muscle. They are joining local chambers of commerce, obtaining memberships in industry-specific organizations and associations, forming strategic partnerships and alliances with their entrepreneurial peers, and attending trade shows and business conferences such as the annual Black Enterprise/ Microsoft Entrepreneurs Conference held in May in Nashville, Tennessee. But how you go about creating that social interaction is key to landing the contracts, clients, financing opportunities, partnerships, and other things you’ll need to maintain and grow your business during lean times.
Networking is more than just passing out a bunch of business cards at an arbitrary meet-and-greet function in your neighborhood. It is a step-by-step process to building relationships. In the business world, networking is considered social capital. Spending yours successfully requires a plan, the proper place, advance preparation, and a little bit of patience. Here are the steps you should take to make networking work for you:
Determine your objective. Successful networking begins with setting goals for your business. Your objective might be to meet the CEO of a particular company. Maybe it’s to increase the ethnic diversity of the companies you would like to do business with. Perhaps it’s to pitch your products or services to a select group of buyers in a certain geographic area. Whatever your objective, you must clearly define it before starting the networking process. “A small business person who wants to strengthen their penetration in the marketplace through networking really has to define what they want to accomplish,” says Norm Dominguez, United States national director of Business Network International (BNI), a referral-based organization with 58,000 members in 15 countries. “[The small business person has] to ask themselves: ‘Do I want to make contact with X number of new people, or establish X number of new clients in a year?'”
Determining your objective will not only help you identify why you want to network, it will also help clarify where you should network. You don’t want to network among people who have no potential for growing your business. So ask yourself where you are most likely to find your target audience. Do they attend particular performances, recreational facilities, or other events? Are they members of certain business and professional associations or organizations?
Choose your location. Once you decide to build your business through networking, your next step is to identify what kinds of organizations, clubs, associations, conferences, and other events or places you think will help you achieve your goals. “We think it’s very important for people to establish themselves in what we call hard contact networks and soft contact networks,” Dominguez says. “A hard contact network is like BNI, where only one individual per industry classification is allowed in a chapter and they generate referrals for each other. A soft contact network can be a service organization, an association, or a club.”
There are many places where you can network. Look for organizations and events dedicated to business networking, such as business conferences. Regularly held by large organizations or companies, business conferences can give you access to thousands of