You’ve got your business plan memorized, your location locked in, inventory is in stock and everything is staged and poised for business – but how do you let everyone know you’re there and what you’re doing? It’s that dirty word that comes next – marketing – the necessary evil that many small business owners turn away from for fear of cutting into the small budget they’ve set aside.
But marketing doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, one of the best places to start is by networking with other local business owners. Networking plays an integral role in professional growth. Men and women who can nurture relationships within their fields are more likely to be in tune with what’s going on in their professions, and a network of fellow professionals can help men and women advance their careers.
But networking often falls by the wayside for today’s busy professionals, many of whom simply can’t find the time in their hectic schedules to foster relationships with professional colleagues. The benefits, however, are too numerous to ignore, and it behooves men and women to make an effort to build and maintain strong networks. And keep in mind, it doesn’t have to be stuffy or boring. Most networking events are casual in nature, like the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce’s Business after Hours events which include the chance to have an after-work nibble and an adult beverage while socializing with fellow members in a relaxed setting.
Sometimes who you know is more important than what you know. Fellow business leaders and professionals have a wealth of knowledge they’re willing to share. Having trouble with insurance? Need an idea for low cost signage? Trying to organize a charitable event? Odds are there are folks nearby who have some great suggestions. In addition, they can offer encouragement and moral support and the connection may open the door to partnering on a new project or venture. These are the people who really understand what the day to day professional environment is like in your community – they understand your plight.
While these relationships are wonderful for brainstorming and troubleshooting, they are also vital in growing your business. When you foster a professional relationship, the other person in that relationship will be quick to think of you when they need a given service or are asked for a referral. That can benefit business owners’ bottom lines, but even men and women who don’t own a business can benefit, as their bosses will no doubt recognize the role they played in bringing in new business.
Once professionals recognize that networking is about more than just building a web of contacts who can help them find their next job, they can begin to prioritize networking so it can help them in their existing jobs. Make an effort to keep in touch with current and previous clients and any other contacts made over the years. Something as simple as a quarterly email to catch up or an inquiry to see if there’s anything fellow professionals need will help you stay on their minds, which can help bring in new business or learn about new opportunities down the road. Maintaining and building a professional network does not always require a lot of work, as even seemingly small gestures can pay big dividends if men and women prioritize such efforts.
A network is only beneficial if it remains current. Keep track of the professionals in your network so you know when and where to reach them should you need to do so. A professional networking site such as LinkedIn is a great way to stay on top of what your network is up to, and such a site also is a valuable tool when you want to update your network with any new information about yourself. Revisit your network a few times each year, updating with any new information so you aren’t left scrambling for email addresses or phone numbers when the time comes to get back in touch with your contacts.
Every business person can likely name a few fellow professionals who only seem to contact you when they want something. You don’t want to earn a similar reputation among your own contacts, so don’t forget to make periodic contact with your colleagues even when you don’t need anything at all. Or seek out a contact when you are the person in need of somebody else’s services.
So where do you start? The chamber is a great place to begin. In addition to its networking events, the organization offer annual awards, special interest groups and Leadership Carteret, which provides a great introduction to Carteret County’s most valuable assets and includes a variety of team building exercises. Rates are low and generally based on company size. Annual membership in the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce, for example, starts at about $200 and goes up depending on the number of employees. Once a member, take advantage of the many benefits. Like all things, membership alone doesn’t work unless you take an active role. Attend networking events or swing by a midday ribbon cutting and introduce yourself and your services to the new kid on the block.
Civic organizations are another great outlet. Be it the Rotary, the Civitans, the Lion’s or the Kiwanis – it doesn’t matter which one works best for you. Each provides a great opportunity to mingle with like minded business leaders. Make sure you have your pocket full of business cards so they’re easy to pass out as you make friends and colleagues.
A little volunteer work is another great way to gain some face time with the community. Donating services or stock to a silent auction for a charitable event, for example, may be an easy hands-off way to get the company name out there. But actually filling a seat on a board or manning a booth and giving a few hours of your time to a worthy cause builds connections in the community. Not only does it allow you to put your face with the company name, but it also gives folks a strong indication of who you are and that you care about the community where you do business.
Networking can easily be seen as an unnecessary hassle. But professionals who network the right way will find that their efforts pay dividends for themselves, their companies and even their professional colleagues.