What is ‘networking’ for businesses – how would you describe it?
Effective Networking is all about meeting, liaising and mixing with people that can ultimately help you achieve your business objectives. Whether face to face or through online media, business networking is interpersonal and involves building trust and relationships between relevant contacts.
What are the most significant networking opportunities on offer to Irish businesses currently (groups/online forums/other etc)?
There have never been so many opportunities for business networking as there are now. Whether it is a structured “Business Networking Event” or an informal gathering of businesspeople, opportunities exist every day in every county in Ireland to network. County Enterprise Boards, Chambers of Commerce, trade bodies and business associations frequently run business networking events that are highly focused on bringing businesspeople together for mutual benefit. Enterprise Boards in particular have networks that are geared at specific needs, for start-ups and for smaller businesses. Women in Business Networks are run locally in many of the Enterprise Board areas around the country and the biggest national Women in Business Networking event (“NWED”) is held in October/November each year.
Some networks such as “BNI” (Business Networks international) have a sharp “sales” and direct referrals focus. Others have learning or management development or mutual cooperation as their core goals. In other words, they are geared at trying to help owner/managers to network effectively, to build their contact base and to collaborate on local or mutual initiatives or business opportunities.
The proliferation of online and social media networking continues to provide vast opportunities for building contacts and exploiting promotional opportunities at virtually zero cost. Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in etc. have immeasurably changed the way we interact with each other in business. In the last 12 months in Fingal Enterprise Board, it has consistently been the topic of most interest to small businesses and we cannot run enough programmes to keep up with the demand for information on how to exploit social media for businesses.
Why do you think networking is important for start-ups?
Networking provides an extremely cost-effective way of promoting yourself and your business. Advertising and other costly traditional promotional mechanisms can be a less efficient use of scarce resources for a start-up. Most start-up businesses struggle to get their name out there and certainly do not have ample resources necessary to mount a major promotional campaign, so they lose out to larger competitors when it comes to promoting their products and services. If you are not known and do not have a proven track record it can be an uphill battle to build credibility amongst prospective customers. However, through face to face networking and (increasingly) online networking, even the small early-stage business can build a massive profile that enables them to punch well above their weight.
By getting out there and networking with the right people, an owner/manager of a small start-up can exploit opportunities that they would not otherwise even be aware of. They can build confidence among potential clients and promote themselves in a unique way
What are the major mistakes business owners make when it comes to networking?
Not asking the right questions: Whilst building the personal relationship is extremely important, it is easy to miss opportunities by getting caught up chatting about social or economic or sporting topics without getting to the beef of how this person could be useful for you!
Focusing on the wrong people and on the tyre-kickers. Avoid time-wasters like the plague! If someone is clearly wasting your time, find an excuse to get away and politely move on.
Effective networking is not about ensuring that you give equal time to everyone at a business function and press the flesh with everyone in the room. Some people feel the urge to whiz around to everyone at a networking function throwing business cards around like confetti. It is far more effective to focus on those around you who you feel will be a useful contact or will help you or your business.
Not being alert to opportunities that can sometimes present themselves entirely out of the blue.
Follow-up – ALWAYS follow up the valuable contacts that you make, and soon. Don’t sit back and wait for the prospective customer to contact you – send them an email or put a call into them within a couple of days, to keep you and your business on their radar. Also, if you have promised some help to someone, don’t ignore your responsibilities to follow through with it.
What is your advice to start-ups networking for the first time – golden rules / top tips etc
Move networking up your list of priorities and try to take time out to attend events where you can network regularly. Select the right events to go to. County Enterprise Boards all across the country organise regular business networking events that are geared specifically at new start-ups and the small business owner/manager. They can provide a great introduction to help new fledgling business owners to hone their networking skills.
Do your research before you go to a networking event. Try to find out who will be there. Will your competitors, customers, suppliers be attending. If it is a membership networking event, try to get hold of the list of members. If there are specific people you want to meet, then prioritise them and make sure you find your moment to introduce yourself.
Have your “elevator pitch” prepared in advance. Make sure that you can very easily communicate what you do and your key USPs (unique selling points), concisely, enthusiastically and positively.
Ensure you have plenty of business cards – it never ceases to amaze me how many people go along to a business networking event and yet forget to bring their business cards! And avoid the “500 for €5” variety of business card – invest in good quality cards, the cheap versions will convey a negative impression of you.
Move outside of your comfort zone. Some people are absolute naturals and need no encouragement to “work the room”. Others find it daunting and sometimes nerve-wracking to go to a business networking event and mix with people that they have not met before. But it is a learned skill and you need to push yourself to make contacts. Try to gain some benefit from everyone you meet.
Don’t be selfish – be a giver as well as a taker! It is tempting to focus solely on trying to sell yourself or find immediate customers. However, if you share information and go out of your way to help and assist others, you are effectively putting yourself into a powerful position as a valuable resource. This inevitably pays off in the long run, whereby those who are grateful for your help will want to return the favour.
Oisin Geoghegan is Chief Executive Officer at Fingal County Enterprise Board.