Thursday, 07 March 2019
From LinkedIn to business events, we’re better connected than ever before – yet many SME owners dread networking. Here’s our guide to making the most of your little black book.
Networking can be stressful, and keeping track of a pile of business cards may seem like a big task, but making the most of contacts is invaluable for entrepreneurs.
Anna Brightman, co-founder of sustainable skincare brand UpCircle Beauty, realised how important networking would be to her business after spending a weekend trying to persuade skincare experts that it was a good idea to rub used coffee grounds on to their cheeks.
“I was treading water, trying to sound as clued up as I could, but this was a new sector for me,” says Brightman.
Brightman knew that it was only by attending trade shows and mingling with industry professionals that she’d start making the contacts she needed to grow the business. “I knew I had to find a way to beat my fear of public speaking and start networking,” she says.
Like Brightman, many business owners feel they should improve their networking skills. But with so many avenues available – from global sites like LinkedIn to regional networks on Enterprise Nation – managing all these contacts can feel overwhelming.
Life coach Carole Ann Rice recommends putting personal systems in place to handle these connections. For visually oriented people, this could be as simple as having a noticeboard displaying business cards, grouped according to function or even added to a timeline (or future timeline) for the business.
Others might prefer using a spreadsheet or Word document – just be sure to keep it updated regularly. “Add all the details of people who are on your dream team, too – those you’ve met and connected with or are just inspired by that you wish to work with one day,” says Rice.
By keeping a modernised version of the little black book, it should become easier to track who you’ve met and how that person might fit into your business one day – and then it’s a question of maintaining the relationship.
“Ask them if they’d like to join your newsletter database and keep in touch via social media,” suggests Rice. “Then make yourself useful by sending any information that’s relevant or useful to their business. You can also introduce them to your contacts and invite them to future business events you’re going to.
“It’s all about maintaining the connection.”
Developing personal networks has been an essential part of growing the business for Briony Rawle, co-founder of the London Funeral Singers, an agency that’s been providing high-quality funeral music since 2015. As a result of Rawle and her business partner, Penelope Shipley, using their contact lists, the agency now has more than 100 singers on its books.
“It started with just the two of us singing at funerals. But we’re both actors and had networks of performers, and lots of them could also sing,” says Rawle. “So we thought instead of us trying to cover all the work, we’d use our contacts to find the best person for the job.”
By ‘mining’ people they knew, the founders grew the business over a short space of time. But that’s not to say it’s been easy: asking contacts to support a new business – even if you’re providing work – is still a big ask. To allay any concerns, Rawle provided the singers with information about potential jobs upfront, before they needed to ask, and learned that the website should look polished and professional from the very start.
“We’ve always tried to prioritise work to the people who helped us in the beginning. We have loyalty to them; they were with us from the start”
“More and more people Google a business straight away,” says Rawle. “I’d recommend any small business spends money on their online presence and gets a web designer in. Lots of people comment on how professional the website looks and that gives them reassurance. It puts people’s minds at rest.”
In the beginning, Rawle and Shipley had little budget for promotional photography, so called in favours from the first flush of talented singers on their books. “We’ve always remembered that and tried to prioritise work to the people who helped us in the beginning,” says Rawle. “We have loyalty to them; they were with us from the start.”
In their early days of networking, Brightman and her co-founder, her brother, William, “wasted so many opportunities” by not making detailed notes on the business cards they collected. “We’d go home with 300 email addresses, really pleased with ourselves, but had no idea who any of them were.”
Now the entrepreneur always notes down what was discussed and a few personal details about the person. “That way, when I get in touch, I can make it specific to them. Adding that personal touch is something we let slide in the early days.”
“It doesn’t have to be the same day, but a well-timed call or email the following day will serve you well,” advises PR professional Holly Pither, who writes about the trials and tribulations of returning to work on her ‘mummy blog’ PitterPatterPither. “And make sure the follow-up is personal, ideally mentioning something you had in common or something you discussed when you met.”
Finding ways to keep a contact fresh when there’s no immediate opportunity to work together can be a challenge, so Brightman looks for creative marketing opportunities, such as guest blog posts and social media collaborations.
“We quite often meet people doing similar things but in a different area,” she says. “I don’t know how we can work together yet, but I do want to stay in touch, so I might suggest they contribute to our sustainability blog, or I might write a post for them. It gives us a richer tapestry of content to put out, too, which is great.”