How I grow my business through networking (from a guy who hates “networking”)

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Back in the day we had no budget for marketing.

So my partner and I would hit up the local networking events every week. For the most part they were completely worthless, and soul-sucking. Everyone there was a shark and just looked at us with dollar signs in their eyes.

However, there would always be one or two legitimate prospects there, and we had to make the most of our interactions with them.

At first we made a lot of mistakes. Ironically, those mistakes seemed to come from following everyone else’s advice. It wasn’t until we ditched it that we finally started seeing some success.

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Here’s the path we took to going from making zero connections or prospects to walking away with a handful every time.

(Have you found a method to networking gold? Drop us a note in the comments.)

Mistake #1: We tried too hard.

When we could barely pay the rent, we went out and bought special outfits just for these meetings. I remember I bought a vest and a white button down and slacks from the Gap for like $100 and my partner bought the female equivalent and we were scared crazy.

“$200 on clothes? We must be crazy!

When we showed up we were eager and excited to talk to people. We believed in what we did and we believed we were good. We were excited to talk about it and get some business.

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But as the night would go on, we’d get more and more disheartened.

Something wasn’t quite right.

And that’s when I realized, like me, everyone was only focused on making the sale. I didn’t exist to these people. I was just a potential dollar in the bank.

There’s nothing wrong with trying hard, but in the context of these events, everyone is trying too hard. So if you, too, are working really hard to flush out prospects and make sales then you become part of the noise.

Our first step was to identify the people who fell into that category and avoid them. They were the vast majority, but not the entirety, of the people there.

Our solution? We calmed down and let the “non-sharks” come to us.

We started having much more meaningful interactions. We’d have far less conversations overall, but the ones we had were solid and substantial.

The “real players” in the room seemed to pick up on that vibe too and be attracted to it. That’s who we’d end up spending all of our time talking to.

We also changed our focus from “making sales” to “making friends.” We tried to avoid talking business altogether if we could. We just tried to share some laughs and stories and have fun. Business would always come up, but not until the time was ripe.

And when it did, it was a very different conversation, now that the ice was broken.

Mistake #2: We perfected our “elevator pitch”

We used to sit around trying to come up with the most clever, concise, and impactful “elevator pitch” we could. Then we couldn’t wait to go try it out.

If you don’t know what an “elevator pitch” is, good for you. I almost hate to tell you in case you think it’s a good idea to come up with one. Basically, imagine you’re riding in an elevator with someone, and they happen to turn to you and say, “So what do yo do?”

Your elevator pitch is your striking, perfect answer that knocks them off their feet before you even get to their floor. It’s 5 to 10 seconds of perfect salesmanship!

Or is it?

Because what happens when you give a complete, perfect answer?

Well, people don’t really have many questions for you. They feel they “get it” (even if they don’t), and that leads to them archiving you in the inbox.

People caught on to this, so instead of just stating the perfect answer, they tried to state the perfect answer with intrigue or add some element of mystery to it.

That might work sometimes, but there’s a problem with the whole concept. It’s flawed from the start. The elevator pitch is trying to make the sale in the first few seconds you even meet somebody.

It’s pressure-filled, and makes the situation awkward because you’re treating another person like a sales prospect all of the sudden without knowing if they are / aren’t one. It reduces them to a dollar sign instead of another human being.

And at these events, everyone walks around just asking for and giving out their elevator pitches.

It’s crazy.

I knew something always felt wrong about it every time I’d give mine, but I kept on giving it anyway until I just couldn’t do it any more.

Then I just stopped having an answer altogether. And through that, accidentally…

I stumbled upon the best answer:

At one event, a man turned around and asked me what I did, and I had such a hard time for a second deciding what to say. I wear a lot of hats: design, copywriting, 15 kinds of marketing, customer relations, etc., etc., etc.

I was trying to come up with another perfect elevator pitch in my head, and then I said “screw it,” and this just sort of came out:

“I write copy.”

And then I shut up. A few moments of awkward silence drifted by. I think he was waiting for me to say more or wondering if I would. I just sort of sat there.

Then he asked me, “Can you write autoresponder series?”

And a conversation took off. He asked me a lot of questions, I asked him a lot of questions. By the end he was ready to sign the check right then and there.

I gave him something an elevator pitch takes away: space.

I gave him room to breathe. I answered the question, but I left a lot of room for follow up questions. I gave him space to learn about me, and I gave him space to talk about himself.

To this day I don’t have a very good answer to the question of “what do you do?” I wear too many hats. I’m not sure what to possibly say. But when I want to actually go into a conversation about it, I stick with an action-based sentence:

“I write copy.”

“I design stuff.”

And that’s it. (HOWEVER…this doesn’t work with a statement like: “I run a creative agency.” Statements like that seem to be the exception to the rule.)

