Don’t Go to Parties for the Food: Build Your Networks

About the Money With Melinda Emerson: SmallBizLady says every occasion is a chance for African Americans to grow and diversify business relationships.

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Ninety percent of all small businesses get business from referrals. So your network is your net worth in business, especially when you are starting out. One of the biggest challenges that holds back African-American business owners is not having a diverse network or not networking effectively. Sometimes deals boil down to who knows you, not just whom you know. It’s a good strategy to actively seek mentors and business contacts who do not look like you. When you attend a networking event, you can’t go for the food first; focus on building new relationships instead. It’s best to eat before you go. Here are four tips you can use grow your business through networking.

Make a plan. You need a plan before attending a networking event. Research the attendee list, and figure out whom you want to meet in advance. If you can, line up someone who knows everyone to make introductions for you. Your goal should be to meet only five people at any networking event—anyone after that is a bonus. The reason for this is that you only have a small amount of time to follow up with people; otherwise you could spread yourself too thin. 

Force yourself to network. It doesn’t matter if you are shy—force yourself to attend networking events. Set goals to attend at least three networking events a month. To spark a conversation, figure out something you can compliment people on. Go for the tie, watch or jewelry.

No drive-by networking. Get to the event early. Being late to a networking event means you could miss the event. Once you sit down at a table, you can only network with the nine other people at your table. The reception is the main event. Have plenty of business cards, but only give one if you are asked for one or if someone gives you a card. If there’s an opportunity to introduce yourself to the entire group at the event, volunteer quickly and try to go first.

Watch yourself. Be present. Nothing is worse than talking to someone who is actively looking over your shoulder for someone else to network with. Don’t be an opportunist! Anyone can add value to your business. Be willing to talk with anyone. Even if they can’t help right away, they could always be a referral source. You never know who they know or who their brother is.

Nurture your network. After the event, be sure to use social media to connect with everyone you met. But don’t just connect through LinkedIn and forget it; you want to reach out to your contact at least once a quarter to build rapport. If you think you have met a hot prospect, reach out within 48 hours to schedule a follow-up conference call or meeting. Always have clear goals for the meeting, and if your contact can only give you 15 minutes, do not take more. You could damage the relationship. People’s time is their most valuable asset. 

If you try some of these networking strategies, 2014 could be the best year ever in your small business.

Melinda Emerson, known to many as SmallBizLady, is CEO of Quintessence Multimedia. Emerson educates entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 companies on subjects including small business start-up, business development and social media marketing. She also publishes a resource blog and is the best-selling author of Become Your Own Boss in 12 Months. Follow her on Twitter.

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