But timidity wasn't Robin Gorman Newman's problem when she launched her Web-based consulting business, Lovecoach.com, in 1997. Workaholism was. The author of How To Meet a Mensch in New York: A Decent, Responsible Person Even Your Mother Would Love spent so much time focusing on her home-based Great Neck, New York, business, she didn't take time to develop her own network.
"I wouldn't leave the house," confesses Gorman Newman, who counsels singles on making strategic plans, much like business plans, to find romance. "I needed to be forced to break up my day, but I couldn't find any groups that quite fit the bill."
Her answer? Create her own networking group. Gorman Newman, who also owns a public relations firm, RGN Communications, founded the Independent Businesswomen's Circle, which meets monthly to have lunch and hear a guest speaker at a local nonprofit center. The group's purpose is to empower women, share business leads and build camaraderie.
Not every entrepreneur has the time or ambition to create her own networking organization, but networking is key to entrepreneurial success. Fledgling entrepreneurs might look around themselves, see a bunch of people and mistakenly assume they already have a network in place. Warm bodies do not a network make; a network consists of people who create value for your business.
"You can know people for decades, but if you never ask their opinion about how they would handle a situation at work, or whether they know anyone who's good at contracts or fixes computers or the like, you aren't getting the most out of the relationship," says Bob Nelson, a San Diego-based management consultant and author of 1001 Ways to Take Initiative at Work.
Specifically, your network should include professional advisors, social contacts, and reliable suppliers and vendors who can save you money and help get you through the hard times.
"You need people in your network you can confide in, people who will be cheerleaders," notes Marjorie Brody, president of Brody Communications Ltd., a Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, firm that teaches businesspeople how to communicate effectively. "But you also need challengers, people who will be in your face and not be afraid to tell you, 'That's a dumb idea.' " One of the first steps in developing a network is assessing your own strengths and weaknesses to discover what types of people would add balance to your enterprise. If you're terrible at marketing and accounting, for example, make it a priority to establish relationships with people you respect who have those strengths. Include people of various ages and backgrounds, then create a plan to meet them.
Effective network-building boils down to communication, say experts. There are as many ways to do that as there are personalities. Choose ways that you feel comfortable with and that fit into your schedule. Here are some ideas:
Mine your rolodex. When Gorman Newman launched her love-coaching business, she contacted everyone from the past with whom she had a good relationship to let them know what she was doing. Those initial contacts, via e-mail, snail mail and phone calls, brought referrals, which led to other referrals. Don't overlook less obvious but possibly helpful contacts, such as former teachers and friends of your parents.
Create an advocate list. Brody and each of her staffers develop a list of people in a position to help their business and contact them every 90 days via e-mail, fax or phone to send a greeting or useful information. If the contacts don't generate some value to the business, that name is removed from the list and replaced with another.
Be a joiner. Civic and professional associations are a great way to meet new people who could become a valuable part of your network. Carla McClanahan, a communication consultant and owner of CMcC Communications in Dallas, says she's generated more than $40,000 in revenue by making contacts with members of the North Dallas Chamber of Commerce and the local chapter of Women in Communications.
Gorman Newman notes, however, that too often, people network only with professionals in their field--people who are potential business competitors. "I've found that I get more business by networking with people who aren't in public relations," she says.
Don't be afraid to lead. Professional organizations, schools, churches and even health clubs need people willing to take the reins. Accepting a leadership role is an excellent way to enhance your credibility and attract new people to your business.
After becoming involved in local chamber of commerce activities, Trish Doll, owner of Publicity Works, a marketing and public relations firm in Bowmansville, Pennsylvania, found herself being asked to lead seminars and eventually serve on the board of directors. "Don't let this intimidate you," she says. "You'll position yourself as a leader in your industry. This reflects well on your business, and you're helping others at the same time." Step into the spotlight. Host workshops and seminars, write articles, create an e-mail newsletter--all are ways to bring new people into your network. Gorman Newman takes her love coaching to places where she'll meet singles. She hosts a discussion group on relationship books at a Barnes & Noble in Queens. At theaters, she also facilitates discussions between the cast and audience members after plays about relationships.
Work the Net. People with homebased businesses, or those with a less extroverted personality, find using the Internet an efficient, effective means of networking. Gorman Newman surfs the Net to locate events she'd like to attend as well as join mailing lists and discussion groups, and she links her Web site with other sites, creating a whole new way to network in the 21st century.
Be ready to help. Attending functions with the goal of networking seems intimidating and contrived to some. If that's the case for you, Brody suggests approaching the event with a different mind-set, asking how you could be helpful to others in this situation. Look for ways to volunteer your time or advice. Asking questions of others and really listening to their answers, using excellent eye contact and other positive nonverbal feedback, is a low-key but powerful way to establish relationships.
Be a scout. Networking can happen anywhere, any time; it isn't an activity confined to chamber of commerce mixers. "It can happen at a conference or at a bar on a Friday night, so I carry business cards with me wherever I go," says Brody. "I've even encountered business opportunities while skiing and at the dry cleaners!"
Remember to say thank you. Sending a small gift, dropping a note in the mail or treating someone to lunch are ways to show appreciation to people in your network and to reinforce feelings of goodwill.
McClanahan says she also looks for opportunities to make helpful referrals to the people in her network and to take an interest in their personal lives by asking about their families. If she knows when a wedding or anniversary is coming up, for instance, she recommends a good restaurant.
As important as it is to network, it is possible to go overboard. Spending too much time networking and too little time focusing on daily business matters can also prevent your business from flourishing. The key here is balance. "Networking is like dating," Gorman Newman says. "It's not the quantity of events you go to; it's the quality. Be selective. Target where you want to go and know exactly what you want to get out of it."