On the other hand, if I’m tired and want to kill a conversation in its tracks, I say something like:

“I’m a copywriter.”

“I’m a marketer.”

Statements like that somehow just suck the wind out of a conversation. For some reason those action-based phrases really make people feel like they have room to explore. Of course, the energy you put behind it matters a lot too.

If you’re just turning it into another “elevator pitch”, well, then people will feel that. I give that answer because I don’t really have an answer, and I think that openness makes people feel at ease.

To be honest, that might be the key to this whole thing. If you have the right energy behind it, it might not matter what you say at all, as long as it’s not an elevator pitch.

The elevator pitch tries to make the sale in a split second. But sales don’t happen in an instant, unless they’re truly meant to. Sometimes they take weeks, even months. You can’t rush them. Your best bet is to just try and start a genuine conversation, and see where it goes.

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About David Tendrich

David Tendrich is the co-head of creative agency Unexpected Ways, as well as the co-founder of Reliable PSD: the first-ever PSD to HTML & PSD to Wordpress service run by designers, for designers. He co-runs his companies from Portland, Oregon with his lovely wife and biz partner, Lou Levit.

 

More about David’s business: David is co-founder of Reliable PSD – what happened when a group of designers got fed up with PSD to Code companies… and created their own. Check them out, and see why freelancers & agencies are head over heels for this amazing new service.

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Comments

  1. It can be done! I had similar experiences with networking and all too many encounters with “sales gurus” and the likes. I hate networking. It feels fake and it makes me really uncomfortable.

    Thank you for sharing! “Shark people” made me laugh, and almost cry, because it´s true!

  2. Great article about networking David. I’ve been networking for 10+ years and have tried and learned a lot. I think you have some great tips here. Your stance on the classic elevator speech makes a lot of sense. I like keeping it open to question rather then using a closed statement that stops the conversation. People want to relate to what you are saying, so this allows them to relate to you more. I also remember when you posted about your “copywriter” t-shirt, which I think was a smart way to get people to talk to you. Good stuff, thanks!

  3. This is a great article!!! I have such a hard time with networking paying of myself. These tips will help me a great deal thank you.

  4. This article is such a breath of fresh air – a new perspective on networking. I really hate networking events, but I guess they are necessary evils in business, LOL!

    I will definitely try these tips at my next networking event and see what types of fruits it yeilds. 🙂

  5. Brilliant, inspiring article! Thank you!

  6. Very valuable article! Well done! I will definitely use this one “I design stuff”.

  7. Thank you. I am in a networking group, and get tp practice talking about my work all the time. I love your approach, and am finding that if I take the “sales” edge off my interactions with people, then I make friends. And don’t you just want to hire your friends? I agree it seems like it’s all in my attitude.

  8. I enjoyed reading this article. Things I found helpful at networking events is discovering how I can do for someone else. This paradigm shift in thinking has given me a boost of confidence in networking events. I am more proactive in initiating conversations with the purpose of discovering how I can help someone.

  9. David, this was great. I am the “networker” for our business and have definitely learned some similar lessons over the 7 years I have been out and about networking. I learned early on not to shove yourself in people’s faces. I also found that for most open networking social events the majority of the people there are not there to network. At my local chamber events, I’d say about 3/4 of the room were there for drinks and to chat with their co-workers and would stay in their own little clusters. I found that I had to break into these clusters to introduce myself or I would stay in the corner of the room by myself the whole night. It’s that delicate balance between making sure you actually meet people and being a “shark” as you put it.

    I love your perspective on the “elevator speech”. I do feel sometimes that I have to get it all out, but it always seems to rehearsed. I will try your approach to create intrigue and see if that works better 🙂

  10. Johnny Shih says:

    Wow, I love you what you had to say about the elevator pitch. I have always had the same feelings. There is no point into telling someone what you do and in essence what matters to you, unless its a genuine conversation. People are more intrigued when you are genuinely you. I had a job that was similar to door to door sales. When we approached people they could tell that we were trying to sell something and when they knew that, then the walls came up. I totally agree and understand what you mean when you talk about allowing them to approach you, ask you questions and, even talk about themselves. This is a really great post, thanks for sharing. http://joinstratosphere.com/portfolio-projects/

  11. I have been to a few networking events recently and have tried to adopt your approach of standing to one side and waiting for people to approach me. This seems to work, but not always. I like the idea of not going for a hard sell, much less stressful and you don’t feel like a shark. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  12. Once you recognize the problems, issues and difficulties that your prospects have, you will be able to communicate with them much more effectively. They will see that you genuinely understand what they are looking for and will like the fact that you have precisely what they want.!!!!

  13. Great tips, i’ve never been to a networking event before so do you have any other tips?

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