The Secret Entrepreneur: The networking minefield

Business networking is not all great chat, tasty canapés and glasses of fine wine – it’s a task loaded with insecurities and frustration, says our mystery entrepreneur

In their last column our Secret Entrepreneur told how they’d unwittingly acquired a business mentor who turned out to be a fully paid-up gangster.

This week, they share what they really think about networking – and the thing that really ruins a good night out.

Our Secret Entrepreneur – a successful British business owner – has been sharing their angst, frustrations, and the realities of running a multi-million turnover company right here on Startups.

“I have a love-hate relationship with networking.

I view it as a fundamentally important part of what I do and the results can be very rewarding. I get a lot of pleasure from meeting interesting new people and have had many great deals result from connections made while networking.

However, there’s no denying that the prospect of showing up in a room full of people that I don’t know and talking to random strangers is daunting. The fear of rejection is a strong one, if generally unfounded. My previous approach to tackling this – finding the bar and fortifying myself with Dutch courage – while at least partially successful was, I fear, leading towards borderline alcoholism. It certainly wasn’t good for the figure.

Then a little while ago I had a revelation. Talking to an entrepreneurial friend – who I’d met through networking and who I considered to be very good at it – he confessed to exactly the same problem as me; he was absolutely scared rigid of the process.

I chatted to a few more people and it quickly became apparent that this afflicted almost every entrepreneur I knew. Even the outwardly media-hungry, borderline sociopathic ones, and the mega-successful ones. They were all just good at hiding it.

That’s made a huge difference to me when I’m networking with other entrepreneurs. Knowing everyone else is in the same boat makes things much easier, more enjoyable and less prone (although still not immune) to hangovers the next day.

Ruining a good night out

The same principle does not, however, apply to more ‘open’ networking events. You know the ones I mean – where every other person you meet is a salesperson, lawyer, accountant, or God-forbid, a life coach (an occupation I find so completely preposterous that it makes me boil with rage).

Why? Because the agendas are entirely different. When I network with entrepreneurs (or want-to-be entrepreneurs, or just interesting people) it’s not to make a sale, but to establish connections and exchange ideas. It’s a long term thing for me and relationships are built with mutual trust over time. I may have a particular person I specifically go to meet, but I don’t leap on them to force my agenda and I find a way to get a good introduction.

At the other kind of event I get overwhelmed with salespeople trying to use networking ‘techniques’ – to pitch to me and move on to another potential target as quickly as possible. What a waste of time. Their business cards go straight in the bin and when they ask for mine funnily enough I’ve always just run out.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against salespeople, especially when they’re good and working for me. However, I didn’t drag myself out on a cold winter’s evening because I wanted to find a new stationery supplier, lawyer or accountant. Or because I need someone I can pay to tell me how I should be living my own life.

How can you identify these kind of waste-of-time events in advance? They’ll be the ones billed as ‘networking events’ and run by a group where the membership consists of a lot of professional services types. They’ll be very easy to get in to and won’t have specific criteria for guests. They’re generally big – more than 100 people.

I avoid these at all costs now. I do send my salespeople though…”

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