We recently received a request from the CEO of a young start-up to solicit our members for their business. Although we do not allow soliciting, it made me think of how getting a business up and running isn’t easy – especially if you don’t have an old-school storefront to lure potential clients inside. What if you run an online business? Or sell services instead of products? Then it’s all about networks and who you know. But building a business network doesn’t happen overnight, even though you may have bills to pay and a startup loan that needs tending. How can you make quality contacts in a reasonable period of time?
Before you read the list, I’d like to re-emphasise the word ‘quality’ in the previous sentence. Lists of names and numbers are all well and good, but it is the quality of your relationships that determines customer loyalty, powerful word-of-mouth referrals and ultimately the success of your business.
1. Chambers of Commerce
Regional chambers of commerce often run regular networking events for their members and the public. Find your local chamber through the Canadian Chamber of Commerce site and get involved with your local business community.
2. Networking Associations
One of the largest networking-focused organizations is BNI (Business Networking International). Each local group has a set size and only one member from each industry, which ensures that your network will extend beyond your own industry. Toastmasters is also well known as an excellent place for networking, although its main focus is on public speaking. You can find support and networking organizations for entrepreneurs, women in business, tech startups and even specific age groups just by using Google. And as your business grows you can look at joining organizations for more established business leaders such as WXN and (of course!) TEC Canada.
3. Industry Events
Keep an eye on awards ceremonies, conferences and training programs for people within your industry and be amongst the first to register when places are made available – that means you won’t be stuck at a table in the back corner, away from all the networking action.
4. Direct Approach
For some products and services, directly contacting potential customers is still quite an effective way to grow awareness and goodwill within your market: This is especially so when you have a product or service where a CEO or other c-level executive will be the primary beneficiary. Use the internet to identify possibilities then use the available corporate information to contact them directly. There is currently a war of sorts between email ‘cold calling’ and traditional ‘cold calling’, but there is a place for both when paired with the appropriate situation. Jill Konrath on her blog ‘Selling to big companies’ has practical advice on for successful ‘cold emailing’: read about it at http://sellingtobigcompanies.blogs.com/selling/2006/07/does_email_cold.html. And for traditional cold calling, Christine Aquin Pope’s new book ‘Blast Open Big Doors: How to Prospect Fortune 1000 Companies’ is excellent.
Use social media to engage with potential customers and become a familiar, authoritative presence in their virtual environment. Answer their questions, provide valued resources and even share your expertise, product or service for free to generate buzz and grow your network. There are some great resources at Business Exchange (http://bx.businessweek.com/business-networking-online/ via Bloomberg).
Finally, don’t forget to have some professional business cards made. They are the tangible reminder of your meeting and can work to prompt the recipient to contact you. And always take more than you should need because there’s nothing worse than handing them to less viable prospects then having none left when you meet a hot prospect!
Now go forth and conquer your market! (and let me know what tactics have worked best for you, in the comments section below).