Be yourself and be nice to people
“Starting a business is a test of character.” This is the strapline of a random advert I saw recently. I’m not sure if I agree with this statement or not, and it is also not really relevant to this blog, other than to provide an eye-catching intro. But it got me thinking about what – after roughly one year of running my own business – going freelance has meant for me. And that’s when I came up with a slightly modified strapline: For me, starting a business has been a test of #network strength.
The other prompt for this blog came from a recent client, who was preparing an induction session for their student interns. “What advice would you give students about networking?” they asked me. I never considered myself a “great networker”, yet on the other hand, my network has really come through strongly for me in the past 12 months. As I thought about what networking really means to me, the answer became suddenly clear. In essence, it boiled down to “be yourself and be nice to people”.
And so, this blog is about #networking. More precisely, it’s a very personal view of what I have discovered works for me, not a “how to” guide. If someone else finds any of it useful, then that would be a great added bonus.
I always thought I didn’t like networking. I’m quite sociable, outgoing and friendly, but I don’t have the knack of striking up a conversation with strangers on the spot. I have been to a few networking events where I felt quite uncomfortable and out-of-place because I couldn’t find common ground with other attendees. On one occasion I was joining a colleague at an event. As I entered the room, I spotted them speaking to another person, and I politely edged my way into the conversation to get me started. After a few minutes, the other person turned to me and said, “You don’t want to be here, do you?”
I was offended. I thought something unpleasant, laughed the remark off, and politely excused myself after sticking it out for a few more minutes, just to prove them wrong. I circled the room and got into a conversation with another attendee. It was nice enough, but we both felt that we had nothing in common professionally and struggled to keep the conversation going, so it fizzled out and I went in hunt for the buffet.
On the other hand, I have been to some events where I felt very comfortable. They were either lunchtime meetings, where we sat in smaller groups during the main speaker event and lunch, which gave us the opportunity to get into relaxed conversations that could meander around until we found common ground.
Or they were meetings were everyone gave a short elevator pitch about their business in a large round, which made it much easier later as we could all make targeted approaches and avoid awkward moments as described above.
So, in hindsight, self-conscious as that remark made me feel, it was also spot-on: I didn’t want to be there. Of course, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the way the event was organised, or with the people attending. It just wasn’t the right event for me, and I would like to add “at that time”. I have learned to be much more selective about what type of meeting I attend, and to put less pressure on me about the outcome. I’m not saying there is a “right” or “wrong” way to network, only that I have better success when I attend meetings that work for me, rather than trying to tie myself into knots in an environment that makes me uncomfortable.
I have also been incredibly fortunate. Since I went freelance, I have not had a single job or client that didn’t come to me through my existing network. I don’t think that this is a reason to become in any way complacent, but it has made me realise how strong my network actually is.
I have not really “worked” on it, either – not in a business sense anyway. I try to keep in touch with people who are important to me, even though it gets patchy sometimes or I lose sight of someone without wanting to. But that’s true for other people, too. We’re all busy. So I do the best I can, try to help out when asked, and to see people as often as possible. If that occasionally leads to a recommendation or even a new client I see it as a great added bonus and count myself lucky.
(Aside) Not that being friendly and genuine doesn’t also help making sales. I remember a prolonged encounter with an advertising sales person. I wasn’t in a position to immediately commit or not, and so we were in touch over a few consecutive days to negotiate. While my contact was in “sales-mode” they were incredibly friendly, chatty and open. But in the end I had to give them a negative answer, and the moment I made that clear it was as if a switch had been flipped. Tone of voice, demeanour, everything instantly dropped in temperature, and they put the phone down on me without so much as a “nice talking to you”. It did not make me want to buy advertising from them ever again. I’m not naïve, of course we were in a business environment; this was someone with a job to do and not my best friend on the phone. But – it wouldn’t have taken much longer to politely thank me and express hope for “more luck next time”. A next time would have been much more likely then, and they would have gained a prospective future customer instead of losing one.
So, networking … For me, it really comes down to those few things: Be genuine. Be nice to people. Trust yourself. Know what works for you.
It might not be rocket science, but it works for me. Here’s to the next 12 months. And here’s to all of you who helped me get here, one way or another: you’ve been amazing!