Starting my own business in my early twenties with a laptop, communal Wi-Fi, and student loans, I quickly learned that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know (and I didn’t know anybody).
With limited funds and even less finesse, I struggled to connect with other professionals in my industry. I felt subconscious about my company’s early stage status and was almost convinced no one would ever hire me to market their brand. I knew networking was really important (I mean, it’s in all the business books), but armed with just with a well-worn Target suit, a couple dozen self-printed business cards, and an almost maxed out credit card, I wasn’t exactly positioned to network with the pros, or so I thought.
My networking strategy really took off when I begged my landlord not to evict me, as I’d started this internet-based business and was “just a few days away from landing a big client.” I’d never been behind on my rent before, but 30 days overdue with no income in sight had me worried sick. Where would I sleep? What would I eat? Would my entrepreneurial dream turn into my biggest nightmare? With no remaining savings and no clients on the horizon, I was grasping.
“You know how to do online advertising?” my landlord asked.
“Yes, I went to school for it,” I replied.
“Well this is interesting,” he replied, “my sister just bought a café and needs help with building a website…maybe she could hire you?”
And that was how I landed my first client. No fancy schmancy dinners, boardroom pitch, or tennis club introductions required. I just told a business owner about my services and BOOM – hired (and not evicted). I was able to use the marketing services I provided for the café as part of my company’s portfolio, which helped me land a few other small business clients. With time and many more projects, I was able to build a sizable project portfolio and develop a local reputation as a competent marketing professional.
My networking techniques have evolved since I landed that first word-of-mouth gig from my landlord to his sister. All of my current clients came from referrals within my professional network, and maintaining these key relationships is a big priority. Given that I work within a niche market, it’s essential that I am able to establish and maintain strong ties within my industry to ensure repeat business.
Here are a few networking secrets I’ve gleaned from my boot-strapped, mid-Recession career:
Build a Digital Community
Developing a strong digital footprint via social media is a great first step for young professionals seeking to expand their professional network. For my consulting business, LinkedIn provided me a great opportunity to connect with potential clients and highlight my business’s offerings. Identify your personal brand, engage on industry-relevant topics, and showcase your work performance across all social platforms.
Here are some tips for digital development:
- Keep your message consistent and professional.
- Use social media to build up network members.
- Engage in digital advocacy for causes you care about.
- Maintain an updated project portfolio and resume online.
Such social presence serves two key functions: 1) it provides introductions to thought leaders and industry colleagues, and 2) it allows for event follow-up and relationship development with just a few clicks.
Digital communities don’t replace in-real-life (IRL) interactions; instead, they enhance them! Maybe the hiring manager you connected with last year will LinkedIn message you about an upcoming job opportunity, or maybe a Facebook friend will tag a prospective client to your online portfolio post. Prioritizing your social capital via digital strategy is a great way to access additional professional opportunities.
Join Professional Organizations
A second networking strategy is to become active in professional organizations. Your chosen industry, geographic location and lifestyle will influence which organizations are available to you. I’m part of groups for agriculture professionals, business school students, female professionals, military community members, tech entrepreneurs, and women business owners.
Many offer low or waived membership fees for young professionals, helping to offset event attendance costs. Some organizations provide regularly scheduled educational workshops, while others help connect you with accomplished mentors. Some maintain detailed directories that can help you grow your network, while others moderate active social media groups where members can get real-time answers to their career questions.
One of my favorite professional organizations is the Forté Foundation – an amazing nonprofit organization that helps women launch fulfilling and significant careers in business. Thanks to their extensive resource library, online community, and educational webinars, I’ve been able to connect with other women business leaders all across the globe.
Share Your Expertise
Networking is not about selling – it’s about building relationships and empowering our community.
While volunteering may not make the top list of recognized networking activities, giving back can provide an awesome opportunity for professionals to connect with others (aka: networking). Thanks to online volunteer platforms, today’s young professional can easily access philanthropic initiatives within their area or industry.
There’s no one-size fits all to becoming involved in your community. Serving on nonprofit boards, volunteering at area soup kitchens, and scheduling a few hours a month for mentoring are just a few ways young professionals can weave giving back into their busy work schedules. As my business grew, I realized that many of my best clients came from connections I made while volunteering with a nonprofit youth ranch. My volunteer hours allowed me to give back doing something I loved – horseback riding – while connecting with like-minded professionals looking for marketing services.
Before signing up for the first volunteers needed flyer you see, consider your skill set: Are you a savvy marketer? Do you enjoy fundraising? Would you like to provide pro bono services to those in need? How can your industry expertise help further community initiatives? Once you’ve identified a few key skills that you can provide, browse online volunteer boards, reach out to non-profit organizations, and start connecting with other social entrepreneurs in your community.
Ready to start networking?
Whether you’re trying to build a business from scratch or land your dream job in Silicon Valley, networking is an essential to every professional’s career development strategy.
- Starbucks $100 gift card – Take an industry professional to coffee and request an informational interview about their company.
- Michael Kors bag – Use this chic bag as a conversation starter by asking your friend what they like to carry on their work commute.
- $400 gift card to Bliss Spa – Invite your boss squad to a spa day for some serious bonding. Not a Bliss Spa near you? We’ll allocate the funds towards a gift card to a spa in your area.
- Amazon Echo Show provided by Cognizant – A new way to be together. Use the Echo Show to make hands-free video calls to friends and family––perfect for the modern multitasker. Thank you, Cognizant!
- Pimco swag bag – Complete with an umbrella, foldup-reusable shopping bag, tumbler, stainless steel coffee mug, beach towel and a $20 Starbucks gift. This has ~everything~ you need to be productive on the go.
- Waterproof speaker provided by Goldman Sachs – get pumped up for your big days (and every day!) with tunes from this awesome waterproof speaker.
- An expense paid trip to one Forte College Leadership Conference of the winner’s choice – Forté hosts around six conferences a year for college students hosted by industry leaders.
- GMAT Voucher ($250) –Is grad school in your future? Women who take the GMAT in college often score higher than any other time in their lives. Start a study group!
By prioritizing your digital presence, joining professional organizations, and sharing your expertise with your community, you can jumpstart your career growth through connectivity. Ready? Set? Network!