2011 was an odd year. The U.S. was technically out of the recession, but everyone I talked to felt the recovery was fragile. I had started my freelance writing/editing business the year before, and I was still learning how to market myself to generate leads. Hardly anything was automated or one-click back then. Blogging and inbound queries brought in the most leads, but networking was a close second.
Ask any business owner, across any industry, and they will tell you that Portland is a “referral town.” In-person meetings are highly valued, and it’s a great way to build trust. I’ve met a lot of cool people, and I’ve hopefully helped a few folks along the way.
In the early days, I was just trying to be more visible. I did a lot of in-person networking because few copywriters or editors went to networking events. I attended lead exchanges at 7 a.m., I went to happy hours, I went to special events, and I had my weekly networking meeting. It was the shotgun approach.
By late 2011, the shotgun approach had begun to wear me out. That’s when I attended an event that changed how I networked.
A friend of mine – probably the best networker I’ve ever met – mentioned that someone interested in my work would be at one of his regular events. It was a happy hour in Portland’s downtown core. I lived in the west suburbs then, which meant driving 20 minutes just to get to the freeway, then a long drive on the freeway, and finally the joy of driving in downtown Portland at rush hour.
I eventually got there. The event was loud. As in, “shouting at people to hear them above the music and conversation” loud. I found the potential prospect, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t hear anything I said. We shook hands, and I never saw him again.
A few minutes later, I saw my networking friend, and I felt relieved to see a friendly face.
We chatted for a few moments before someone sidled up to me saying, something like, “well, well, what’s going on here?” I don’t know if it was because I seemed relaxed and happy, but the new guy immediately gave off an unfriendly and challenging vibe. My friend walked off, perhaps thinking this would be a good connection.
I don’t remember New Guy’s name, but I won’t ever forget the self-satisfied look in his eyes. He asked about my business, but it wasn’t a friendly question, because he kept staring at me in a challenging way, and he was smirking. I already felt out of place, and it showed. I also hadn’t quite refined my elevator pitch. It was broad. Like, “I write for businesses” broad.
He might have asked if I was successful. The noisiness of the room, my lack of focus, and his smirk all combined to make me look away. I laughed awkwardly and changed the subject, asking about his business. I can’t remember what he did, but it involved the legal profession. He was less of a self-satisfied jerk when he talked about himself, but I was glad when we parted ways. I talked with a few other people who were more pleasant, but overall the night was not successful.
I still attend events, but not as often. Inbound inquiries make up the bulk of my leads, though referrals and good old fashioned prospecting are still critical to my business.
Here’s some strategies I use for networking; maybe they’ll be useful for you:
- Event research. Attend events where interesting people gather. They may not become clients, but you might “connect dots,” a concept championed by Rick Turoczy. People you meet may not become clients, but they might help someone you know. And people they know might need your help.
- Bring a friend. Every event has an “ecosystem” you need to navigate. It’s helpful to have a wing-person. Plus, you might meet people who can help your friend.
- Respect your comfort zone. If an event is taking place in a distant part of town at 6 p.m., and you need to take one of the gridlocked highways to get there … you’re not a bad person (or a bad business owner) for not going.
- Some people have issues. Not every introduction will be pleasant, and some people will be rude.
Coda: The group putting on that event completely rebranded itself shortly thereafter, leading me to believe I wasn’t the only one having trouble meeting referrals.
Also published on medium.com.