Networking Is Not a Dirty Word

Being a successful networker doesn't mean you have to be a slimebag. Here's how to schmooze with the best of them...without selling out.
Magazine Contributor
11 min read

This story appears in the January 2000 issue of . Subscribe »

Abdel-Rahim Mohammed woke up in a cramped metal box. He could hear whispering. It was dark. According to the Associated Press, which reported this story last summer, all the 32-year-old Arabic teacher knew was that one moment, he was swimming at the beach in Alexandria, Egypt, got dizzy and blacked out.

What Mohammed didn't immediately realize was that he was in a refrigerated morgue. But nearby was an attendant showing a grieving family a body. As the attendant tried to shut the compartment, Mohammed's hand clamped down on the guy's wrist.

The attendant--and the family--ran out of the morgue, screaming, "Help us!"

Mohammed, numb from cold, pried himself out of his compartment, left the morgue and called his family, who had been told he was dead.

It's clear what all of us are thinking: If this guy ever wanted to start his own business, he'd be great at networking!

Oh. Was that, um, the last thing you were thinking? Well, maybe so, but it's worth noting that Mohammed is likely going to be remembered around parts of Egypt for the rest of his life. And in the business world, where everybody's clamoring for attention, an entrepreneur with a tale like that to tell would have the spotlight for life: "Say, Phil, I wanted to discuss venture capital possibilities. And, by the way, did I ever tell you about the time I was declared dead and dropped off at the morgue?"

The rest of us mere mortals have to try a little harder to get noticed and be remembered. We have to do some serious networking. The good news: It doesn't require a trip to the morgue. You can meet potential clients anywhere, as Jay Bloom, 31, CEO of Pet Assure, a pet-care savings program in Dover, New Jersey, found out. The guy who sold Bloom his house became one of Pet Assure's biggest investors. Entrepreneurs can network at baseball games, birthday parties, weddings, ski slopes, swimming pools, in airports and while waiting in line. "I have something called the 3-foot rule," says Deb Haggerty, founder of Positive Connections, an Orlando, Florida, consulting firm that delivers seminars on networking. "Anybody within 3 feet--the space it takes to shake hands--is a business contact."

Of course, the last thing you want is to be an overly enthusiastic boob who shakes everybody's hands and thrusts business cards into their grips. Which is why it should come as a relief to the introverted and extroverted alike that networking doesn't have to be a grueling process of selling yourself-or, worse, pushing yourself on people.

Haggerty, like everybody interviewed for this story, suggests you worry more about what you can do for the other person than for yourself. The idea is to create your own personal network, not unlike NBC, ABC, AOL or Yahoo!. If you have numerous colleagues (think: affiliate stations or Internet members) who know and like you, eventually that's going to come back to you and translate into dollars.

Ah, you're catching on: Pretend you don't care about money and, in the process, become filthy rich? Er, yes, that's the idea . . . and even if you do occasionally thrust your business card into somebody's hand with hardly a how-do-you-do, you shouldn't feel guilty or awkward. As 35-year-old Ben Feder, founder of MessageClick, an online unified messaging and outsource faxing service in New York City, says, "Chance meetings are often as beneficial to the other person as they are to you. Whether it's a board member or a financier or an employee, people are looking for opportunities. By presenting them with an opportunity, you're not crossing any moral boundaries. Besides, they're always free to say no."

Start Talking

Entrepreneurship is built on networking, contends Mary Donohue, 35-year-old president of Ontario's chapter of LeTip, a North American networking organization, and co-founder with Andy Hall, also 35, of Donohue Brent Training & Consulting. "How did Henry Ford get his car to sell? He met people and told them about it," Donohue asserts. "What did Rockefeller do? Exactly the same thing. He met everybody, he did volunteer work, he gave away money. The Internet's great, advertising's essential, but the most essential thing is to get out of your chair, leave your office and meet people. Why do you think politicians go door to door and kiss babies? It works."

So where do you go? What do you do? Won't mothers call the authorities if you try to kiss their babies?

Questions, questions. Fortunately, the most obvious way to network is something you already do: talk, really talk, to the people you meet. Feder has successfully networked simply by keeping his social calendar full. At a wedding, he began talking to a cousin of the bride; the guy became his Web site developer. At an engagement party, he met a guest who became his systems administrator. At a dinner party, he met a guest who became a member of his board of directors. "I'm an entrepreneur, and my business is always [on my] mind," says Feder. "I'm always on the lookout for people who can relate to my business. Entrepreneurs have to grab resources where they can, and sometimes answers are staring us in the face."

But you don't need to wait for opportunity to ring the doorbell, either. You can create your own spontaneous meetings. That's what Wendy Wolfson has done since 1994. The then-34-year-old worked in the high-tech industry, surrounded by "200 male engineers. I'd forget I was a girl," she says. So Wolfson began calling fellow females and inviting them out to eat, dubbing the events Diva Dinners.

"It's a way of building relationships," explains Wolfson, who now owns a Boston public relations firm, Wendy Wolfson Communications, which specializes in high-tech companies. To her dinners, Wolfson invites women--many of whom she's never met--whose careers or personalities she feels will resonate with the rest of the dinner guests. Then she sits back and observes. "It's like performance art," Wolfson says. And this art pays off: "All my clients have come from networking."

