June 4, 2024 - 9:18 am

Ugh, Networking! Why making meaningful connections is essential to your startup

By 20Fathoms

This article was written by Delaney Keating, Director of Entrepreneurship & Commercialization at 20Fathoms. It originally appeared in the Traverse City Business News.

Networking at TCNewTech
Networking at the TCNewTech University Showdown pitch competition.

Networking gets a bad rap. While it may come easy for some, for others it evokes social anxiety and often sounds like a dry, workday affair. No matter how we slice it, whether we are extroverted, introverted, or anything in between, networking remains an essential means of navigating the world. At its core, networking is about making meaningful connections.   

In its most basic definition, networking is about finding and sharing value through connection. The world is inescapably relational and our connection to others is part of being human. And that’s the point – human networks add immense value to the things most important to us, shaping our careers, environments and daily lives.  

No matter what our business is, we are in the human business. Whether launching an innovation, designing a social cause, or expanding our careers, we are likely networking to pursue our mission. Remember, we’re never alone in this journey; we’re all navigating the intricacies of networking, each in our unique way. 

So, how do we remove the “work vibe” and overcome our social anxieties when networking to make it more accessible and enjoyable?

First, be clear about what you need from each networking opportunity. Networks serve varied purposes, and going in with clarity about the value of a network will help you exert less energy and find the right connections. With the increasing energy and support for startups in northern Michigan, here are the core values of a network for founders:

  • Access to resources such as funding, mentorship, talent and partnerships. Building relationships can open doors to opportunities that may otherwise be difficult to access.
  • Validation and feedback from experienced professionals and peers. Engaging with others in the industry can help startups refine their products or services and identify potential market gaps or opportunities.
  • Learning and knowledge-sharing from attending industry events, workshops or networking groups. Startups can gain valuable insights and best practices from those who have gone through similar challenges.
  • Building brand awareness and credibility within their industry. By establishing relationships with key stakeholders, startups can increase their visibility and reputation and attract customers, investors and partners.
  • Opportunities for collaboration and partnership opportunities for startups. By connecting with complementary organizations, startups can leverage each other’s strengths and resources to achieve mutual goals or solve common challenges.
  • Recruiting top talent by building a network of professionals and industry contacts. Startups can tap into a pool of potential candidates and access referrals from trusted sources.

Now that you’ve identified why networking is important and what you’re trying to achieve, let’s talk about how to do it. There is no one way to network, and finding our style is up to us. Here are some ideas to spark your flair: 

Keep it real: Grant yourself permission to be yourself and let your personality shine through. Authenticity is vital in finding our most meaningful connections. Besides, we all have our brand of geek, so start there. Share your “geek-dom” and discover someone else’s, too. 

Start small: If you have encountered someone who may be helpful to your next step, reach out. It can even be a brief email introducing yourself and asking for 30 minutes of their time to learn more. If you have a specific networking need or goal, set attainable targets, like reaching out to three new contacts each week.  

Stay curious:  Scan the room to see who sparks your curiosity. Maybe you came to the event to meet a specific person, or perhaps that introvert lingering in the corner needs an ally. Then, if you meet someone who caught your attention who may be key to helping you achieve your goals, follow up in an email expressing your interest in connecting further. 

It’s not about what you know: No one ever has all the right answers; the greatest minds are inquisitive. Focus on asking questions. When we keep this in mind, there is less space for imposter syndrome, and the conversation has room to grow. 

Practice really listening: Focus on listening to engage, build rapport, and find common ground. Along the way, remain open to discovering something unexpected that connects you with another human.  

Prep yourself:  A past colleague in sales would listen to rap music in his car before sales calls to get himself energized and ready. Music, exercise, researching profiles on LinkedIn, or other activities can prepare us for the task ahead. 

Take breaks: If you’re an introvert, take breaks and find solace in your cellphone for a few moments in the middle of the networking event, or balance your weekly schedule to match your social capacity and allow time to recharge.

Get out of your way:  Trust your intuition and get out of your way. Go in with the intent of meeting the right people at the right time. People find more energy and value when they connect with people who value their perspective, align with their passions, and inspire new ideas – even when we challenge one another.  

Ultimately, finding your own networking style involves experimenting with different approaches, discovering what works best for you, and getting clear about what you need from a network. While we may never fully take the “Ugh!” out of networking for some personalities, the “Ugh!” may have a purpose. Whatever our mission, we rarely succeed without a little bit of courage and a willingness to get out of our comfort zone.