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Tis the season to network

Topic: Entrepreneur Evangelist,Growing Your Business | Comments Off on Tis the season to network

Posted on December 9, 2009 by admin

Holiday Office PartyToday’s blog article is being posted a little later in the day than usual because I wanted to specifically recount part of my day:  I spoke at a local networking group.  I think this is worth discussing today for a four main reasons.

First, the web will never, ever, ever entirely replace face-to-face interaction.
I am as close to being ‘a digital native’ is as possible for someone born prior to the Reagan Administration.  I may not be part of Gen Y, but many of my digital habits are pretty close.  I love the online space.  Not only have I made a career out of it, but it drives much of my social life and was, in point of fact, also how I met my husband.  Online is my native space.

However, no matter how much I prefer email to the phone, or RSS to hardcopy newspapers, or Hulu to cable TV, when it comes down to it, people are human beings first and foremost and human beings are social creatures.  Even introverts need social interaction to stimulate aspects of your brain that electronic interaction doesn’t access in the same way.  And no matter how great a social media marketing strategy you have, no amount of online reputation management and relationship building can ever replace the value of meeting someone face-to-face and being able to size them up in person.

Today’s speaking engagement was a great reminder of that, because I met people who ran all kinds of different businesses in all types of different arenas, with all types of different customers.  It was a far more expansive array of people than I normally meet on a daily basis, and with it came questions that I don’t typically answer, and perspectives that I do not typically consider.  And it gave people who don’t normally deal with people like me the chance to ask questions that matter to them, and size me up to see if I had the potential to be valuable to their business.

Second, everyone is an expert in something of value to others.
Hopefully, your business is in at least one of your areas of expertise.  Mine is.  After having been online for more than 16 years, I know what it is to build businesses using the internet.  Even more importantly, I know how to recognize the difference between what worked five years ago and what works today — and why they are not the same.

Chances are that you are an expert in something that other people find of value.  Chances are even better that you haven’t met every single person who could use your products and services (if you have, then your long-term business strategy is in trouble).  So going out and participating in local events where you can meet other people is one of the fundamentals to drumming up more business.

Third, interaction sparks creativity and ingenuity.
When I work with developers who are building tech startups, I can almost always predict the issues, challenges, opportunities and questions that are native to the project.  When I work with catalogers and retailers building an ecommerce site, again, I can predict the issues.  What I love about small business-centric networking is that I get curve balls all the time.

Most creative ideas are a result of trying to find a solution to a problem.  So those of us who are “experts” have a lot of practice answering a specific set of questions that pertain to a (usually) narrow set of problems particular to a specific niche.  If you want to broaden your horizons, though, go into a room full of entrepreneurs from all different markets, in all different types of businesses.  It’ll take ten minutes before you get questions from people whose perspectives you’ve never previously considered.

And the best way for you to get better at what you do, is to start thinking about new ways to solve problems for people.  Leverage your experience in one niche and see how you can apply some of it to someone else in a different niche.  Often times it’s surprising what things translate to a new space and what things don’t.  In either case, though, you’ve learned something new and started increasing your own value by starting to learn about a new market.

Last, all money is local money.
Penelope Trunk used this line when speaking on a panel this past March at Austin’s SXSW Interactive Conference.  While she was specifically referring to venture funding for startups, this also applies at a personal level.

In a virtual, ecommerce-enabled age, it’s easy to default to the idea that working virtually is great and that you don’t need to work face-to-face with someone in order to provide value.  And that’s all true.  However, all things being equal, money is spent locally first.  In an overly dehumanized world, you can never underestimate the preference of people to do business with someone they can sit down and talk to face-to-face over someone they only get to interact with virtually.

So my year-end challenge to all entrepreneurs:

  1. Identify at least three local networking groups
  2. Before the end of Q1 2010, attend at least one event of each
  3. Pick at least one of the groups to officially join
  4. Volunteer to actively manage or officially get involved in some capacity
  5. Log any business-related value that comes from it, including soft-skills that you develop as a result

Not sure where to start?  The best three places I would recommend are, LinkedIn and your local Chamber of Commerce.

And remember, holiday parties are a great chance to interact with people you don’t see every day.  So if you’re not sure where to find the best networking groups, start small: ask at least one person at each holiday event you attend if they know of any networking groups they’d recommend, or can direct you to someone who does know.  And then follow-up.  Before long, I promise you that you’ll have at least 3 on your list before the year ends.

Where else do you recommend looking to find networking opportunities for entrepreneurs?

Alora Chistiakoff is an entrepreneur, content strategist and project manager who has been developing online business and technology for startups for more than a decade.  She co-owns The Indigo Heron Group, Inc., a content strategy firm in Austin, Texas.

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