Networking 101: How to build up your connections to grow your business
A healthy network of business contacts counts as one of your greatest assets. It can help you find new business, generate fresh ideas and put you in contact with financial partners, suppliers and advisors. It can also establish your company’s place in your industry.
And the benefits compound—each new person in your network brings along their own network.
But networking takes perseverance. Researching potential network members, getting out there and shaking hands and making conversation, following up with potential partners and seeing how both of your businesses can complement one another, takes a lot of time and effort.
It can be especially difficult for those from various minority communities whose members might feel out of place at certain networking events.
But the payoff of having an extensive network of talented colleagues, customers and even competitors to call on is worth the personal challenges that come with meeting new people—people who may eventually be part of a network that can help your business thrive.
How do you find your network?
The question you might be asking yourself is “Where do I start?”
For Nadine El Saddi, BDC’s Regional manager, Quebec and the Atlantic, Client Diversity, a good starting point for entrepreneurs is the local chamber of commerce.
El Saddi says simply joining your industry’s association may not expose you to a diverse enough membership. In her role at BDC, she keeps in touch with various industries that focus on new projects and finds that chambers of commerce offer her a wide variety of professionals. “I want to be surrounded by accountants, lawyers, notaries, heads of construction companies and, yes, other bankers.”
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has a useful directory that can help you find your local chamber of commerce or industry board.
Alex Bertok, Regional Manager, Client Diversity, Ontario, suggests you begin by searching for the type of gatherings where you feel most comfortable.
“I always liked attending LGBTQ2+ events,” he says, referring to work he did prior to his time at BDC when he was expanding his network. “I felt seen and heard there. It felt more genuine and there were a lot of allies in those rooms.”
Attending your particular community’s events can give you a leg up over colleagues who seek out more mainstream events, says Bertok. “Sometimes you need to go into the rooms that other folks aren’t in because it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond.”
If you’re an innovator whose ideas may have not yet caught fire with your peers, finding others who also feel like outsiders is important. “As a disruptor, you also need to find those from your ‘village,’” Bertok says.
That’s where social media platforms like LinkedIn or other online resources can come in, he says. They can help you find groups of people who are doing similar things.
The BDC publishes a series of guides and other resources on its Woman Entrepreneur page. Also, the Canada Business Benefits finder app can help narrow down your search by entrepreneur background and industry.
For El Saddi, finding your network also begins by defining your ideal partners, so that you can target events that they frequent. Ask yourself what your professional needs are at that moment, she suggests, and then match them with a network.
Once you meet that contact, understanding their place in an industry is vital, she adds. “Are they close to a competitor or are they close to a potential partner? Is this a business that is going to help you seal a deal?”
Online vs. in-person networking
Networking online is very different from in-person, offering certain advantages but also bringing with it certain disadvantages.
Advantages of online networking
El Saddi says online networking can benefit the introvert and that there are certain types of events where those who are uncomfortable talking over drinks are not at a disadvantage, such as certain online educational conferences.
“They can get to so many people who are uneasy with in-person networking showing up and getting a good glimpse of the network.”
Other ways online platforms can help you network
- find and advertise events through platforms like Eventbrite or Facebook
- track down very specific types of groups and subgroups
- drill down into very specific types of events
- create a schedule of events to attend
Social media and websites also help you become more of a known entity, with your content becoming a virtual business card and resumé. This allows potential partners to research you online. Before having met you, they might have earlier seen that you attended the same event they did or they read some news on your product—which can help break the ice.
Disadvantages of online networking
For El Saddi, there is no comparison between the quality of the relationship you can build when you’re in person, as opposed to online.
Her contacts with her long-time Atlantic Canada colleagues were enhanced when she met them in person. “Relationships I built completely changed once I went there and had lunch or met in their office.”
She says meeting people in person completely changes the perspective. “You can’t build allies and networks if you stay at your desk.”
Bertok agrees “Virtual events are great, but they're not the be-all and end-all to forging meaningful relationships. If you're trying to grow your business, it’s hard to do that from behind a screen. It’s easy to make a connection on LinkedIn but it’s hard to build a relationship out of those connections.”
He says if you’re an entrepreneur and you want to build a network you need to meet people in person. “Hit the pavement, go to events, and find your cluster and ecosystem.”
