Networking isn’t just for entry-level job applicants and startup entrepreneurs—it’s also a valuable exercise for aspiring and established small business owners. Keep reading to learn more about the power of business networking and how you can use it to propel your business growth.
Why does small business networking matter?
Professional networking is the process of expanding your connections. Effective business networking means building relationships not just with customers and clients, but with fellow small business owners, investors and mentors, community members, and professionals in other industries. You can use networking opportunities to:
- Source advice and tips from other business professionals.
- Get referrals for business consultants, vendors, and other experts.
- Establish mutually beneficial business partnerships.
- Take advantage of interesting and relevant opportunities.
- Invest in new business projects or endeavors.
- Fundraise money.
- Learn more about your industry and gain valuable insights.
- Increase your customer base.
- Gain new skills to apply to your business.
- Benefit from word-of-mouth marketing.
- Generate new ideas.
- Keep up with industry trends and changing customer needs.
6 Small Business Networking Tips for More Success
If you’re intimidated by building your professional network — or if your past networking efforts haven’t yielded great results — try these tips.
1. Clarify what you want to get and what you want to give
Before you start introducing yourself around in networking groups and emailing acquaintances for coffee dates, consider your networking goals. Do you want to create new business partnerships, find a mentor, or raise your business’s profile? What can you offer in return? Do you have specific knowledge or business contacts to share? Can you provide any pro bono services to your business network?
Answering these questions helps you make a plan, so you can focus on the most meaningful networking activities instead of trying to do everything.
One of the best ways to start networking as a small business owner — especially if you own a brick-and-mortar establishment — is to get more familiar with your local community. Community ties are strong, and most people want to help one another out and support local businesses. Here are some ways to get involved:
- Join your local business association (check your city’s website for more information).
- Look into your city’s resources for business owners, like business grants or peer groups.
- Attend local events, from fundraisers and rallies to charity auctions, farmers markets, and seasonal activities.
- Use other local businesses for your business needs, like catering a team lunch or ordering office supplies.
- Introduce yourself to business owners nearby, share your contact information, and ask how you can support them.
- Sign up for local volunteer events.
- Attend your city council meetings to learn more about local policies and news that affect small business owners.
3. Join professional associations
Professional business associations are a perfect place to connect with like-minded individuals and sharpen your skills. Many small business networking groups and associations have in-person annual conferences and regular virtual webinars, as well as business courses, networking events, and mentorship matching. Some associations even offer their own business grants.
Look for associations in your business industry and region to start. Many industries and cities have their own niche professional groups for social networking. From there, check out associations that cater to people with similar backgrounds and needs as yours. Here are some professional associations that support women business owners, minority business owners, LGBTQIA+ business owners, and veteran business owners:
Pro tip: Check out our guides to getting financing as a woman-owned business and finding loans as a minority-owned business.
4. Make the most of industry events and trade shows
Industry trade shows and conferences are great opportunities for successful networking, but showing up isn’t enough to have a meaningful experience. To maximize your time (and your investment), keep these strategies in mind:
- Be picky: Choose an event that aligns with your business goals. Review the speakers, panel topics, and resources ahead of time to make sure you’ll get what you need out of it.
- Arrange meetings ahead of time: Organic, spontaneous networking is thrilling when it happens, but it’s not always possible. If you struggle in social settings or know you’ll be pressed for time at an event, try scheduling a get-together. Email people you know will be there or set up a group chat to put something on the books.
- Contribute to the event: Sharing your experience or skills in a large group setting is a great way to draw people to you. Find an opportunity to contribute, whether it’s by volunteering at the event or signing up to speak on a panel.
5. Pay it forward
Networking is a give-and-receive exchange. If you only look out for yourself, you won’t make genuine, lasting connections. That’s why it’s important to proactively find ways to support your connections and peers. Here are some best practices to keep in mind:
- Don’t dominate the conversation; listen and ask questions when talking to other people.
- Send follow-up emails to people you exchange business cards with.
- Follow your connections on their professional social media accounts and share or comment on their posts.
- Create online or in-person support groups with like-minded acquaintances and peers to catch up, commiserate, or swap business ideas.
- Give LinkedIn recommendations to people you’ve worked with and value.
- Look out for ways to support the people in your network, like sharing relevant business opportunities with them or suggesting new vendors.
- Refer your friends, family, connections, and peers to businesses you love and trust.
6. Establish mutually beneficial business partnerships
A healthy, strategic business partnership is one of the best networking outcomes. Business partnerships can take lots of forms. You can do a joint venture, where you and another business owner team up to achieve a common goal, like hosting a community event or buying a shared location. Or you can pair up for cross-promotion, where you refer your customers to your partner business and your partner business does the same for you.
As you network, keep a running list of potential business partnerships. Then, when you connect with someone you see potential in, set up a conversation to learn more about their business goals, skills, and communication style.
Start networking today
Networking is ongoing work, but it doesn’t have to be hard. Start with one simple connection; before you know it, your circle will be bigger and your business will be better for it.