While there’s a temptation to sugar-coat it, the statistics for startups are not stellar. Brand new companies with employees have just a 49% chance of existing past their fifth years, according to Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. Networking for startups is not optional; it’s essential. Attracting funding, recruiting talent and winning clients are all based upon relationships and trust.
You’ve got the brilliant idea, but do you have networking savvy? Granted, if you’re innovating an entirely new field, there may very well be no existing networks to join. In that case, you’ll have to build your own network… but we’ll get to that later.
Identify Your Needs
Networking for startups begins with identifying your short and long-term needs. Attracting more capital requires attending different types of events than if you’re searching for clients. Choose your events, trade shows and professional groups carefully. Find out who will be attending ahead of time to ensure it’s where you want to be. Remember that there’s a difference between networking and socializing; while networking is a social pursuit, you should be selective about both the events you attend and the contacts you spend the most time speaking with.
Ask and Listen
Have a polished “elevator pitch” as well as key questions committed to memory, but don’t be afraid to go off-script. The best elevator pitches convey the genuine value of the service being offered and a compelling call to action. Nancy Collamer of Forbes magazine recommends answering three questions in your pitch: Who are you, what do you do, and what are you looking for? Once you’ve said your piece, it’s your turn to listen. Really listen; get to know whom you’re talking to. What makes them tick? Make a genuine connection. Before you part ways, ask if they know of anyone they think you should talk to. If any of their suggestions resonate, ask for an introduction.
Build Your Own Network
Leads can be anywhere. Life-changing contacts have been made 42,000 feet above the sea. Whether on a plane or waiting in a reception area, be open to making connections in unexpected places. Online social networks are a starting point, but go beyond them; move key LinkedIn contacts from the virtual world to the real world. Real, lasting trust is built face-to-face. Customize your LinkedIn profile and contact request, and seek introductions wherever relevant. Reach out to other startups, too; they can be an invaluable source of funding information.
Stay Organized and Follow Up
Lastly, be sure and keep your contacts well organized for easy follow-up. After every networking event or encounter, file the data you receive in a prioritized manner. An electronic business card filing system from NeatDesk can help you go paperless; there are also smartphone apps that do the same thing. Start your follow-up correspondence with a form of, “It was so great to meet you.” Remind them how you connected, what you had in common, and then propose the next mutually beneficial step.
Perhaps the biggest key to networking for startups is to be genuine. You are the face for your startup; time is too precious to spend being someone you’re not. Remember, you’re the new kid on the block. To build credibility, trust and perceived value, become adept at networking both online and off.