I was recently a guest speaker at the Columbus Women’s Business Development Center’s FastTrac New Venture Class. The twelve week program was developed for anyone interested in starting a business. It was created by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs, and is designed to help participants evaluate and perfect their business concept and complete a comprehensive business plan.

My presentation included a discussion of Best Networking Practices. I emphasized four key points:

First, face-to-face networking — there is no substitution!

In my experience as a small business owner, face-to-face networking is the single most important business development and marketing tool. Networking events labeled as such are perfect opportunities simply because, by definition, everyone is there to network. I make a point to go to such events alone because if I go with a friend or colleague, I know she and I will just want to catch up and we’ll miss the opportunity to meet other people.

I rarely turn down an invitation to network and meet other people. And opportunities are everywhere. Examples include happy hours, launch events, fundraisers, and industry meetings or conferences.

Second, be prepared to self promote

You never know when or where you will cross paths with a potential client or customer, and small business owners must always be prepared to explain what services or products they offer. Some people refer to this basic explanation as an “elevator speech” or “two minute drill”.

The speech is tweaked a bit depending on the audience. I also recommend developing a shorter, two sentence version for certain situations when a lengthier explanation may not be appropriate.   

Third, business cards – never leave home without them!

Small business owners must always have their business cards handy. This really seems like a no-brainer, but I cannot believe the number of people who “forgot” their cards, even at networking events.  Everyone receives no less than 100 cards in a box at a time. Put them in each of your bags, glove box, coats, or wherever it makes the most sense for you to have them readily available.

It is equally important to ask for business cards. But don’t just throw them in a junk drawer.  Immediately after receiving a card, make a note on the back of it. I personally meet a lot of attorneys, but I certainly discussed something different with each of them. That note helps me remember who’s who. I also add them to my contact list as soon as possible and send a quick email. That way hopefully I’m also saved to their contacts.

Finally, get involved

In addition to the personal satisfaction and reward of giving back to your community, volunteering your time or becoming a leader in a non-profit organization is a fantastic way to build professional relationships. For me, volunteer work is also an excellent conversation starter at networking and other social events, and has become an invaluable avenue for meeting new people.  Active involvement in your church or children’s extracurricular activities is another great way to expand your business contacts.

My presentation to the FastTrac New Venture Class also addressed Tips on Social Media. Stay tuned for my next post.