The biggest disadvantage he sees in online networking is the energy it takes to keep someone interested. “You have to bring 200% of yourself virtually to translate a 100% of the emotion that you're feeling.”
How to network at events
Attending events, such as conferences, workshops, industry seminars and meet-and-greets, will help build your network. But for many, these events bring with them a certain amount of fear.
“It's not easy to walk into a big event space, especially if you're attending alone,” Bertok says.
El Saddi agrees that entering a room full of strangers is difficult—but it’s something, she says, that you just need to push through.
“When you shut yourself off, you’re missing out on opportunities.”
For those who find it difficult to approach people at an event, El Saddi suggests looking at these situations for what they really are. “You’re all there to meet new people. You're not going into a restaurant and asking two people if you can sit down with them.”
Bartok lays out key things to keep in mind when attending an in-person networking event.
- Know why you're there.
- Be as curious about others as you would want them to be about you.
- Understand the person beyond just their business.
- Actively listen and be present in those conversations.
How to start a conversation at a networking event
Attending a networking event often means having to break the ice. You may want to look at having a few stock phrases on hand, like the ones below, that can help get a conversation flowing.
- What business or industry are you in?
- What do you enjoy most about it?
- How did you get into it?
- Who are you looking to connect with today?
- Tell me about your ideal client.
- What projects are you working on right now?
- What’s your biggest challenge these days?
- What do you like most about what you do?
- What type of clients are you looking for?
Networking event dos and don’ts
Since a good first impression can develop into a lasting business connection, there are a few important things to keep in mind on how to approach people at a networking event.
Making connections at networking events
El Saddi says networking is not about gathering a lot of contacts, but developing the right grouping of people, ones to whom you can give and who will give to you. “You need to look for quality and not quantity.”
Bertok says that seeking a connection is more than just assessing whether someone is a good fit for your networking group: making that lasting connection is all about generosity.
“Approach an event with a sense of giving,” he says. “Generosity is key and it’s how you’re going to set yourself apart.”
You can offer a service, connect them with someone you know or share useful information.
Bertok says that generosity will boomerang—most people will recognize the value of what you’ve offered and want to give something back.
And while some people may not return the favour, that too becomes a way to see whose interests align with yours.
“It has to be mutually beneficial.”
Find the connectors
Finding the right people means finding the people who know those people, namely the connectors. Companies do not always send their decision makers to big events like trade shows, notes El Saddi. “Knowing who you're talking to is key.”
Bertok agrees: “Sometimes it's not the front door, but the window or the backdoor that gets you in.”
Know that networking takes time
“You're not going to get a slam dunk for your business development opportunity every time you go out; there are going be hits and there are going to be misses,” Bartok says.
“If this is someone who has the keys to unlock a large business relationship, then you have to be patient.”
El Saddi echoes this: “Meeting someone for five minutes is not going to bring you referrals, but regularly showing up to similar events will give you more exposure.”
Tips to grow your network
- Look for networking opportunities. Research groups and associations before joining.
- Attend an event as a guest before becoming a member.
- Attend meetings regularly—people need to know your commitment is sincere.
- Keep in touch with contacts and send business news updates.
- Don’t spend too much time with people you know.
- Set a goal for yourself, like meeting three or four new people at an event.
- Write notes after the event, recording the names of people you met, where they work and what you discussed.
- Choose whom you want to follow up with and then reach out to them.
How to follow up after a networking event
The follow-up is a crucial part of networking. You’ll want to keep up the momentum from your initial connection.
“It’s important that within 24 to 48 hours you do that follow-up,” says Bertok. “It could be to say how lovely it was to meet them or to inquire about the connection they said they would make for you with another person.”
That kind of follow-up will help get you to the next stage, says El Saddi, who lists a few tips for following up with a connection.
- Add them to your LinkedIn or any other social network.
- If you have a newsletter, put them on it.
- Check back with them in six months.
- Always try to have the next meeting set up.
El Saddi adds that the follow-up phase includes continually assessing whether they are the right person to help your business. She says to be aware of red flags—perhaps they promised you something that they did not deliver. “You can’t waste your time. You need to know when to leave the table.”
That kind of following up, assessing and nurturing will help you eventually build the right network, one that is dependable and varied, and will help you take your business forward.
Discover how to set measurable targets for your business, create an action plan and ensure you have the capabilities to succeed by downloading BDC’s free guide, The Foundations of Strategic Planning.