If the thought of going to a networking event gives you hives, you're not alone.
Networking events can be THE WORST, especially if you're an introvert like me - and like a lot of creative business owners I know.
And as networking events go, I've been to a lot of bad ones. Rooms full of slimy dudes in ill-fitting suits, grinning wide as they clasp your hand in their sweaty palms. Loud sports bars where groups of people hawking various MLM products try to get you to sign up to be a "coach." Awkward affairs where you don't connect with anyone there and think, "Can I just go home now?"
I went to a bunch of these crap events when I started my business, thinking that the more I "put myself out there," the more successful I'd be. I pushed myself to go to events where I'd never, ever want to work with anyone there, hoping that it might result in something good. That is, I finally had an awakening that if I was going to network even though I hated it, I needed to do it my way.
It's Possible to Successfully Network as an Introvert
When writing this blog post, I spoke to a former professor of mine, networking expert Robbie Samuels. Robbie is a speaker, consultant, the host of the On the Schmooze podcast, and the bestselling author of "Croissants vs. Bagels: Strategic, Effective, and Inclusive Networking at Conferences."
When I took Robbie's community organizing class in college, a requirement was to go to multiple networking events over the course of the semester. "Is this a sick joke?" I thought, as I read the syllabus in horror. However, this was an early lesson in finding your tribe (we'll talk more about that a little later, too). Robbie taught us that you don't need to go to cheeseball events - use sites like Meetup.com to find people with whom you relate. Into Harry Potter? Cool. Go to that Harry Potter coffee meetup - you'll find cool people, build relationships with them, and expand your network that way.
I asked Robbie for some tips on networking for introverts.
"Being strategic and having a strong sense of purpose will help introverts focus their energy during networking events and achieve their goals in as little as an hour. Before going to an event ask yourself a series of questions: Why this event? Who do I want to meet? What inspiration am I looking for? What am I able to offer? By asking these questions you'll have clarity about the goals you have for this particular event and that may help you get more excited about the possibilities. Draft a follow-up email before going to the event and you'll be much more likely to actually follow up, which is, after all, the purpose of going to networking events. Do this every time you are considering going to an event or conference and you will have stopped wasting time networking and started to build great relationships."
(P.S. Make sure to check out Robbie's book - it's SUPER helpful for networking at conferences!)
Business Success Lies in the Relationships You Build- and Networking Helps Build Relationships
When building a successful business, relationships are key to getting new clients and projects. Think of your business like a web - the more connections you make, the more those genuine connections will open you up to other people who might help you, or other people whom you might be able to help. When you think, "Do I havvveeeeee to do this?" - the answer is yes, but you can make it suck less.
Networking is a Two-Way Street
If you go into this thinking only about yourself, you're not going to be successful. You need to think of networking and relationship-building as a two-way street. When you walk into a room thinking only of pitching YOUR business to everyone there, you're gonna come across as an asshole.
If you think of this process less as "How can I get money out of all these people," it ain't gonna work, my friend. If you think of it more as building a relationship with others, you're going to expand your network, build your web of resources, and maybe even make some amazing friendships and partnerships.
For example, I'm a member of my local Rising Tide Society group. Our awesome chapter members hire each other ALL THE TIME. We also reach out to each other for referrals, support, and coffee dates. If I went into this group with an attitude of, "What can YOU do for ME?" I would have missed out on so many friendships and relationships. I've gotten clients from this group, but also have hired so many of these amazing business owners myself. When you build genuine relationships, your business will expand and grow along with them.
Building Relationships Takes Time
Yeah, it would be pretty awesome if you walk into a networking event and people throw cash at you, dying to hire you that second. But it's probably not going to happen that way. Just like with any relationship, you need to put time and effort into it.
If you find someone you connect with, follow her on Instagram and comment on her posts in a genuine way. Meet up for coffee - not to pitch your services, but to get to know each other. Build these relationships like you would a friendship, not like this person is a target for you to make money from.
Don't be Sales-y
Try your best not to be sales-y. Yes, you want to build your business, but I promise you that if you build genuine relationships, the clients will come. Don't fake people out by trying to be their friend, only to do the hard sell when they fall into your trap. This might work in some circles, but in the creative business owner world, people are super sensitive to the fake-nice-comments-that-turn-into-a-sales-pitch.
In my generation, this is especially an issue with MLM sellers. You'll get a Facebook message from a random acquaintance, who'll say something nice to you. When you respond in kind, they'll almost immediately try to get you to join their "team" to sell lipstick/leggings/protein shakes/face cream/the flavor of the week. It leaves you feeling taken advantage of and exploited.
When people do this, it's like they're trying to fast-track the relationship-building process and jump straight into the sales pitch. Like, "If I tell her one nice thing, that's enough relationship building and I can immediately try to jump into selling something in the next sentence." That's not how it works, and I doubt that this hard-sell technique is very effective. Most people are savvy enough to know they're getting the hard sell, and are resistant to this pushy kind of bullshit.
Find Your Tribe
If you're at a crap networking event full of people you'd never in a million years want to work with, you're in the wrong place. Don't waste your time connecting with people you wouldn't want to get coffee with afterwards.
For me, finding my chapter of The Rising Tide Society was a life-changer. We talk about business, but no one is ever trying to "sell" you something. We're there to make friends, drink coffee, talk #bizproblems, and laugh like crazy. And guess what - not only have I made amazing friends, but my business has grown through the connections I've made.
Make Sure to Follow Up
After a networking event, I go through the business cards I've collected when I get home. Business cards of creepers go in the trash. General business cards go in a drawer. I save the ones of the people I really liked. The next day, I connect with these people on LinkedIn and send a brief follow up email. Nothing pitchy or spammy - just, "Hi Jane! I loved meeting you last night at the Young Professionals mixer. Your story about that project was so funny! I just wanted to reach out to give you my info, and if you ever wanna grab a coffee, let me know."
Network on Social Media
Don't forget networking on social media! If you're on Instagram a lot, this is fairly easy. Follow the people with whom you want to network. Like their posts, and leave meaningful comments (not just "Love it!" or something, which comes across as spammy).
I hope that after reading this post, you're a little less fearful about the prospect of building your network. Just think of that room of strangers as biz besties you haven't met yet. Love networking? Hate networking? Have a hilarious awful networking story? Tell me about it!