I Hate Networking…Or, Do I?

Full disclosure – until recently, I loathed networking.  Loathed. It.  The thought of walking into a room full of strangers filled me with all sorts of ickiness.  Like most entrepreneurs, I could happily spend my days planning and plotting and scheming to take over the world with my business, without ever leaving my happy little solitary office.  Networking? Blah! No thank you.

This went on for years.  YEARS.  Until earlier this year, when I was describing my acute aversion to networking to an acquaintance when I had an epiphany.  Here’s how that conversation went:

Me:  “I hate networking.”

Bringer of the Epiphany: “How do you get most of your clients?”

Me: “Oh, I work with an organization that introduces me to their members.”

Bringer of the Epiphany: “How did you become involved in that organization?”

Me: “My previous boss introduced me to the organization’s directors with a recommendation.”

Bringer of the Epiphany: *raises eyebrow*

Oooohhhhhhh, riiiiiight…..

Apparently, I loathed networking enough that I didn’t even recognize when I was doing it!  Many (most) of my past and current clients and engagements have come not from marketing or advertising, but through relationships.  And that’s what networking is – building mutually beneficial connections and relationships.

At about the same time as I had this revelation that I was, in fact and in ignorance, networking quite nicely (after all, I’ve had a viable and successful business for 17 years), I was also embarking on a new business venture that absolutely, would not, could not succeed without building connections to other women in business.  I could no longer cover my eyes and refuse to network.  Nope, I had to pull up my big girl panties and get out there.  I had to shake that proverbial money maker for everyone to see.

What did I do?  I did what any good business coach would do for a client and I set myself a challenge.  A networking challenge.  The goal of the challenge was to connect with at least 25 local women in business in a single month.  Not to sell my services to them, simply to connect.

How did I do it?  I did six simple (but scary to me) things:

  • Reframed my story. Instead of telling myself how much I hated walking into a room of strangers, I flipped my script.  The truth is, I love meeting new people.  I’m good at it.  I love to collect personalities and add them to my tribe.  I’m a natural connector, and I get the tingles when I can put people together in a way that helps them both.  I reframed my story and created positive affirmations about my ability to network successfully. It sounds simple, but affirmations and the stories we tell ourselves have real power over our behaviors.
  • Reached out to my circle of friends. Um, some people might call that a “network of friends”, but let’s not get too crazy!  I sent out a simple email to my crew stating my goal to connect with women entrepreneurs and business owners.  Those friends who I knew fit that bill got a personal invitation to sit down over coffee and share our stories.  Everyone got a request for referrals to friends and a promise not to abuse the favor by being pushy-salesy with any introductions.  I let myself be vulnerable by sharing how hard it was for me to ask.  My friends were generous with names, and my list of potential contacts grew by 32 women.
  • Leveraged referrals. First, I emailed the 32 women who were introduced to me.  Using the names of our mutual acquaintances, I explained that I wanted to connect with other women in business and that, ultimately, I wanted to hear their stories about how they started their businesses and what challenges they face as a women entrepreneur.  Then I invited them to meet for coffee.  My favorite barista saw me 12 times as I connected with a variety of women.
  • Networked online. The relative anonymity of online networking makes it a lot easier for people who are nervous in face-to-face situations. I was already a member of some closed Facebook groups for local moms, and I knew some of the other members were business owners. So, I started a new group just for women entrepreneurs and business owners in our area.  With the approval of the admins, I posted in the other closed groups about the new space for networking and invited women to join me there. Then I asked those women to invite other women they knew to join, and so on, and so on…  We have a rule that you can promote your business every 5 posts, because the goal is to create connection and relationships.  To date, 53 local women have joined and participated in the conversation.
  • Networked in person. In addition to getting personal referrals, I identified some in-person networking opportunities in which I could participate.  I specifically targeted groups and events where I knew I could connect with my ideal clients (women entrepreneurs and business owners), I joined a few women-only networking groups, a B2B networking group at my local Chamber of Commerce, and I joined Toastmasters which will have multiple benefits in addition to growing my professional network. My goal for each get together is to connect with just one other woman with whom I can connect after the gathering for coffee, a phone call, or even just an email follow-up.

Was my selfimposed networking challenge a success?  Yes (IMHO)!  I built connections with far more than my goal of 25 women business owners.  Plus, I learned how to network better and what to expect when you connect with someone professionally at various types of events.

What networking channels have worked best for your business?  Share in the comments so others can learn from your experience.