It doesn't matter if you're a woman, a man or something in between: You can start your own networking group and make it as specific or vague as you want. "Just pick a restaurant where you can rely on the food and seating," advises Wolfson, adding that the atmosphere should be conducive to conversation. She generally invites 20 people; invariably, 10 show up. Undaunted, Wolfson says a lower turnout yields better interaction.

3,2,1 Contact

When you've met somebody you think might be good for your business, it's obviously important to smile, make eye contact and not have any serious body odor problems. But good networking goes beyond exchanging pleasantries. "You need to get people to ask for your business card--not the other way around," says Donohue.

Haggerty concurs. She suggests coming up with a clever way to describe your business, so that rich stranger actually remembers you weeks from now. For instance, if you own a bed and breakfast inn, do as one of Haggerty's friends does and say, "I put heads in beds." If your acquaintance doesn't bolt, he or she will probably ask what you mean. When you explain, said acquaintance is likely to remember you.

Once you've been asked for your business card, "try not to have the highest expectations," advises 32-year-old Christine Bourron, CEO of New York City company, which sells contemporary paintings online. She should know: Bourron recalls once waiting and waiting for an investment to pan out after meeting a bigwig at an event. Weeks later, the lead had yielded nothing; in the meantime, she hadn't pursued any other options.

Networking Stands for Nice

Everybody is an option for networking, as evidenced in a story Donohue insists really happened to a friend of hers:

One day, a bum came into a printer's shop--hair a mess, face unshaven and clothes mismatched. The printer was skeptical when the bum said, "I need business cards by tomorrow at noon." The printer wasn't pleased to hear this; business cards are hardly profitable, and the turnaround time was going to be a nuisance. But the bum insisted he needed them.

"I hope he can pay the $35," the printer thought as the bum left.

The next day, an impeccably groomed man in a crisp suit breezed into the store. "I have to apologize," the man said. "Yesterday, my baby was sick, my wife and I were running around, and I must have looked like a bum. Anyway, thanks for printing those business cards."

The printer, open-mouthed, said, "You're welcome." Two weeks later, the printer received a phone call from the same man. "I'd like to give you all my printing," he said--$250,000 worth.

"That's not traditional networking," admits Donohue. But the point is that anybody, no matter how unlikely, might be your next big-time investor or client. It's Bourron's point, too, ever since a chance meeting helped her recruit artists to supply African miniature paintings. While visiting the French embassy in Boston, she happened to strike up a conversation with the security guard. He turned out to be a down-on-his-luck journalist from the Congo. With an avid interest in art.

Meet Markets

Good places to network:

1. Attend trade shows, Chamber of Commerce meetings, the Rotary Club, the Lions club and a whole host of other national service-oriented clubs. While your image of these groups might be old men who wear pocket protectors, many clubs are actively recruiting young entrepreneurs. Then there's the Jaycees (800-JAYCEES), whose members are 21 to 39 years old.

2. Volunteer, says Mary Donohue, who works with abused children and animals-and has built up a reputation among fellow volunteers for being able to get things done right and quickly.

3. Join your college alumni organization's local chapter.

4. Get known around town as an expert. Teach a class at your local community college. Spread the word you can offer seminars on topics related to your business.

5. If you're married with children, get known in your neighborhood by joining the PTA or coaching your child's soccer team.

Bad places to network:

1. Prison. (Need we explain?)

2. Funerals. (Use your judgment.)

3. Taverns and pubs. (People who've been drinking tend to exaggerate--a lot.)

Work It

Rebecca Hart, owner of public relations firm Rebecca Hart Communications in Jacksonville, Florida, gives her clients a networking tip sheet. Here are some excerpts:

  • "When you attend events, know ahead of time what you hope to accomplish. Then create goals for yourself. For example, you might want to collect a certain number of new business leads, or introduce yourself to a particular person. In addition, set goals for how much information you'd like to share."
  • "Keep the candle burning. If you connect with someone and you're interested in pursuing the relationship, exchange business cards and take the initiative for the next step. For example, you could say, 'I'll send you that information we discussed.' Then follow through promptly and move the relationship forward by setting up a next meeting."
  • "Don't think networking is limited to an event where you wear name tags. Every day you're networking. Use time-tested good business practices to build a good name for yourself: Be honest; underpromise and overdeliver; communicate frequently and effectively; offer extra value; generate referrals and concentrate on building positive relationships. No amount of networking will compensate for a poor reputation."

First Impressions

Dee Helfgott, who owns success coaching firm Dee Helfgott & Associates in Palm Desert, California, is also the author of two networking booklets, NetworkSmart: Turning Today's Contacts into Tomorrow's Opportunities ($6.95, self-published, 760-772-3335) and Listen Up! 80 Powerful Tips and Techniques to Improve Your Listening Skills ($5.50). Here, she offers tips on how to network smarter.

Best Ways To Introduce Yourself:

  • Be brief, not a bore.
  • Be upbeat, smile and make eye contact.
  • Dress and speak professionally; show people you know how to listen.

Worst Ways To Introduce Yourself:

  • Telling people more than they want to know about the details of your business, instead of discussing the ways they can benefit from doing business with you.
  • Talking about yourself even after the listener's eyes glaze over.

Geoff Williams is a features writer and reporter for The Cincinnati Post. He often networks at classy social events, provided he can sneak past security.

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