Networking isn’t so much ‘working a room’ to get something from people. It’s an opportunity to sincerely give and then, in doing so, receive.
I have never been a fan of the word networking. When I break down the word to “net” and “working”, an unflattering visual pops into my head: me wielding a giant, human-sized butterfly net, hoping to catch people I can gain something from. This image of me personifies the detested “matlabi woman”. What’s worse, walking up to a perfect stranger and asking for money, resources, a partnership, or an item that is important and has critical consequences is not easy for anyone. It’s awkward, intimidating, and nerve-racking no matter who you are or how successful you are. No wonder why so many women dread or dislike networking. I, in fact, love it!
Early on in my entrepreneurial career, I realized networking isn’t so much “working a room” to get something from people. It’s an opportunity to sincerely give and then, in doing so, receive. To me, networking is really creating a moment to connect with an individual and then expressing a value proposition beneficial to them. I don’t believe the point of connecting with someone is to simply ask them for something you need. It’s not about getting to know someone to ask them for what you want to get out of them. It’s very much about getting to know them first and then expressing a need that has a value for them. The subtle difference lies in intention but results in vastly different outcomes.
When you give your time to share your story, listen to another’s, listen to their needs, express your passions, your pursuits and results with honesty, a lot can happen. A quick pitch turns into a meaningful conversation, an “I can’t” diverts into a “let me see what I can do”, and the routine, blasé, “shoot me an email” turns into “let's grab a coffee tomorrow”. Giving, sharing, and listening doesn’t take hours; it takes seconds. If you’re an entrepreneur looking for investment, giving comes in the form of equity into your company. If you’re in sales, giving comes in the form of your product’s solution, which can truly make the potential customer’s life better, easier, or more efficient. If you’re seeking to gain someone’s time, give your first and prove you’re worth their time by asking, “how can I help you?” When looking to give something rather than take something, it takes the pressure off and removes the awkward tension that comes with asking famous strangers for help. It shows self-respect and screams ‘I’m unique, I’m sincere and I’m worth your time’.
Travelling the world as a professional tennis player, raising money for my TV show The Real Deal, and growing our company Indi.com has afforded me opportunities to organise, emcee, speak at, and attend major to tiny conferences. Moreover, my job as an entrepreneur is to be seeking opportunities non-stop on every physical and digital medium. Based on my experience, I’ve put together a list of my best practices for networking and hope they can help you.
Some people have a misguided understanding that a deal or a partnership will happen during the first conversation. It’s been known to happen, but the chances are slim. Keep in mind that you are having a first encounter and networking is about building relationships. Do make the first conversation count. However, your entire life story or every detail about your work doesn’t need to be shared. Keep it short, intriguing, and sincere so the conversation can continue at a later date with interest.
In some settings, for example, a conference, the names of attendees or speakers are listed in advance. Identify the individuals you are keen to meet and learn about them. Understand their organisation’s needs, their roles, and see if you have friends or interests in common. Knowing and including someone’s needs into your conversation helps you make an appealing offer and leaves a lasting impression. Additionally, your mutual interests are great starting points to have a friendly conversation and also serve as points the person can remember you by.
Not all individuals you network with are able to directly support you. However, their friends or colleagues may be able to. So, don’t walk away, ask for an intro! Offer to send an “intro request” email so the person simply has to send your email along to the person you want to connect with.
On several occasions in conferences, I’ve seen arrogant individuals push past or blatantly ignore people who don’t seem to serve them any immediate value or fulfil any of their current needs. Often, the people who are pushed aside are entrepreneurs or people in need themselves. They may appear to not have what you need today but never push past them, share your time with them too! Those in the same boat as you are your allies, your potential partners, and one day even potential competition. Their experience, resources, and personal Rolodex can be of great value to you today or one day soon. What’s more, always mind your manners because I’ve seen entrepreneurs make the fatal error of rudely ditching or ignoring the spouses and family members of the very investor they wanted to meet!
It seems obvious, but I’ve seen people trying to pitch to an investor without even making eye contact. Sometimes their eyes are darting around the room in the middle of their pitch. What’s worse, as they are pitching to one investor, another investor walks by, and the entrepreneur completely dumps the first investor mid-sentence to chase the second one s/he was truly after! Investors have feelings too and they talk to each other. Not only is that rude but it speaks volumes of the entrepreneur’s character and how s/he may be running the company.
I’ve seen panellists, investors and high-profile individuals do something I call a “cringe and dump”. Shoving your card or demanding a person’s card is a sure way to make them cringe and dump your card. Waiting your turn, asking “how are you?”, introducing yourself and politely requesting a card and offering yours in return, shows class and piques a person’s interest. It makes them want to help you more.
A platform worth over $26 billion called LinkedIn was built with the precise objective to connect people for professional purposes. However, access can be limited and not everyone checks their inbox. For the ones who do, it’s important to have basic etiquette and profile hygiene for a higher chance of a reply.
The achiever’s lifestyle is that of constant hustle. If you’re waiting for an event or a get-together to meet the people you need to meet, you’re too late. Plane, trains, traffic, long queues, parties, and coffee shops are wonderful opportunities to strike up a conversation as you never know who you will meet. If you put your story, your vision, or your need out there enough, luck finds a way into your life.
Case in point, last month I stole a quick workout between meetings and jumped on an important call with my colleagues in the women’s locker room. A woman behind me heard my conversation and said, “You sound like a woman who gets work done. I can hear it in your voice.” I smiled back saying, “Thank you, I try.” She got very interested in my work and we struck up a conversation and met for coffee the next week. Interestingly, she’s an avid tennis player and I offered to play tennis with her. The following week we met for lunch and as fate would have it, she knows the exact venture capitalist I was trying to get a hold of and she offered me an introduction. You literally never know who you will meet and what you will receive when you give. Make giving a habit so networking becomes a delightful stroll in the garden with no butterfly net in tow.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)