One piece of advice I got early and often as a new entrepreneur: Get out and network!
Networking, it appeared, was the secret sauce to growing my business.
For this post, I looked back at my Outlook calendar to 2009. We were actively marketing in Huntsville at the time, trying to move our business from the commercial sector in Birmingham to the government contracting sector in Huntsville. In that one week, I attended:
- A 2-day defense industry small-business networking conference.
- A lunch for a local women’s business council.
- The Chamber of Commerce mixer.
- A ground-breaking ceremony.
- A two-hour breakfast at the local small business symposium.
Including travel, I spent over 28 hours that week networking. And I ate too many rubber chickens.
Did my company get any work out of these efforts? I would argue none.
I’m not saying that these organizations and events have no value. I’m saying that those 28 hours could have been better spent working on my business.
For example, here is a rough recollection of one of my conversations that week:
Him: I’m Fred, of ABC Travel. We specialize in getting busy business executives from point A to point B in the least amount of time. What do you do? (Fred was practicing his elevator pitch).
Me: I’m Sue, and I own Trident Technologies. We’re a defense contractor. (I didn’t have an elevator pitch yet).
Him: Oh? For the Army?
Me: We’re trying. (We didn’t actually have any contracts yet).
Him: You must travel a lot. Here’s my card, with my direct number. Call me anytime you need travel services.
We swapped cards. Fred moved onto the next victim.
Now, Fred may have made a contact that week (or not, I never called Fred, though I continued to see him at every small business event I went to that year). But my business? Nada. Zip.
Because I was trying to attend every networking event around, I found myself networking to the wrong target.
But 78% of entrepreneurs say networking is vital.
In a recent Forbes article, contributor Federico Guerrini states: “For 78% of Startups, Networking is Vital To Entrepreneurial Success”. He cited a study published by The Economist where the only 78% statistic actually read: “78% agree: ‘The informal environment will be important or very important to their business over the next three years’.”
The Economist article goes on to discuss several ways that startups reported use networking to help them in the early days, including mentors and targeted peer groups:
“…similar questions are posed to peers in informal settings, such as those organized in London by 3beards, where founders demo their products and group feedback in monthly gatherings.”
Certainly, if a group like 3beards existed in my town when we were a startup, I would have gone to those meetings religiously.
Startups need targeted, focused, micro-networking.
In 2009, my networking efforts were analogous to throwing biscuits against the wall to see what sticks. It was part of what I call startup thrash, when a new business owner tries to, and often has to, do everything and anything to get the business name out there. Back then, it was not an effective use of time.
Jennifer Miller, a contributor to Entrepreneur, agrees in her article “Want to Get Better at Networking? Think Smaller.” Her story of entrepreneur Sol Orwell’s networking efforts in 2008 mirrored my own in 2009. Now, he networks with monthly dinners of six to twelve fellow entrepreneurs and a weekly casual conversation in his local coffee shop.
I wish I had thought of the dinner thing myself.
Marty Zwilling further illustrates this concept in his Startup Professional Musings blog:
“Don’t waste your time networking with strangers. Start networking smarter and smaller. Invite key people for coffee or lunch one-on-one, and get to know them and their business. Aim first and foremost to make them a friend, and the connections to others will come naturally. Working the circuit of big groups of strangers is minimally productive.” (Full post)
Conclusion: Un-targeted networking can be a major time suck for a startup. I recommend micro-networking, starting small with groups that either fundamentally understand your business sphere or other entrepreneurs who are or have been in the same place you are. You’ll get more out of the time and energy you invest. And, you can avoid a lot of rubber chickens.