Time for networking’ is a phrase that, much like ‘Say a few words’ or ‘It’s more of a comment than a question’, can lead some hearts to sink. To many owners of small businesses, it conjures up images of a room full of strangers with their backs turned.
“The first time I went to a networking event after I became self-employed, I left after five minutes,” admits Jacqueline Rogers, founder of the Athena Network. “It can be very intimidating, especially if you’re new to it.”
While that might strike a chord with many small business owners, sole traders and the self-employed, most would also admit that the job can be lonely, that inspiration is sometimes in short supply and that finding new customers after initial launch can be difficult and draining. That’s where networking can be a really useful tool for
growing your business.
For Chris Manka, the initial impetus to attend an FSB networking morning was to break the isolation of running his own business. “Being sat in a box room, you want to get out and see someone,” he says. “I went along to an FSB event and met people facing similar challenges to me. What I found worked for me was that it turned into a social outlet and a really useful way to find things out, get ideas and get signposted to other opportunities.”
One of those other opportunities led to Mr Manka’s current venture – a training and development company called Exporteurs that aims to help regional businesses get into exporting – after he was introduced to Philip Braunstein at an event.
“We met for a coffee with no agenda,” he recalls. “I was trying to get companies engaged in exporting and Philip was similarly inclined and knew other people who were in the same space. We put together a business to help people develop their own bespoke export strategy.”
As well as meeting new business partners, he says attending FSB networking helped in other ways.
“It’s great that they throw in some education, whether it’s using LinkedIn or Making Tax Digital – things that everyone faces but might need help from specialists on. And that helps break the ice: you can turn to the person next to you and say, ‘I never knew that’.”
There’s no doubt that networking with new people does fill some with dread. “We’ve all been there: stuck in a corner with someone trying to sell you something and being unable to escape,” says Ms Rogers.
“I was so frustrated by the events I was attending and I said to my coach, ‘if it was me I would do this and this’. And that’s where the idea of setting up my own network came from.”
She admits it didn’t happen overnight, but by 2005 Ms Rogers had set up the Athena Network, a female-only group that now runs events across the UK. Not bad for someone who had to be dragged to meet her peers at first. “I had the usual misconceptions. I hadn’t realised that networking wasn’t about selling but about building relationships over time.”
Mr Manka also believes networking requires a different skillset. “You have to be able to explain what you do quickly,” he says. “I’ve got a lot better. I was appalled by the thought of networking, and very nervous of it. But that’s changed so much now and I think that’s down to getting more involved with it. Knowing I’ll see people I know helps a lot, too.”
Ms Rogers reminds her clients of one simple rule: “Never attend a networking event without having at least three clear objectives. They will usually be: drum up new clients; enjoy yourself and have fun; and engage with new people. So prepare – think about what to wear and what you want to achieve, and hone your pitch.”
Getting that pitch right matters. Most of us dislike the hard sell, so it’s crucial to focus on explaining what you do in an engaging and clear way. Sue Tonks, founder of Synergy Consulting and Training, has been coaching her clients in networking skills for a decade. She agrees that failing to properly prepare for networking can often leave you feeling frustrated and deflated.
“It’s not just about meeting people, but about those people you do meet being able to understand what you do,” she says. “If your pitch is right then they should be able to explain it to a friend – so keep it simple and direct. It’s at the follow-up meeting that you can start to do business, not at the networking event itself.”
So what does a good pitch sound like? Ms Tonks says she likes to start with the phrase ‘You know when…’. “That creates the context,” she says. “So you could say, ‘You know when you need to upgrade your marketing software, well I help businesses do that by…’. That helps them to understand in simple terms what you do. And if they know that then they can easily explain it to others, and your message starts to spread.”
When the message has caught on, and you have begun to build a network by attending events, that’s when the work starts. “This is a long-term process – you can’t just do one event and expect it to pay off,” Ms Tonks says. “You need to nurture your network, so stay in touch, use social media and follow up on things.”
Having a reliable network can fulfil other roles, too. “I often think of my network as my board of directors,” says Mr Rogers. “They are the people I can talk to, bounce ideas off, test out theories and help support me. It’s a great resource – and it’s free.”
For more information on FSB Networking visit www.fsb.org.uk/benefits/support/regional-networking-events