We’ve all been to those kinds of networking events where 50 strangers are packed into a room with nothing but cheese, stale crackers, and dwindling hope. No, this isn’t a reenactment of The Hunger Games — odds are this is an accurate description of your local networking event where Bob the Business Card works the room while you ask yourself, after a hard day of work, why you chose this stuffy room over your cozy couch. Even though the couch won’t generate new contacts or leads…or will it?
As a small business owner, you know relationships are one of your most valuable assets. New clients and “door openers” (connected people who can make introductions) can help elevate your business from good to great, but sometimes you find yourself declining networking invites to must-attend business events because the idea of networking is on par with a root canal.
And you’re not alone. According to data provided by Professor Julia Hobsbawm of Editorial Intelligence, one in four business professionals don’t network at all and 41% would like to network more but say they don’t have the time.
Forming relationships and nurturing connections are critical to building leads and driving sales. According to a study by The Economist‘s Intelligence Unit, 78% of entrepreneurs believe that informal networking is important or very important to the success of their business. A recent study, conducted in partnership with LinkedIn, reported that networking fills a whopping 85% of jobs — confirming the old adage that it’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know.
However, for an introvert, being crammed into a room while people are yelling their elevator pitches can be intimidating and suffocating. Introverts — like Bill Gates of Microsoft and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook — prefer their solo time, and they tend to network best in one-on-one situations. Does this mean introverts can’t make meaningful business connections? Of course not.
Here are six foolproof strategies to connect with new people when you’d rather be at home parked in front of the TV. Consider this your go-to guide to networking if you’re an introvert.
1. Know When You’re at Your Best
Introverts can be “on” for crowds in small doses when events take place when their cognitive abilities are at their strongest (that is, the best time of day when you’re able to think critically and rationally). If you know you’re not a morning person, don’t accept invites to a networking breakfast. Seek out events that match when you’re at your peak, so you can make the most of the event.
2. Join a Coworking Space
From WeWork and Cohere to The Wing and Croissant, coworking spaces have become a haven for the small business owner in need of an office outside of their home. Being in the same physical space with other like-minded freelancers, small business owners, and entrepreneurs allows you to connect on your own terms without a hidden agenda. You can compare notes about clients, projects, and colleagues — and even trade business tips, tricks, and advice. Coworking fosters organic relationships and practically guarantees a built-in network.
3. Create Your “Tribe of Five”
Remember, networking is about names, not numbers. You don’t need to work the room and collect a pile of business cards at an event. Forging a relationship is never about what the person can do for you; it’s about connecting with people who inspire, motivate, and teach you. Obvious opportunists come and go, but the real leaders are relationship-builders.
Focus on growing your in-person network by five people each year. Realize that you’re not only tapping into new people but also each of their individual networks. When attending in-person events, try to research and find out who will be in the room and who might be a strong connection for your business. This allows you to hone in on the people you want to meet instead of randomly circulating a room feeling like Willy Loman.
Then, try to target one to two people with whom you can have a meaningful conversation. You’ll likely be remembered and you won’t have to deal with the room overwhelm. The conversations can be short but meaningful, and be sure to secure their contact information for a follow-up coffee. Instead of spending hours suffering at an event, you can hit and run after 45 minutes.
4. Bring a Plus One
The hardest part of networking for introverts is the terror that ensues when you meet New People. New People are scary creatures or professional vampires that threaten to suck out all your energy. If you always find yourself huddled in a corner with your phone or a book, bring a buddy. Friends — especially those extroverts — lighten the mood and can help steer you in the right professional direction.
5. Build Relationships Online
It’s a lot easier developing relationships on-screen, especially if you live in a town where local in-person networking events are sparse and traveling to conventions and events is challenging. From Facebook and LinkedIn groups to Reddit subgroups, Twitter tribes, and blogs and forums, you can network online from the comfort of your own home.
Screens are less confrontational and introverts can control the level and intensity of the interaction. Connect with people with like-minded interests and, if you find someone who shares your vibe, you can invite them to chat on Skype or FaceTime as a substitute for in-person events. Also, be a social sleuth. Feel free to check out your friends’ and colleagues’ LinkedIn and other social profiles and feel free to ask for introductions.
6. Throw a Plus One Dinner Party or BBQ
Networking can be less painful for the introvert when it’s done on familiar turf. Meeting strangers in a controlled setting — especially if it’s your home or a friend’s home — can be comforting and powerful. Consider hosting (or co-hosting) a small gathering where every attendee is required to bring a colleague or friend. When you already have a connection with someone, it’s easier to feel comfortable and enjoy expanding the relationship. Even if the attendees can’t help you directly, the authentic relationships you’re creating may help you tap into their networks.
Networking for the introvert is all about strategy — from determining the right time of day to tackle the crowds, to finding ways to cultivate new connections online and off. You can say no to the events that feel stifling and unproductive, and create new ways of networking based on your own personality, industry, affection for technology, and sheer will to move your business forward.