People of a certain age will remember a TV programme called Ever Decreasing Circles. In it, Martin Bryce – played by Richard Briers – has a difficult relationship with his neighbour, Paul Ryman – played by Peter Egan – not least because every time something needs sorting out that is beyond Martin, Paul chirps up: ‘I’ve got a mate …’
Networks can be formal or informal, and Paul Ryman’s informal network of useful mates allowed him to offer a solution to every problem. But how can you translate that to business? How can you make sure your ‘mates’ are useful to you – and you to them?
Why do you need a network?
There are all sorts of reasons why you might want to develop a network, and you’ll need to think about what matters to you in your business at any given time. Maybe you want to attract new business; or gain an understanding of a new area of the market that you want to move into; or perhaps you are looking to develop your knowledge and skills as a businessperson.
You can do any and all of these things without a network – but it’s undoubtedly easier if you can benefit from the combined knowledge and reach of a group of people.
Six degrees of separation
You’ll likely have heard of the concept of six degrees of separation, the idea that everyone in the world is just six links in a chain of friendship from anyone else. Within my six degrees, I can count musician Nile Rodgers, Footballer David Beckham and Sir Alan Sugar. That doesn’t mean I can ring them up and ask a favour directly, but I’ve got a mate … or a mate of a mate … and so on.
And that’s the power of a network. Once you have a connection with one person, you potentially have access to everyone they know.
How do you utilise that to help you achieve your business aims?
Say you are looking for more business. You can instigate a referral system for existing clients, whereby they get a reward if they recommend you to someone who becomes a customer.
You can learn more about the market from someone already operating in it, arguably especially if your business complements rather than directly competes with theirs.
And you can expand your business knowledge and skills – and further develop your network – by joining a mastermind group.
Developing your network
With social media and specialist online business communities it’s arguably never been easier to network – you can establish new business contacts while you sit at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. The key element is to be focused on your goals: what do you want to achieve? If you want new business, you need to connect with people who will buy what you have to offer. If you want to know more about the market, you need to speak to people who understand it. If you want to develop as a businessperson, you need to connect with people who are at the place you want to be, not where you were last year or are now.
Join relevant organisations, such as trade clubs, local collectives, or the local Chamber of Commerce. Keep an eye out for any other local networking groups that have been established, or national groups with a local presence.
And don’t discount the people within your business – you don’t know who people know.
Maintaining your network
When you start networking, you’ll most likely spend most of your time developing new contacts. However, once you have a number of contacts, that focus needs to shift slightly. Yes, you’ll still be looking for new good contacts, but you also need to nurture the ones you already have. All relationships will stagnate and expire if they’re neglected, and relationships with networking contacts are no different.
If you’re happy to make personal connections, you could make a note whenever you learn it’s someone’s birthday, or they’ve got married or become a parent, and send an email or a card of congratulations on the anniversary. If you prefer to keep things strictly business, then when you come across a news item or business article that might be relevant to them, pass on a link. Some mix of the two might suit you best, depending on who the contact is.
Networks can be powerful things. Take a little time to put together a strategy to develop yours and you, too, could leverage the power of the crowd.