Note: This is the second in a series on entrepreneurship. I recently started my own consulting business and I’m writing about my own discoveries and experiences. Read my last post on how opportunities often come in disguise.
When you start to build a business, you can’t go it alone. You need to build connections with others who can help you make further connections. Having great skills or a great product is not enough to be successful—the people you know and the doors they can open are critical for long term growth.
I used to think that if you were super talented or had a great product or marketed yourself really well, success would fall in your lap. I believed that the best products and people and ideas should win, and I still do. But they can’t rise to the top if no one knows about them. An entrepreneur needs more—a system and disciplines to keep you interacting with people who can help you win business.
Networking: Not Just for Extroverts Anymore
This was a great discovery for me, because I also thought that being a good networker was reserved for strong extroverts with the gift of gab. I’m very introverted and would not describe myself that way, though I do enjoy working with people to solve problems. Strong interpersonal skills are very beneficial, but they’re not the only thing that matters.
So I built a system for myself that keeps me connected with everyone I know, and helps me continuously make introductions with people I’d like to meet (I essentially created my own CRM system and process). There are a lot of tools out there to help you do this, but the important thing is starting something and sticking with it.
The World is Big—Make it Smaller
I used to squirm at the idea of “it’s all who you know” to make progress in business, as if it was equivalent to playing the “good ole boy network” game. I don’t like politicking because I like doing the right things for the right reasons. But think about it—there are literally millions of people in the world today who do what you do. Not exactly what you do, but close enough to cause a potential client to ask, “why should I choose you?” You have to give them that reason to choose you.
I ran into this problem as I was searching for jobs online during December and January. I applied to nearly 100 jobs with nearly no response. I knew what I was up against, because I had been on the other side of the hiring process at a large company. I knew that my resume and application would need to:
- Make it through the keyword software that screeners use to comb through the thousands of applications they receive,
- Make it past the human screener who has to make a decision on a resume in about 12 seconds,
- Pique the interest of the recruiter,
- Land in the hands of the hiring manager,
- All to get to a phone call and interview.
Needless to say, I got very few responses. Most (about 70%) of my applications didn’t even generate a final response from the screener. So I gave up on applying to jobs online.
Here’s the reality: people like to work with people they know. Large corporate hiring systems are black holes of anonymity. If a hiring manager is faced with a decision between two candidates with equivalent qualifications, but one candidate is recommended by a colleague, that candidate has a serious edge.
I realized that I needed to change my approach. I knew that the world was a big place, so I had to make it smaller for the people I wanted to engage. You have to make it easier for people to choose you, whether you are searching for a job or a new client. That’s because employers and businesses are faced with a baffling array of choices every day.
Start with Something
So I built my own CRM system that forced me to follow up with everyone I know on a periodic basis. Naturally, it includes key contact information, but it also includes information on the strength of the relationship, the potential for business, and the dates and actions for next steps. I spend the first part of my day on business development and go through my list of actions for that day, and it helps me stay engaged with my contacts.
You need to start somewhere. Ask your friends at other companies to introduce you to their colleagues. Colleagues can introduce you to their business partners, vendors, or other connections. Save those connections in your contacts or CRM database, and stay engaged with them.
Leverage your social networks, too. I upgraded to a premium LinkedIn account and it has been extremely helpful for starting conversations with potential clients. The premium account also gives you a lot of helpful information and analytics on job opportunities and how you compare to other candidates.
Take people out to lunch. Offer to buy them coffee. You can even offer to pay people for their consulting time (John Maxwell writes about doing this in his early career). Ask other professionals for their help and guidance, and treat these engagements as opportunities to learn and forge new relationships.
Ask for endorsements and recommendations. Ask for direction and guidance. You won’t receive if you don’t ask for help.
Say “Please” and “Thank You”
Don’t forget your manners. Always ask people nicely and thank them for their time. Everyone’s time is valuable, and everyone seems to be crazy busy these days. No one has to help you. But everyone needs help to get along in this world.
So don’t forget it when others give you a tip, facilitate an introduction, or help you land a job. Send a note. Emails are OK, phone calls are better, but handwritten notes are best.
So start building a network, and keep interacting with your connections. It may take a while to pay off, but it will. And whom you know is not as important as knowing someone.
Jonathan King is Principal and Creative Director of J5MEDIA, a digital marketing consulting firm.