When you’re just starting a business, local networking is your biggest asset. It’s a way to get to know your community, learn from more established businesses in the area, see what your competitors are doing and get a little free marketing.
Getting out there boosts your credibility and might even help you make some strategic partnerships. Here are a few ways to connect with other small business owners in your area.
Venture Out into the Community
Meet your neighbors. Your community presents a natural opportunity to build your personal and business network.
Attend meetups. Meetup.com lets you find business networking groups in your area or even start your own group.
Let’s say you’re a bike shop and you want to target the Phoenix area. Within Meetup’s search function, you can type in “cycling” and search within 10 miles of a downtown zip code. You’ll see relevant results for groups such as AZ Mountain Biking Skills Clinics, The Ladies (Women’s Cycling Group) and Performance Great Ride Series: Scottsdale. Take a ride with them! These are all groups you might want to get acquainted with.
Do some coworking. If you’re currently working from your home or from a coffee shop, consider moving your new venture to a coworking environment. Some coworking offices are deliberately designed to promote networking and it may be just the boost you need to meet others in your same position.
For instance, Kisi’s directory of New York City coworking spaces includes a list of networking spaces in places such as Columbia Business School, New York University’s Polytechnic Institute and Grand Central Tech.
New York City shared office space provider Law Firm Suites says that coworking environments are ideal sources for lawyers to get referrals from other attorneys who have clients in need of particular legal specialties. If you’re in a coworking environment, strike up a conversation with those working around you; find out what they do, and tell them about what you do.
Go to chamber of commerce and Business Network International (BNI) events. Your local chamber of commerce meetings are a natural networking venue. BNI has a global network of local business networking groups you can tap into too. Events and development seminars are other great forums for networking.
When attending these types of meetings, focus on gathering contact information from prospective clients and partners, which should be easy because most people come to these types of events prepared to share business cards.
Come prepared with an elevator pitch that tells new acquaintances what you do, what type of problems you solve for your customers and who you help.
For instance, if you’re a social media marketing consultant for local businesses, you might say, “I help businesses build their following on Facebook so they can get more customers and make more sales while spending less on advertising.”
Other resources you can check into include trade shows, workshops and seminars. Look who the key speakers are and find out what organizations they represent.
Identify Other Owners
Rather than attending an event for small businesses — because that’s a very broad group of people — identify specific local businesses and owners you’d like to connect with. A general business event might attract everyone from designers and writers to restaurant owners and dog groomers. If you want to meet all these people, that’s okay. But if you’d rather just focus on applicable contacts, narrow your lens.
The owner of a popsicle stand might be disappointed by an event (regardless of how it was marketed) that’s made up mostly of accountants. So really hone in on the groups that are applicable to you.
Begin with keywords. Search online by using keywords related to your geographical area and industry. Try multiple geographic terms to include nearby suburbs or districts.
Let’s say your target market includes New York restaurant owners. If you start by searching “New York restaurant owners,” you will find a New York restaurant owners Meetup group as the top result (as of October 2016). If you get even more specific — “New York restaurant owners Manhattan” — you’ll see the New York City Hospitality Alliance as your top result.
Your first few results are likely to be the most relevant starting points for networking opportunities.
Go to public resources. The American City Business Journals’ Book of Lists is published in both print and electronic formats and is customized for 60 major geographical centers in the United States. It will give you data about the largest and fastest growing companies in your market and can help you identify who you want to meet.
The Library of Congress provides an extensive guide to other major print and electronic business directories, which includes Dun & Bradstreet’s guides, Gale directories, Harris InfoSource, ThomasNet and Reference USA.
Look through directories. In addition to researching company directories, look to professional organizations. Your local chamber of commerce is the perfect place to start. Professional associations have directories too — like the National Association of Realtors, the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association.
The Directory of Associations provides an online database where you can search geographically and by type, industry and size to locate professional organizations in your area.
Use LinkedIn. Use your social media savviness to your advantage. If you’re active on LinkedIn — the number-one platform for business networking — grow your network with the “My Network” tab where you’ll find suggestions for “People You May Know.”
Set up Some Face-to-Face Time
Visit businesses. Becoming an actual customer represents a natural opportunity to start up a conversation if the business owner also works the cash register. Many small retail and restaurant owners work their own cash registers. Otherwise, you may need to ask to see the owner.
Just getting to know others in the community can help with rapport. If you’re approaching them with a partnership opportunity, think about their needs as an entrepreneur to make the connection worth it for them as well as you.
Mine your personal and neighborhood network. Professionals you interact with socially or as a consumer — think of your dentist or neighborhood baker, for example — may also be potential networking resources. Audit your social network by looking for business owners and other professionals who serve industries that may have the type of clients you serve within their consumer base.
If you provide IT services, the graphic designer you bought your business cards from may have done graphics for other local business’ websites. Or if you’re a realtor, home inspectors you work with may be good referral partners.
Within your social network, your family and friends may be an important source of networking referrals. If you sell insurance, your uncle’s auto business may be a great source of clients. Or if you have a friend who’s a bank executive, their bank may be open to a partnership with your insurance company.
Explain your job in a digestible sentence or two. You can’t expect referrals from friends and family if they’re not even sure exactly what you do.
Set up a lunch. Follow up on an initial networking contact (one you made at an event or Meetup) to schedule a lunch meeting. During your lunch, focus on making a personal connection before delving into business topics, advises Bloomberg Markets editor-at-large Betty Liu.
Ask them when their next appointment is before you start so you can respect their time while leaving enough time to broach what you want to discuss.
You may also be able to find networking lunches that have already been organized. For instance, the 2015 OpenWest Conference included a Leadership Networking Lunch to facilitate networking with the Salt Lake City tech community.
Develop ideas for partnerships and referrals. The biggest key to successful networking is to focus on what you can give your networking partner rather than what you can get from them.
Manta CEO Pamela Springer suggests proposing a Shop Local partnership where customers of participating partners can receive a 25 percent discount from your store when they shop at your partner’s store, or vice versa. In Wisconsin, Shop Local communities in cities such as Green Bay use a website and app to offer consumers perks for buying from participating merchants, such as coupons, text deals and gift certificates.
You don’t have to do this on a large scale. Take, for example, a pizzeria and a brewery. If you own the brewery, ask the local pizza place to encourage their patrons to stop by your place for a nightcap. In exchange, make your brewery BYOF (bring your own food) and post the pizzeria’s phone number and menus by the cash register.
Your real-time and digital networking methods should support each other. The online research you do can lead you toward both digital and face-to-face networking activities. You can use face-to-face activities to point partners and customers toward your online profiles, website, and sales pages as well as your brick-and-mortar store.
Digital methods can be effective tools for research, follow-ups and extending invitations.
Face-to-face methods are particularly effective for building trust and rapport, as well as negotiating partnerships. Use a mix of tools to build relationships with new business partners.