30/10/2014

BLOG: The Pitfalls of Networking

Just over a decade ago I had a degree in fashion and textiles, no agency experience, no clients and absolutely zero business training. I was basically the person that Dragons Den would have shouted out the room with some combination of the words ‘joke’, ‘delusional’ and ‘nice girl but…’

Still, start a business I did. My partner and I pooled some money into a bank account, rented a tiny office, designed an identity, cobbled together a brochure and then called everyone we knew. Amazingly, some of those people actually gave us work and our little agency was born.

Soon after this we hired our first designer and while those wonderful friends gave us a little bit more work it wasn’t enough to sustain three people, in fact it wasn’t enough to support one. In our first year as agency owners we earned virtually nothing, about £5,000 on my part. We needed to generate new business and so we needed to sell.

Cripes, I had no experience in selling and after the mates route had no idea where to start. Our friends advised local networking events but I had never heard of them. Apparently, they were gatherings of business people talking business. The thought of going into a room full of strangers and talking about myself scared the living daylight out of me, but there was no choice; we needed new clients and so I had to give it a go.

I imagined myself breezing in, heads turning with a ‘who is this interesting looking person’ expression on people’s faces. I thought I’d give a short introduction, answer a few questions and, hey presto, I’d have these business people practically begging for my business card.

As you might imagine this wasn’t the case. In fact, it turned out to be a horrible, toe-curling experience. What I actually found was a room full of stereotypically suited men. They all looked the same and they all seemed to know each other: photocopier salesmen, accountants and a whole array of (what seemed to me at the time) old, grey, boring, overweight men whom I had nothing in common with.

Naturally, l left empty handed and without any of my ridiculous hopes being realised. While perhaps my memories are worse than the event actually was, it shocked me into the realisation that my networking efforts needed a rethink.

My problem is that I had always been shy when it came to discussing myself, and as our company felt like an extension of me, it was something I needed to overcome. Once I realised that it was only my own insecurities that were holding me back, that the people I met generally wanted to hear my story, things got easier. Someone once asked me ‘why do you hide your light under a bushel?’, which is a really old fashioned term, but for whatever reason it stuck and I realised that no one benefited from shyness disguised as modesty.

One of the most important things I discovered was that my challenge wasn’t networking itself but with finding the right people. The fundamental change to my approach was to stop thinking ‘what’s in it for me?’ and instead ask ‘what can I do for others?’ This isn’t limited to formal networking events, indeed life itself is a networking event, and offering help with no obvious gains for yourself will ultimately come back and reward you. Maybe not from the sources you would imagine, but in my experiences you get back what you put in to a community.

People now tell me I’m a great networker. I’m still no fan of ‘business networking’ events and tend to find them a tad stuffy, but they have their place and as such have to be included in the mix of business development activities. Still, don’t expect to arrive and create a stir; networking requires investment and patience before you build rapports.

Now I’m in a position where I’ve stopped thinking of networking as something confined to your working life and learnt to be open discussing what I do wherever I am. I’m in it for the long game, and happy to have finally figured out how to make networking work for me.


SALAD

While other agencies dub themselves trendycreatives, the Salad team are open about their ‘geeky nerdism’ and for their honesty have won clients including Salomon andTigre D’or.

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