How to build your small business network from scratch
Posted: Thu 30th Jan 2020
The first hundred people that love your business create the foundation for success. Work on building that network in the beginning and you'll go on to be successful. But how do you get started?
Building a network can help you get an outside opinion on something you're working on, tackle challenges you face, and lead to sales and collaborations. Joanne Griffin, the founder of Arnold & Bird, added that your network doesn't just build your business but your wellbeing too.
"Meeting new people helped give my community a boost as well as making me feel more connected," she said. "Running your own business can get a bit lonely or you can doubt yourself. Having a community can give you that boost."
We spoke to Enterprise Nation advisers about how to start building your network.
Reach out to your existing network
It's surprising who can help when you start a business. It might be a friend of a friend or a cousin you haven't heard from for a few years that connects you to a corporate client or helps you find a manufacturer. The key is recognising that people can't help unless they know what you're up to, so make sure you talk about your business.
Get used to making a short pitch that explains what you do and why in an accessible way. It's okay to ask for something small when they show interest too. For example, you might want to get in front of headteachers or need advice with sales - do they know anyone that can help?
If you're starting a business in a sector you're familiar with, try mapping out who it would be useful to talk to. You can download your LinkedIn contacts or think about who might be able to help from particular companies you've worked at. Start adding these contacts to a database.
Enterprise Nation member Amanda FitzGerald gives PR advice and helps business owners get comfortable with promoting themselves. She said to start by thinking about why networking can help.
"Don't go to networking events to sell," she explained. "Go to make friends. Making friends in the business world is a lovely thing. Have a helpful attitude. If you do grow your network, sales will come."
Go to lots of events in your first year
When you're starting out it's helpful to go to lots of different events. Think about who you need to reach and where they might go and what you can learn. There are lots of free or low-cost small business events too - check out Enterprise Nation's events.
As Enterprise Nation member and Female Start-up of the Year 2019 Ruth Bradford said on Twitter that it's important to put yourself out there: "Just go to literally everything you can to see what stickslearn to be a #networkingninja."
Look at the delegate list, sponsors or social media to check who's going. This helps work out whether the event's relevant for your business and plan who to talk to when you get there.
Make sure you send follow-ups to people you talk to. Get in touch and ask them for a coffee, add them on LinkedIn or simply send a quick email to say thanks. The conversation doesn't have to evolve into anything immediately, but you're adding them to your network.
How to start talking to people at events
We've all been in that slightly awkward moment where you're at an event and not talking to anyone. Just remember that everyone's in the same boat and look for easy ways to start a conversation.
Join a group: it's totally natural to walk up to a group and ask to join them for a minute. People will generally try to explain what they're talking about or there will be an opening to ask a question.
Speak to people in the queue: join the queue for drinks or food and ask people how they're finding the event or a particular speaker.
Look for someone that's on their own: lots of people will be in the same position as you - go and talk to someone that's on their own.
Finally, FitzGerald said that entrepreneurs shouldn't use their phone as a comfort blanket!
Build your social media following
Social media offers a way to build a community. Find out where your target market spends time and get involved in the conversation. It could be Facebook groups where customers discuss issues that are relevant to the service you offer or communities of small business owners that can share advice.
Be helpful and share advice and relationships will grow over time - and it's incredibly helpful to have a strong base of social support when the business starts to grow.
Track your contacts in a CRM
Customer relationship management (CRM) systems track contact details and information about the conversations you have. It will become a really useful resource, so try to start one as soon as possible. You can use a spreadsheet or address book, or use software that's designed for the purpose (read our guide on setting up a CRM to help with sales for more information).
FitzGerald advocates doing an act of self-promotion every single day, whether it's a social media post, chatting to someone or pitching a journalist.
"The best thing about self-promotion is it's free - you don't have to pay anyone to do it! I was standing at my kids' school gate and met a beauty salon owner, which was amazing. She didn't shove it down my throat, but it can be as simple as telling someone what you do," she said.
It's a great approach to building your network. If you do something every day, even if it's a small step, your community will build over time.