Meeting people is easy: networking tips for startup founders

Manchester’s tech startup community is bursting with events, meet-ups, and networking talks. Getting out there and connecting with like-minded folks is an essential activity for a startup entrepreneur, building a great network and being part of the community. Almost every breakfast, lunch and evening it seems is packed with opportunities to hang out at popular hubs and co-working spaces. 

Don’t get me wrong, they can be really useful, and you can meet some thought-provoking people and build vital connections. But, if you’re not careful, you can also spend most of the week chasing every single gathering of coffee and croissants, beer, and pizza, using valuable time that you could and should be spending, you know, actually working on your startup. So, it’s a balance.

Throughout its rich history of disruption, growth and innovation, Manchester has seen many iconic meetings in the city, for example:

Charles Rolls & Henry Royce After Royce built a car in his factory in Cook Street, he met with Rolls at the Midland Hotel in 1904. Rolls was impressed by the car and the partnership was born. The combination of Rolls’ wealth and Royce’s engineering expertise spawned the creation of one of the most iconic car and engineering brands of all time, as Rolls-Royce Limited setup in 1906.

Marx & Engels It was in Manchester in the mid C19th that the Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx met to discuss revolution and the theory of communism. The desk and alcove where Marx and Engels worked and studied at Chetham’s Library in 1845 are still there today and remain unaltered. It truly was a meeting that shaped the world.

Graphene Fridays Professor Sir Andre Geim and Professor Sir Kostya Novoselov, at the University of Manchester, often held ‘Friday night experiments’. One Friday, the two scientists removed flakes from a lump of graphite with sticky tape and noticed that some flakes were thinner than others. By separating the graphite fragments, they managed to create some which were just one atom thick: they had successfully isolated graphene for the first time.

Women’s Social and Political Union A meeting at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester was the birthplace of the Suffragette movement, at the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union. This historically significant building was the home of Emmeline Pankhurst and her family who led the Suffragette campaign and ‘Votes for Women’.

The Free Trade Hall, June 4, 1976 This was a gig that changed the face of Manchester culture forever, The Sex Pistols show defined music for generations to come. In the audience were future members Joy Divison (Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook), two founders of Factory Records (Martin Hannett and Tony Wilson), Mark E. Smith of The Fall, and one Steven Morrissey, who would form The Smiths.

Whilst we’d all give our right arm to be at meeting that would create such an impact to move our business forward, many entrepreneurs built their businesses without jumping at every networking event they came across. Examples of successful entrepreneurs who famously hunkered down and kept themselves to themselves include What’s App co-founders, Brian Acton and Jan Koum, whilst Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak spent all their time building and improving their product.

These examples demonstrate that instead of jumping around to every event before you have any traction with your own business, build your startup and let networking organically follow. Yes, get out of the building, but do so to test your ideas and validate your learning. I see many startup founders beating a trail to every event, almost addicted to going to and being seen or speaking. This creates false expectations. Yes, it’s good to socialise your idea, share thinking with likeminded people and not get isolated, but it’s often the smaller, quiet moments on your own in startup life that create the biggest impact, which is often overlooked.

So, here are some thoughts to help guide your networking strategy and get the balance right.

Network with a purpose Profile and pick your events, never go to an event aimlessly. Have a purpose. Look at the title of the event and the keynote speakers. Your goal should be to meet people that you can help and people who can help you.  The old saying, ‘It is not what you know; it is who you know’ is true, you can significantly increase your chances of success if you know or can get in touch with the right people. This is the power of networking, but it has to be focused. Frankly, I’m fed up of be asked to play in ‘name check entrepreneur bingo’ – do you know Mr X, or Mrs Y? What’s the point?

You must target networking events where you can determine that you’ll have the opportunity for real conversations of genuine value to you. Too many of these events involve quick chats, exchange of details about each other’s’ businesses, and move on. Time is an essential ingredient in all startups, make it count. Rather than simply getting your name out there and being seen on social media, appeal instead to your self-interest. Otherwise, stay at home and work.

Focus your outreach Build your network with purpose. Before you attend an event, research the speakers and those attending. Prioritise who you want to meet, craft a plan to make the most of the event and to build quality relationships by connecting with people who could add value to your thinking. Knowing who to engage in conversations ahead of the event is common sense planning.

