probably remember you better if you are able to listen carefully and ask thoughtful questions of them. Nevertheless, it is important to have your elevator pitch honed so that you can talk about your business easily when asked. Enthusiasm and having fun are just as important as observing networking etiquette.