It’s daunting to walk into a room full of strangers and talk yourself up, but networking is an essential skill for small business owners to develop. It’s about being intentional with your efforts and building authentic, lasting relationships.
In the spirit of International Networking Week, which runs Feb. 4 to 10, 2024, ATB is breaking down need-to-know networking basics to make the most of your time.
Define what you need
Are you looking for customers, partners or suppliers? Are you looking for advice, mentorship and community? Get clear about your values and what distinguishes your business, and identify events, companies and professionals that align.
Be targeted in your approach, but let relationships develop organically. Don’t attend every event or see networking as a sales tactic; it’s a relationship-building tactic, so be your authentic self, demonstrate curiosity and explain what you can do for others.
Reflection questions to identify a worthwhile networking opportunity:
- Who do you want to meet? Clients, mentors, investors, vendors or other entrepreneurs?
- What fields, industries or communities do you want to explore?
- Who is the audience? Can they help meet your goals?
- What are the other participants looking for? What value can you provide them?
- What do you need to know before attending the event?
When you build a community of supportive people, both inside and outside your industry, you can count on them for different perspectives and advice.
Where to network:
- Organizations like Alberta Innovates, Alberta Women Entrepreneurs, Business Development Bank of Canada, Business Link, Community Futures Network of Alberta, Edmonton Unlimited, Futurpreneur, Platform Calgary or Calgary Economic Development
- Your local chapter of Business Network International, Entrepreneurs' Organization, Lions Club, Rotary Club, Regional Innovation Network or Chamber of Commerce
- Online: LinkedIn, Facebook, Meetup or Eventbrite
- Business, construction, newcomer, sports, tourism, film or arts associations
- Workshops, trade shows, conferences, boards or committees
- Universities or colleges
- Non-profit or volunteer organizations
- Parties or farmers’ markets
- Client-hosted events
- Events you host
- ATB events including workshops and webinars
Talk yourself up by writing it down
You just stepped into an elevator. You have 30 seconds to describe yourself to the stranger next to you. What do you say before you go your separate ways?
An elevator pitch is a short speech that clearly communicates who you are, why your business is unique, what you’re looking for and how you can benefit someone.
Brain dump everything you want people to know about your business. Remove the jargon and unnecessary words. Connect each sentence for a natural flow. Practise your speech aloud so you’re prepared to talk to anyone anytime. The person listening wants to know what’s in it for them.
Know your key points and create alternate versions of your speech to tailor it to different audiences and situations you might face. Your pitch will be different for potential clients versus partners versus a stranger whose background you don’t know. Does what you're saying match what your website and social media says?
At an event
Bring business cards, a growth mindset and enthusiasm to each event. Consider what kind of first impression you make. While it’s good to chat with people you know, make the effort to meet new people—but don’t spend too much time with one person.
What you can say and do:
- Start conversations with people in line for food or drinks
- Use a simple opening line and handshake: “Here’s someone I haven’t met yet!”
- Use an attention-grabbing statement or question
- Creative questions:
- If you could swap businesses with someone else in this room for a day, who would it be and why?
- What's the most unexpected skill or hobby you've discovered that complements your entrepreneurial journey?
- If your business had a theme song, what would it be?
- If you could invite any three people, dead or alive, to a dinner party to discuss business, who would they be and why?
- If your business had a mascot, what would it and its catchphrase be?
- Standard questions:
- What’s something new/fun/unusual you’ve learned lately?
- How is this event for you so far?
- What's your connection to this event?
- What's your favourite part of your job?
- What do you do for fun?
- What kind of business do you run?
- What challenges are you facing?
- What does a typical day look like for you?
- Creative questions:
- Offer a genuine compliment
- Describe you, your company, what specific services you offer, a problem you solved and why your business is different from competitors
- Explain why you are interested in them
Networking involves meeting people, being curious and asking questions—not selling products or forming alliances. Your peers might also feel awkward, so take a chance and chat up a stranger—they might be just the person you need in your network.
After an event
Keep the momentum going by sending followup emails and connecting on LinkedIn within a day. Mention where you met, why you’re excited to connect and if there is an opportunity or invite you’d like to extend. Consistency, patience and persistence are key.
After every event, update your list of connections with contact information (name, company, title, phone number and email), where you met, topics covered/talking points, date connected and actions required. You can annually evaluate which relationships helped your business.
Quality over quantity
How can you connect with a stranger on a personal level? Networking might feel awkward or transactional at first, but by polishing your interpersonal skills, you can create authentic, symbiotic connections that could pay off in the long run.
Get involved by subscribing to relevant newsletters, finding events that interest you and saying yes to invites. Have a short pitch about yourself ready and show genuine interest in others by asking engaging questions and actively listening. Follow up with people after events and stay in touch to build relationships. Remember to focus on connection quality, not quantity.
For a list of entrepreneur events and opportunities to meet like-minded business owners, visit the ATB events page.