The word Networking used to make me shudder. Just the thought of having to make awkward conversations with strangers for what seemed like the sake of it. Because that’s what you’re meant to do to get on in the world right?
Wrong! In the past year I’ve slowly begun to change how I think about the word. I listen to a lot of business and entrepreneurial podcasts and these have helped me realise the value of networks. For a start, I no longer think it’s about schmoozing in a cynical way to see what you can get out of people.
What is your network?
These days, I look at it as building relationships and learning about others. I am a firm believer that every person who comes into our lives has something to teach us, whether that is a mentor or the person who delivers our mail. There is always an opportunity to learn something about their journey. It’s just a case of listening. Maybe the information you gather will sit and gather dust in the back of your brain, but just maybe one day it will come in handy for you or for someone you know.
I never thought it would happen, but I have started relishing opportunities to go to events where I can meet and talk to other creatives. It’s always kind of scary when you don’t know people but if you do have something basic in common that you’re all passionate about then conversation is never going to be dull.
When I started this blog last summer, I had no one really to talk to about yarn and crochet and all things creative. The blog post Please Be My Friend which I wrote about this time last year was, without me really realising, the beginning of my efforts to get to know people in the creative industry. I wanted to be part of this awesome group as a source of advice and friendship for me, and hopefully a place where I could contribute to in return. It’s not about meeting people because I want something from them, it’s about wanting to feel part of something bigger than me. I wanted to feel part of a community.
Last weekend I attended Yarndale for the second year running. The pervious year I went for the first time and had not long been publishing my crochet designs. I knew one person exhibiting to say hello to and for the rest of it I was anonymously wandering round looking in awe at all the yarny goodness.
This year’s experience was so much richer. All the yarn love was still there, but it was also a chance for me to meet people in the flesh who I had ‘met’ through instagram or worked with remotely. Being able to chat with people, in person, in a giant cattle shed, about our shared passion and to put names to faces was flippin’ awesome! It is irrelevant whether it has any impact on my business because the joy of making those connections is what it’s all about. Where those connections may or may not lead, nobody knows… that is the wonder of serendipity… but it’s far better to have them than not!
It’s not just a cold transactional thing. People who see it that way, who are just in it for what they can get, will never feel the intangible benefits. It’s about getting excited together, sharing experiences and helping each other out. About being part of a group of people who reach out to each other when they stumble and congratulate one another when they fly.
The yarndale experience, and similar ones I’ve had over the past year have really helped dispel my fear of this networking thing. As well as big events like yarn festivals, I have to give a shout out to the Cambridge Creatives and The In Colourful Company groups who have made me feel so welcome and put on great events where I have met people in the flesh I would otherwise only know through my phone screen!
But how do you build your network?
There isn’t one single thing that works, and it’s like the Fourth Bridge, it never ends. I am far far far away from being an expert but here are some tips, based on my personal experience, for gentle non-icky networking:
- Find facebook groups on topics that interest you – this is super non-scary as you can lurk until you feel confident to join in the conversation. I love facebook for groups – They are such a good place to get and give advice and share stories. Just don’t feed the trolls!
- Strike up conversations with people in queues, at the checkout or on trains. Ask about their story and generally get curious . This can be something tiny like commenting on the weather but it’s a good way to build your confidence if you struggle to talk to new people. People generally love talking about themselves but take a hint if they don’t want to chat!
- Go to a workshop or evening class and learn how to do something you always wanted to. You get to learn something new AND meet people who by default have similar interests, without there being the pressure of having to network.
- Find a local Meet up group which interests you and go along. This is a bit scary the first few times you do it but it gets easier when you remember everyone is in the same boat. I find the activity-based ones like talks or workshops are way less intimidating.
- Offer your help – whether it’s volunteering or answering a question on quora, people remember helpful people and it makes you feel good about yourself too. Win-win.
- Start your own group – If you can’t find a group you want to join then start your own! This can be something as simple as reaching out to one person to ask them if you can pick their brains over coffee. Next time you’ll invite 2 people, then 5, then you’ll need to find a bigger venue – or maybe you won’t, that’s okay too! I know I need to get better at this – The Cambridge Crochet Club is still on my list of things I want to get around to starting. One day!
- Know that you don’t have to be friends with everyone in your network. We are all different and there will always be people we don’t click with, so embrace that and learn from these differences. Be unbiased in who you connect with and help bridge gaps and broaden your own understanding as well as that of the person on the other side of the river. Now more than ever it’s important not to pre-judge people. Always show patience and compassion.
As I said, I’m not an expert but that’s a pretty good starting point I think. You’ll find that as you start to try these things, they become habits and, before long, you won’t even notice you’re doing them!
Your network is your entire community. It’s a living breathing thing. It’s members are people you’ve known all your life, people you hang out with and that random person you got chatting to on the train and instagram friended.
And the best thing about a community, the think you can’t fake is that the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
And that is the value of your networking
Let’s have the coffee soon