“Grasshopper, know yourself, and never fear thus
to be naked to the eyes of others.
Yet know that man so often masks himself.”
I’m a technical person. I was trained as an Aerospace Engineer, and taught myself to be a computer programmer and systems architect. I don’t really like small talk. I’m an introvert, not a networker. I don’t like networking at all. I don’t even like the word “networking.”
But if you’re going to be a consultant, some form of networking is probably necessary. (I say, “probably,” because once your company grows, you can hire salespeople, and they seem to be extroverts who like networking much more, and at the very least give you someone to go to networking events with.)
The best advice I can give about networking is this:
- Go to events you think you might enjoy. Most geeks say they don’t like networking, but if you get a bunch of Ruby programmers together in a room to talk about the best features of the Ruby programming language, not only will they talk to each other, they’ll probably have some lively conversations. (Conversely, if you put them in a room to talk about The Biggest Loser or Project Runway, very few of them will say a word.)
- Go to events with other people. After starting my own consulting firm I went to many parties in the two weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby, and I always took a salesperson or coworker with me.
- Learn how to introduce yourself. In my younger years I was always “Al” or “Al Alexander,” but once I began working as a consultant I found it easier to pronounce my name as “Alvin Alexander,” following that with, “Just call me Al.”
- Make sure you know why you’re going to an event. If you’re a Drupal programmer and you go to an event about Drupal programming, you’re probably going to meet other Drupal programmers -- not customers. Therefore, if your purpose is to get more business, you have to ask yourself, “Is it worth going to this event?” The answer may be “yes” if you think other people have Drupal programming work to give you (where you’ll be a subcontractor), or the answer may be “no” if you’re hoping to run into the CEO of a medium size business who can afford your services. (If the answer is “maybe,” go to the event, and find out for yourself.)
- Learn to like people. That may be a weird sentence for most people, but because I’m not a very social person by nature, networking is hard for me. The one thing I learned after selling Mission Data and traveling around the world is that at least 95% of the people in the world are very nice, and if you just treat them like “long lost brothers and sisters you’re meeting for the first time,” networking becomes much easier.
- Rehearse your “elevator pitch.” If you know what you’re going to say beforehand, it’s much easier to say it when you feel a little pressure.
A sample conversation
Most introductions at networking events go like this:
You run into someone and say, “Hi, my name is Alvin Alexander.”
“Hi Alvin. I’m Fred Flintstone. I work with Bedrock Corporation. What do you do?”
“I own a software consulting firm named Valley Programming. We specialize in XYZ. Tell me about Bedrock Corporation.”
If you can just get some words out like that to start an introduction, I find that everything is pretty smooth after that. The biggest questions you need to be able to answer are, “What do you do?”, and “Why would my firm hire you?” If you can answer those questions concisely, and treat people like long lost brothers and sisters, the process of networking will be much less painful, and you might just meet some people you like. (If you still have problems talking to people, remember to ask the “W” questions: Who, what, when, where, and why, such as “What did you think about that point the speaker made about ABC?”)
I don’t like networking, but I do enjoy volunteering for services in my community, so this is a simple form of networking for me. I show up for some sort of volunteer work, I do the work, meet nice people, and talk to them while I work. I didn’t start volunteering like this to meet business people, but to my pleasant surprise I’ve met many business owners and several politicians, so it ends up being a form of networking. Of course it’s not as direct a form of networking as going to a local Chamber of Commerce meeting, but at least I enjoy it.