People enjoy people via an exchange of value, so when you try to impress with nothing to back it up, the relationship you thought you were building will fizzle away. What can you add to their thinking? The people we surround ourselves with at the outset of our venture are important. They can determine our future, so be focused and active on making connections that could trigger growth opportunities – but also be mindful you need to offer real value back in return.

Prepare your introduction Sounds obvious, but do you have a crafted and thoughtful introduction? Don’t just go barging in and start talking about your startup being an investment opportunity, and make it sound like an elevator pitch. Be polite and friendly, let them know who they’re talking to, make it personal, warm and interesting.

After a clam introduction, talk about something they’ve done that has amazed you when you learned or read about it. Doing this will make the person more open to you, knowing one of their products or services has had an impact. Make yourself someone genuinely worth knowing.

Next, find something in common, that will start to create a deeper connection and build trust. Spend  time asking smart questions and listening to the replies than talking about yourself. Networking is about creating trust, being open, curious and helpful. Be prepared, but invest in the relationship first, don’t start selling or simply pushing your own agenda unilaterally.

It’s about storytelling rather than exchanging business cards. Your aim is to build a genuine connection. That means you’re not doing all the talking but encouraging an active exchange that shows you’re sincerely interested in how the other person thinks. It also means you pay attention to the answers. There is no value in a pocket of business cards at the end of the event if you haven’t made a purposeful connection at a personal level.

The events where there is an opportunity for genuine peer-group learning and reflection are the most valuable. Don’t just go to events and listen to people talking about themselves. How will this take you forward? Yes, there may be insights from their journey, but don’t then look to copy what worked for them.

Instead, being an active participant is vital, sharing some ‘in the moment thinking’ that can end up laying the groundwork for learning and a pivot in your product is a great outcome. Be an able and active storyteller too, describing the activity of your startup, sometimes with improvisation, theatrics, or humour. Every startup has its own story which if shared in context offers insight and creates empathy and long-term valued connections.

Circulate and know when to get out Don’t stay the whole time making comfortable small talk with the first group you meet. After a while make a polite excuse and move around the room spending say ten to fifteen minutes with each new person. You will find that you can leave conversations without being brusque. Networking means circulating and people are aware of this. Manage your time.

Your time is better spent, and a much better connection made, when you linger with those where you’ve sparked good give-and-take. Get out gracefully, when you feel you’ve been cornered by someone who isn’t a good match.

Follow Up You’ve invested time in getting to the event, the days immediately after give your new connections a call and re-introduce yourself. If you don’t follow up, where is the return on your investment? This is the chance for a more purposeful one-to-one conversation. I find a three-day follow up rule works, as anything longer may diminish the initial contact.

Follow-up is important, although the extent to which you really ‘click’ personally and professionally is open at this stage. What’s important to remember is that the best relationships are mutually beneficial, so the first meeting was just that, now you have to nurture the connection: the more you put into it, the more will come back to you.

Positive Influences The people with whom you associate and spend time with influence who you are and what you become. Therefore, it is important to surround yourself with positive, uplifting people that help you to grow and thrive as a business owner and as a person. Positive people naturally exude their best attributes; these are the individuals with whom you want to associate and connect with. So, build an intimate network of people who are pursuing excellence in their business and personal lives. You cannot help but receive a charge just from being in their presence. The knowledge you may gain is important, but the mindset you can adopt from them is invaluable.

But it’s a balance; attending a networking event ultimately robs you of time you could have spent building your startup and understanding your customers. Don’t become part of the ‘celebratory startup circuit’ where you must be seen. Also, don’t keep score, it’s not about the ‘who and how many’, rather connect with people because there is value, and nurture the relationships that will truly help propel you towards accomplishing great things. Whilst you can get inspiration from the journeys of others, it’s actually perspiration – your own – that will ultimately move your business forward.

I’ve met many people for the first time at meetups who have remained in my life both personally and professionally and we’ve helped each other. After a while, networking doesn’t feel like ‘networking.’ It’s both serendipitous and unpredictable, and something that just naturally becomes part of your startup life but follow the pointers above to ensure you get it right.

I believe your social capital – your ability to build a network of authentic personal and professional relationships, not your financial capital – is the most important asset in your startup. Our ability to work and share our lives with people who share our passions and values builds a network that provides an interpersonal safety net that guarantees greater output and personal fulfilment along the startup journey.

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