Mjadu explains that for the self-employed, building long-lasting business relationships and partnerships is significantly more important than what most business owners believe. “When starting a new business, it can often feel like you have no time for anything, but entrepreneurs need to take a long-term approach and invest in networking and researching groups that might be relevant to their business. The strengthening of these relationships will potentially result in direct business referrals, as well as create a sustainable support network.”
She says that creating channels to share business know-how is critical in helping business owners succeed, and sharing business knowledge and experience contributes to the stability and growth of a growing SME.
“Ensure that you get involved with business councils and other networking groups, as you’ll be able to ‘mingle’ with others going through the same process as you. Business owners may also find that fellow entrepreneurs can share valuable information on how they are going about building their business.”
She explains that as with other business activities, a strategy should be put in place for networking as it is a business process like any other which should be attended to, but is often neglected.
Mjadu offers the following pointers to help business owners when it comes to networking activities:
- Approach networking for what it is – a crucial business system like your accounting system, human resources system, or production system. It means that you have to spend some time thinking about it, working on it and maintaining it.
- Define the business’s target groups – if you don’t, you’ll end up chasing your own tail. How widely your net is thrown depends on the business. For example, a tourism business may want to include an entire country’s networks and sectors such as travel agents, while a niche technology business may choose to start with a much narrower group of specialised suppliers, clients and business associates.
- Networking only among industry peers is not wide enough. It is inadequate for a printer, for example, to limit his networking only to the local printers association. Seek out clients and business opportunities upstream, downstream and adjacent to your sector.
- Start with a list of people who are in your network already – your existing clients, suppliers and business associates, but be sure to add new people, or whole categories of people that you want to target. This is just the start – a healthy business network has new contacts coming in all the time, as well as having old ones removed as their relevance fades.
- You don’t need the latest customer relationship management software. These tools can be handy, but if money is tight you can effectively manage a large network with an ordinary spreadsheet using simple categorisation tools such as colour coding to prioritise contacts.
- Relationships take time to develop and are built on genuine interest and mutual benefit. The key is regular contact, but it does not have to be monotonous. Interactions can vary from a call to say thank you, to introducing a useful contact, sending an interesting article or referring a client (and even asking for advice is a good way to make someone feel important). Don’t leave these things to spontaneity – plan and schedule them.
- Clean up your contact list regularly, not only removing redundant entries, but re-prioritising each contact so that you invest most of your time and energy in the most important ones.
- Internet-based social networking is important as a medium of contact, and be sure to maintain your presence on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In as you would your appearance – neat and fresh. But you don’t have to “hang around” there. True business networking happens face to face.
- Think carefully about your business networking calendar so that you don’t waste your time attending events that yield little. But don’t be afraid to experiment to see which events work for you. Get out there!