I was just 20 when I started my first company. I knew I'd have to network in order to succeed, but I felt nervous and awkward at networking events. So I decided to brush up on my skills in that department.
Getting my company off the ground was as slow and arduous a process as getting the hang of high-power networking. But my company has since hit the million-dollar mark; plus, I've founded several others and in the process have become good friends with mentors, clients, and partners—all of whom I've met through networking.
You might not find them in a career counselor's playbook, but these are a few of the networking strategies I've found to work for me.
Don’t be afraid to be the youngest or least knowledgeable person in the room. Rather than feign experience and expertise you don't have (that never works), take some of the most influential people you meet at your next networking event out to lunch.
And whatever you do, don't expect that it pay off immediately. As an entrepreneur with a great idea, a changing market, and limited funding, you may hear the clock ticking and think you need to win the support of movers and shakers right away. But you probably won't. So do some networking simply to learn. After all, the things you learn can accumulate exponentially and may wind up paying off more in the long run than any "deal" you might want to land.
Few people network when there's absolutely nothing they need or want. But networking still worthwhile in the meantime. So be generous. I love to help others improve their companies and lives. If I can make a great introduction, recommend a book that's helped me, or even donate some of my company's products, I always try to. And when I do, I rarely ask for anything in return.
Many people you'll meet while networking are too aggressive; they only want to sell you something. What they should do instead is think long-term about building a relationship—and that takes giving freely and generously, time and again. When you focus on enriching others' lives first and hitting your own goals second, it can ultimately pay off much better.
One of my biggest returning clients came to me after spotting signage I’d donated to a networking event. By volunteering your resources in your own community, you gain the trust and respect of anyone who benefits from them. The returns aren't immediate or even all that quantifiable, but once you earn a reputation as a dependable, giving person, other people will want to do more for you.
I turn every relationship into a texting relationship. If we connect over email and confirm a time to meet, I ask, "What's your cell phone number? I’ll shoot you a text to confirm I'm on time." On receiving their number, I immediately text them my own so they can save it. Then I'll text on my way to the meeting, and while we're together I'll bring up a topic and say, "Oh, I’ll text you that later."
It may sound forward, but give it a shot and see for yourself. It amazes me the number of customers, successful entrepreneurs, publicly traded CEOs, and politicians I now text with on a regular basis.
Smart people can always see through your BS. Lose your ego. Stop talking about how great everything is, and start telling people about your struggles and how you're trying to fix them. Entrepreneurs have a habit of sounding overly chipper and optimistic when they're trying to get others to see how great their idea is, and they're reluctant to discuss anything worrying for fear of scaring away potential partners and customers.
That's not only annoying, it's counterproductive. By being honest about your challenges, you aren't complaining—you're just opening up about the toughest things you're facing. People want to root for the underdog and feel vicariously inspired by surprising victories. Everyone can relate to being in a tight spot.
You don't have to get too personal if that isn't your style, but it can sometimes be disarming in a positive way. I often acknowledge my rough childhood and talk about how I overcame it. I discuss my business problems as well as my relationship and family issues.
That isn't for everyone, of course. Feel out what's appropriate—getting too personal too quickly can be a big turnoff and signal that you can't really read your audience—but when you share your faults as well as your hopes and strengths, people know you’re being genuine. Not only can that inspire trust, it's also a great way to solicit solid advice.
We get it: You're important, your company is doing great, your kids are amazing, and your last vacation was better than mine. Stop talking, start listening.
Many people go to networking events in order to self-promote, and that's fine. But if all you do is talk about yourself, you're wasting your time. Steer your conversations toward the other person’s interests. You should be digging, learning as much about them as you can. Position questions to get them to open up more. People love to talk about themselves, and they'll subconsciously like you more if you get them to open up.
I've been asked how I deal with a certain client, or why generally rude people seem to like me. There’s no trick to it; I just try to pay attention to people and make them feel important, even if they aren't my cup of tea. I act as though what they say matters to me—because ultimately it does. If you listen carefully in order to suss out not just what someone wants but why they want it, you’ll find them easier to interact with.
Networking is all about giving. If you give your time, sometimes your money, and mostly your complete attention to the people you interact with, you'll reap the rewards. If I hadn't come out of my shell, I’d still be working out of my garage and wondering why my business won’t grow. And these days, I no longer feel like the dumbest person in the room.
Brandon Stapper is the CEO of 858 Graphics. His garage startup has grown into multiple web-based printing companies in two states, producing hundreds of specialty printing products for more than 100,000 customers. Brandon is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs.