When I started my first company some years ago I placed all my focus on creating a great offering, but almost no effort went into sales and networking. Needless to say that it took an incredibly long time to get off the ground - 6 years in fact.
During that time I learned a lot about how business works, and my focus has shifted almost completely onto sales, marketing and networking.
Nowadays, a good idea with a quality product backed by excellent service is the bare minimum required to succeed. Because there is so much competition (especially online), what sets companies apart these days is how effectively they can network and promote themselves.
In fact, one of my favorite sayings is,
It doesn't matter what business you are in, the business you are in is marketing.
But, if you're like me, networking and promotions don't come naturally and you have to work at them in order to succeed.
This article explores a bunch of great tips that will help you build a genuine network of people who can drive your brand forward (to (hopefully) achieve success in well under 6 years).
1. Create content that is useful
Think of content as the foundation upon which online interaction is built. The content you create and share online is proof of your expertise, knowledge, skills, ethos, philosophy, humor, lifestyle, and just about anything else.
Devote time to learning how to communicate effectively through content - regardless of whether it is blog writing or creating YouTube clips.
When it comes time to meet new people they will want to know what you have to say, who you are, what you stand for, and how qualified and competent you are. An online body of content provides instant proof.
It also serves as a great platform to stimulate debate and is a great way to get to meet new people as you share and discuss things.
2. Talk about other people
One thing that all companies do poorly is giving other people coverage and visibility on their own soapbox. Understandable, I guess... but fundamentally poor practice.
I'm not suggesting you devote a blog post to covering the latest release of a competitor's product, but I am saying that you can talk about other people, products and services that have made a positive difference in your life.
Talking about great people not only helps them gain exposure, but it also puts you on their radar, and helps people in your network at the same time - which gives you credibility.
3. Create value for other people
This is an extremely effective networking strategy, but you should apply a bit of common sense when using it.
Doing something for someone you have never met, and dropping them an email about it might work... but it might also come across as spam. Or worse, may be something that is actually undesirable for them.
Instead, keep your eyes and ears out for things that will help people already in your network. Then, do it and let them know about it.
For example, if you know a reporter is looking out for a story, and someone you know has a service that fits the bill. Take the time to forward on the reporters name, number, details, and what they're looking for to them - without asking for anything in return.
If your help turns out to be a major win, you will be given some of the credit, and this is this might prove to be really valuable down the line. Cost to you - 5 minutes.
4. Meet local people
Local people are the most likely to engage with you and your company in a meaningful way. But many people focus purely on social media and online marketing at the cost of missing out on "real" connections.
It doesn't matter where you are, there will always be a few surprising and potentially valuable contacts lurking around your home town. A retired businessman who happens to know the CEO of a company you want to sell to, a golfer who has a regular game with an investor, etc.
Local contacts are hugely important so get involved in local events and your community and make the most of the "low hanging fruit" that's all around you.
5. Nurture meaningful online relationships
It's a lot harder to build real relationships online. Not least of which is because there are millions of spammers and fakers trying their luck every second of the day - the rest tend to be salespeople and marketers looking to make money.
Many people are jaded when it comes to building solid connections online, but you can break through by focusing your efforts on a few individuals who you have identified as being interested and active in your niche.
Don't jump to sales or marketing as soon as you've made contact. Treat online relationships as a medium term project. Give people time to learn about who you are and whether or not they feel comfortable endorsing you and your enterprise.
If you do things right, new opportunities will come to you through those contacts in its own time - no pushy sales pitches required. Be patient with online connections.
6. Use your network intelligently
Ever been contacted by someone who has a huge number of social media connections? People who have thousands of LinkedIn connections?
How many people do you think you could sustain a meaningful relationship with? Does it make sense that they are working with and helping all those people on an individual basis? Probably not.
Grow your network selectively, and be sure to provide meaningful interactions and contributions to that network. For example, if you see a news article that would interest one person in particular, forward it to them individually - not to your whole network.
I regularly find myself removing contacts who have done enough to convince me to join their network, but then spend the rest of their time sending out form marketing materials and sales pitches.
Trust me, you'll generate more value through a handful of meaningful connections than a sea of worthless ones.
7. Include other people
This is something I was very poor at. My attitude to starting a company was that I was going to do it myself - be a self-made man.
Unfortunately, it's not the right way to go about things. You have to involve other people. A team of people striving for a common goal is far more effective than an individual.
You can choose to include people on a number of different levels. Get your family and friends involved on a casual basis, offer a talented graduate an equity share in return for lots of hard work, offer a talented but underutilized person an opportunity to get involved in a more challenging work environment, whatever fits.
Surrounding yourself with the right people is crucially important, and you can't do it without effective networking.
So those are the networking tips I have picked up over the last few years of working on and around startups. What other tips do you have?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.