Networking has dominated my thoughts this week.  participated in several virtual networking experiences, inspired by the persistence and resourcefulness of small business owners.  It takes a special commitment to remain “in the flow” with this essential business activity despite the adversity of social distancing.  Then, a friend unexpectedly sent me a thoughtful article on business networking.  Something in the mix convinced me that networking is a much more essential and intricate activity than many people perceive. Networking is a multi-level proposition.  Like almost anything, the great ones make it look easy! 

Orb Weavers and Small Business

I never excelled in science as a child.  My kids taught me a lot of fascinating things from their own schooling.  It made me grieve the wonder I had missed by being such a lazy learner.  One day, my daughter came racing in the house, summoning me outside because there was an honest-to-God orb weaver spider web right outside our front door.  And, it was in pristine condition.  I thought of all the spider webs I had swept away over the years for my own convenience.  I felt sheepish knowing the joy that this one web had brought to my curious daughter. 

It was a beaut, with the whole signature “z” pattern across the center.  I marveled at the exquisite design – strands for support and connectivity, and the dozens of concentric rings keeping things tight and feeding to the center.  It seemed like tireless and purposeful work to me, building a system for sustenance with broad scope and extraordinary support.  Small business owners do the same. 

Networking As An Essential Activity

We are determined to build and maintain connective support systems that sustain the business.  We are so determined that we learn five or six virtual meeting platforms.  We learn how to organize a breakout room.  We figure out how to talk and reply to chat messages simultaneously without breaking eye contact.  Here’s the topper:  we get comfortable with the discomfort of watching ourselves as we network!Isn’t it challenging enough?   Perish the thought that someone may be recording!  If it were NOT an essential activity, there’s four easy reasons to bow out.  But we don’t.  We can’t. 

Unlike the orb weaver, networking is not our only necessary activity for sustenance, and, at least for most of us, it is not an instinctive, involuntary response to our needs.  Maybe over time we develop instincts, but it is essentially a learned behavior, operating at many levels to produce the results we need.  Here are the levels I notice.   

Attach to Dependable Institutions

We are so eager for business and drawn to relationships that we hate to miss a networking opportunity, but for many networking is a money-making opportunity.  Everyone thinks they have the “secret sauce” that will deliver just what you need.  It is good to experiment occasionally, but if you want your web to get results, anchor it to the most trusted institutions like chambers of commerce, or affinity groups like NAWBO and industry associations.  Networking is typically one of many development resources they offer, and they are in it for the long haul. 

Build Awareness 

Once attached to something stable, the first ring must be developing a broad audience that understands what you do and what makes you unique.  I think we all understand those things at a deep emotional level but working those ideas out of the recesses of our brains into actual words and sentences that quickly inform and inspire is a different kind of effort.  It may take months of meeting before you get the rap right, so do not miss meetings!  Do it messy until you are doing it right.  

Generate Leads, Select Partners  

Eventually you will get tired of high heat, no fire.  It is time to focus your efforts by asking for the right kind of lead in the most specific way possible.  Demographics are great, but word pictures are even better.  Things like, “this is the kind of customer I am looking for…..” followed by an emotional story about how you helped someone just like that.   

This ring presents other opportunities as well – doing business with others who are not only great referral sources but also add significant value to your business.  Small businesses do not have the luxury of huge corporate staffs with specialized knowledge.  We must find expertise in the market, and that means we cannot do business with people just because they sent business our way.  Send business their way but be discerning about the people with whom you do business.  It is your first pass at an “inner circle”.   

Forge Deep Friendships 

The article my friend sent me, by Nicholas Cole, reminded me that we can cultivate true friendships from business relationships.  Friendships afford greater transparency of need and a mutual understanding that can look to the future from any current transactional environment.  And let’s face it – we need friends to navigate the stresses and uncertainties of business ownership, just as a support system. 

Build an Inner Circle  

Every leader needs an inner circle of their most trusted advisors.  I believe the most powerful networking I ever experienced was through the Athena Powerlink program for women-owned businesses.  The program provides volunteer advisory boards for women-owned businesses for one year to strategize and refine their business models for exponential growth.  If you are not familiar with Athena International, sponsor of the program, check them out here.   

In this case, the program was run under the auspices of a superb networking organization, CABLEwhich accessed some of the most successful businesspeople to equip emerging businesses.  Volunteer advisory boards are not uncommon, but they do take a lot of work to assemble.  The strength and design of your network will make all the difference.  I observed PowerLink take businesses on extraordinary growth trajectories. 

A well-spun web can move you past daily needs into predictable, expanding business flow.  Take the time to build something beautiful.