A strong network is the foundation of a long, independent career. Your network is the collection of relationships with people and organizations that connects you to your customers. While we all tend to build relationships over time, a successful transition to self-employment requires that relationship building be active and consistent. But simply knowing you need to network doesn’t make it easy.
Going out and meeting new people can be tough and tiring. For many freelancers, it’s the worst part of the job. But networking is essential to building your business. Unfortunately, most people are doing it wrong.
I used to go to networking events in the hopes of gathering a big pile of business cards. The more cards I got, the more successful I felt. I worked the room, I kept my conversations short, I smiled and shook hands and swapped cards and moved on.
Very little, if anything, came of all those conversations. Why? Because there was absolutely no relationship development. You can’t get to know someone in two minutes—not in a meaningful way that allows you to understand them at a level that might help you build mutual interest. And that’s the real goal of networking: It’s not about collecting cards, it’s about finding the seeds of a relationship that might grow over time into something that has value for both parties.
Here are three rules you can use to transform yourself into a networking powerhouse.
Meet One Person
It may feel good to have thousands of contacts on LinkedIn, but it won’t help if you don’t actually know them. So instead of trying to accumulate as many connections as you can, focus on one person at a time. If you go to a big event, don’t talk to 20 people, talk to two or three. Find one person there that you like, that you feel like you could talk to for an hour. Get her card, and then call her up the next day to schedule a lunch.
Help People Connect
While being skilled at your craft allows you to produce quality work, nothing will make you as successful as genuinely relating to people. Once you’ve connected with someone, your next goal should be to help her connect with one more person who can help her. Over lunch or coffee, ask questions. Resist the temptation to talk about yourself, and instead try to find out about your new friend across the table. Where is she in her process? What’s tough for her right now? What does she do best? If you can find a way to help her solve a problem, that’s great, but the important part is to truly get to know what motivates her, why she does this work, and where she wants to go from here.
Don’t Work Alone
While many of us love that we can work from home in our pj’s sometimes, if you don’t get out and partner up, you may find yourself struggling to stay motivated. As you develop relationships, consider bringing someone else in on a project with you to get some input and refresh your perspective on what’s going on in the marketplace. The bottom line is that working alone is not a great way to get ahead.
Networking may not be your favorite thing—I get it. I don’t love the awkward moments either. But I can promise you this: You will never meet a compatible client, an insightful colleague, or a wise mentor by staying at home behind your computer screen. Make a commitment to get out in the real world at least twice per month. You’ll be glad you did.