AFRICANGLOBE – “Network! Network! Network!” is the mantra of modern times but how does shaking hands turn into growth and opportunity for your fledgling business? There is so much more to effective business networking than attending events and handing out business cards. “Networking is important for all businesses in general and small business in particular. Why? Your connections and relationships with the ‘right’ people will help you to grow your business and expand your sphere of influence,” says Karl Smith, founder of Business Networking South Africa.
Networking might be the buzz word of the online generation but it is not new to the business scene. It has been happening in various forms in the real world since modern humans first co-operated for mutual benefit. “Networking is building mutually beneficial relationships,” says Smith. “A successful connection requires a mutual understanding from the start that it is about ‘what I can do for you’ as much as it is about ‘what you can do for me’.”
Brenda Els of BBN Business Networking agrees. “When you create valuable networking relationships, you build them on a foundation of mutual trust, sharing knowledge, experiences and resources to help grow your businesses by either referring or doing business directly with each other. You promote your network, and your network promotes you,” she says. “Effective business networking is the linking together of individuals who, through trust and relationship building, become walking, talking advertisements for one another.”
According to Vongai Mudzamba of the Zimbabwe Entrepreneur Zone, business networking services (online or real world) and events give members opportunities to share their industry knowledge and meet people who have the potential to become clients or investors. They also give members the chance to promote their business or product, generate referrals, get advice, raise their profile, increase their confidence, and grow and learn.
Mudzamba is a member of the organising team of Start Something 2013, an event for existing and aspiring entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe, planned for 18 July in Harare. “It is amazing what you can learn from the speakers and from other participants at networking events,” she says. “Networking opens actual business opportunities. Just as iron sharpens iron, networking provides entrepreneurs with an opportunity to be ‘sharpened’ intellectually by other entrepreneurs.”
All this learning and sharing serves one purpose: to grow your business. Els suggests a streamlined definition, that “the purpose of business networking is to increase business awareness and revenue – one way or another”. She says: “The thickening of the bottom line can be immediately apparent, as in gaining a new client, or it can develop over time, such as in learning a new business skill.”
Tapping Into the Right Network
Joining a regional, national or international business association will give you quick access to a ready-built network. There are general, regional and national groups or international groups with country chapters, for example, BNI (bni.com) and also groups with a distinct demographic in mind, like businesswomen, such as the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa (bwasa.co.za), or the Canadian and African Business Women’s Alliance (caabwa.com). If you studied in your industry, joining the alumni network of your university or college is also a great place to start.
If you are unsure of your networking skills or think you could benefit from the skills of a professional networker or networking coach, there are many to be found online. Be sure to ask about their individual focus and services before you sign on the dotted line. “BBN focuses on small and medium enterprises (SMEs), but because the value of networking is so critical for any business, we have CEOs, corporates, one-owner businesses and just about all sorts joining us,” says Els.
Making it Work for You
Signing up with an organisation isn’t enough, you need to make it work for you. Adding the affiliation to your CV won’t create business or knowledge. The experts all agree – attend the social and learning events, contribute to discussion, work the room, but make sure you aren’t trying to ‘hard sell’ all the time. “You do not want to be shoving your business cards into people’s pockets,” says Mudzamba. “At the same time, you don’t want to be that unconfident one, mumbling softly when people approach you. You have to strike a balance between the two extremes. Be friendly and open to hearing about the other person’s business as well. Ask questions and be genuine. If you care about the other person’s ideas, they will find it easier to care about your ideas.”
Networking Master Class
Following up and creating business from your network is how you distinguish yourself as a networking maven and not just a wannabe. A simple email thanking someone for their time is enough but you could take it further. Is this someone you really connected with? Can they create work for you or even point you in the right direction? Then, suggests Smith, follow up with a meeting request.
Mudzamba agrees, adding that in order to be effective you need to think beyond the event itself. She says: “Make sure you follow up. Get the business cards from your connections and call or email them within a week of the event. Do not be limited to the obvious channels, try LinkedIn as well. Do what you need to do to keep the ball rolling. Networking is a skill of sort that you have to constantly work on in order to be effective. There more you network, the better you become at it.”