The power of networking should never be underestimated.
It is the oldest and most effective business strategy that will outlive the digital revolution. It can be applied to all industries and practiced by anyone.
I founded two businesses and both of them grew from the power of networks. Killing Kittens, which I founded in 2007, evolved from organised safe parties for women to express their sexual freedom, to an online community of over 120,000 women. The greatest lesson this business taught me is that our strength is in our networks. I’m often asked what my mantra is, and I say, treat every moment with another person is an opportunity to network. That includes the queue in a supermarket or public transport! You never know what doors will open.
Many people make an instant judgement on a person as to whether they can be helpful to them. But it’s not just about that person, it’s about their contacts too. Say you run a business selling luxury underwear for women, don’t dismiss the men in the room. They may have girlfriends or wives they’re looking to buy for.
Running Killing Kittens, I’m always on the lookout for undiscovered, chic venues to host our parties. More than once a cab driver has recommended one and introduced me to the person who runs it. I’ve even found staff for events from conversations at 3am in a bar, when I’m tired and not even in the mood for conversation.
Diversity of your social network is also important in growing a business. A study published in the Journal of Corporate Finance found that CEOs with strong connections to people of different demographic backgrounds and skillsets create higher value for their businesses.
Networking events are the most common setting we find ourselves faced with the task of making fruitful connections. So, here are my tips to help you get the most out of one:
Aim to leave with five business cards
It’s easy to get overwhelmed at a networking event by the number of people there. Accept that you can’t speak to everyone but aim to have five quality conversations by the time you leave. Any more and your interactions become diluted. Any less and you are hanging on to them too much and not getting your money’s worth.
Be aware of your ‘resting bitch face’
When people concentrate, they often frown, and this can be mistaken as hostile and unwelcoming. So, smile! Adopt a welcoming face. Practice being aware of your face when having conversations with friends and colleagues you know well, and you’ll soon become aware of what I call your ‘bitch face’ which you probably didn’t even know you had.
Likewise, don’t be put off by other people who are frowning. They too are probably concentrating on something and don’t mean to be cold. Or perhaps they are socially awkward or don’t like crowds. Don’t make judgements and instead help others to welcome you in.
The most common networking struggle is how to get away from someone when you’ve spent your time and want to move on. Don’t use the ‘going to the bathroom’ excuse because people see through it, especially if you only move two meters away from them. Wait for a pause in conversation, smile and say, ‘lovely to meet you can I take your card?’ Then move on. It is a networking event after all, so they won’t be offended.
If they are hanging around like a bad smell, you can always make an excuse and go to the bar. You’ll probably find someone new to talk to there too.
Then of course you may well find yourself swanning around with no other person to talk to. This is when you should turn on your EQ to judge if it’s ok to butt into a conversation. Usually you can tell if two people are just making chit chat or getting to the crux of solving world peace. If it’s the former you can politely edge in and say, ‘Is it ok if I join you guys?’
Prepare some questions
Depending on what the event is, decide what sort of contacts you want to get and prepare some questions that will help you get that information. For example if you’re hoping to meet a mentor, perhaps ask, ‘That’s an interesting career. What did you struggle with most to get to where you are now?’ I’ve been to events when on the search for a sponsor, so I might ask if they already sponsor any events.
Some events will give you a guestlist before you go so if you want to be super-savvy you can research and shortlist who you want to speak to before you arrive. For the extra organized, you could even search for a picture online.
Do this straight away while it’s fresh. You are not going to do deals at a networking event, but it’s the following up that will open doors later on. I live an hour by train from London so often I’ll get out the business cards and send an email that night on my journey home.
We all need to network, but for women, it’s even more crucial. Only one in six businesses are founded by women and women-led businesses achieve far lower levels of funding, so get your cards ready.
Emma Sayle is the founder of https://www.sistrapp.com/, a networking and menotring platform for women