Networking for UK Small Business Part I – Find Your Network
Business networking is certainly nothing new but the recent explosion of networking opportunities fuelled by social media can make the proposition of entering the networking frey a confusing and ultimately time-consuming activity for business owners wanting to make new contacts and grow their businesses.
In the next part we will look at the various different people you could come across at any networking event. In this first part, I describe the different types of networking groups, how they operate and how you can determine which one(s) are right for you and your business.
The number one thing to remember before you even enter the networking event room is YOU CAN DO THIS! OK, it’s not the most comfortable or easy step to walk into a room of strangers and introduce yourself but really, be prepared, take a deep breath and do it. You will be glad you did. Just a note for the over-confident too – don’t go into a new group all guns blazing either – you’ll just come over as a bit of a wally!
So how to choose a group or event to attend? Firstly, ask some of your business contacts if they go to any, but a search online for ‘business networking near me’ should return plenty of results for you to investigate. From this list of search results, the networking opportunities offered will most likely fall into one of these types of groups:
Highly Organised, High Commitment
Otherwise known as strong contact networking groups these are not for the faint-hearted but beginners are very welcome. If you can make the time and financial commitments, these groups can be highly beneficial. Make no mistake though, they are extremely strict and not to be entered into lightly. Probably the largest, most well known and prolific organisation in the UK and worldwide of this type is BNI. See https://www.bni.co.uk/ This is a highly professional network with a lock-out policy so if there is someone with the same business as you in a local group already, you will be locked out until they leave. If this is the case and you want to join BNI, see if there are any local BNI sub-groups or think if you can present your business in a different niche or focus. Always check on their website who is in the group you are thinking of joining to see if you need to tweak your presentation or if space is open. Expect to commit to a breakfast meeting at 6:30am once every week and around £900 a year plus a cost per meeting for your breakfast. I have not met one member of BNI who has not been delighted with the results and know of people still getting referrals years after they have left. Members are tasked with bringing in new members so they are very open to visitors and will usually allow you to attend as a visitor twice before making a decision whether to join.
4N is another UK networking organisation based on a similar structure but that isn’t so demanding or strict. They similarly offer 2 free visits before requiring a commitment so it is worth going to see what sort of businesses belong in your area. https://www.4networking.biz/
Also see http://www.business-network.co.uk/
Highly Organised, Low Commitment
There are some big networking opportunities to be found with organisations such as your local and county-based Chambers of Commerce. They can attract large, professional audiences and you can often attend for a charge, without being a member. Some events are members only but Chamber of Commerce membership costs significantly less than the bigger networking companies for the small business owner and they run a wide selection of events. See http://www.britishchambers.org.uk/
The Federation of Small Business also run a wide selection of business networking events nationwide. From very formal to more casual, social events there is a lot to choose from and sometimes the opportunity to attend without being a member. FSB membership is very affordable for the small business individual and comes with a whole host of benefits over and above their networking opportunities. See http://www.fsb.org.uk/
Special Interest Networking Groups
This may not necessarily be what you expect – it’s not the interest of or the actual businesses in the group – it’s usually what the group is organised around.
For example, Network My Club is organised around sports venues but members come from all corners of business. You can pay to attend Network My Club networking events without being a member, although their membership packages have some unusually attractive benefits! Look around your area, where are business people likely to be found? They probably have a networking group! See http://www.networkmyclub.co.uk/
Some charities hold occasional networking events too, think out of the box and you will probably find a useful networking group in there somewhere.
Another example is simply geographical area – Gatwick Diamond Business have done a great job of this: http://www.gatwickdiamondbusiness.com/
Another interesting group is Business Biscotti which is essentially setup by members wherever they want a club see https://www.businessbiscotti.co.uk/
Of course, there are specialist networks, one of the most prevalent being those for women in business such as The Athena Network https://theathenanetwork.com/ and for online only, The Talented Ladies Club https://www.talentedladiesclub.com/ who have a fantastic Facebook based networking and support group. https://www.mumpreneursnetworkingclub.co.uk/ is also especially good for parents starting out in business and open to all, not only women or mums!
Professional and Trade Associations
All the groups so far have really focused on people to sell yourself and your business to. Spending time with professional and trade associations is more about raising your profile, being ‘in the know’ and meeting people who may help or recommend you to others. It’s an invaluable part of networking and shouldn’t be overlooked. Mingling with your competition can arm you with information you wouldn’t otherwise have so do hang out with them occasionally!
Online and Social Media
There are a lot of new places to promote your business and network online. In the case of social media, a huge proportion of this is little more than businesses posting their advertisements into a page or group but in fairness, it’s not easy to start a really good online networking group. LinkedIn groups used to be quite active but seem to have dropped off in popularity recently. Many so-called Business Networking Groups on Facebook are connected to someone selling their training and products so if you find a good one, embrace it by adding your views, advice and comments. Answering questions is a great way to improve your profile. In a good online group giving a little can return a lot. As mentioned above the Talented Ladies Business Club on Facebook is fantastic, but there are lots out there – just type business network into Facebook, scroll through the results and join any that look good or especially relevant to you.
With ‘live’ options now available, online networking is getting nearer to face-to-face networking than ever before and some groups have live webinar sessions where you all connect up at a pre-arranged time and connect via webcams.
Both 4N and the FSB have free online only mini-memberships.
Also have a look on Meetup for local individually organised events, coffee meetings etc – Meetup is growing at a very rapid rate and there are more events appearing there on a daily basis – you may find a coffee shop full of your target audience around the corner! See https://www.meetup.com
Speed networking! I completely recommend this for all business networkers, especially if you are new to the experience. It’s a bit of a baptism of fire but the great thing is you will have no time to be nervous or feel like a spare part! You will also master your super-fast networking pitch to perfection. Expect to speak to 100 or more fellow business people in a morning session so a bottle of water and business cards at the ready and GO!
Local enterprise centers and business hubs – See what is available locally, go and speak to the people there and see what opportunities are available.
You will need ……
Business cards and/or flyers (and plenty of them) are a must for any networking event. Unless you know you are presenting you don’t really need any indepth business materials with you. A prop can be useful to keep your hand occupied – something relevant to your business, so if you have an example, drawings or similar do take those along.
If possible, get the attendee list before the event. They are usually available the evening before. This helps you pinpoint contacts you want to make. Check anything attendees are asked to bring along or fill in before the event.
Wear something with pockets – preferably two – one for contacts cards and one for yours, or a cross-body handbag works well for this. The key is to deal with cards efficiently without getting in a knot whilst holding a coffee in one hand and balancing a biscuit or sandwich on the saucer.
If taking a larger bag, use one that sets down on the floor or table without falling over – you’ll only waste valuable time fiddling with it!
Dress smartly, appropriate for your profession but also comfortably, you could be on your feet for a while.
Make sure your business social media profiles are up to scratch – no point putting in the time and effort to meet people face to face, only to be let down online. There is something of an apres-event connecting culture, especially on LinkedIn so make sure you are on there, up to date and looking good!
So, find some places, groups and events and next we will look at who you may find there.
Stay tuned for parts 2 through to 4 to see you right through your networking journey!
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