Successful small business owners know they only got to where they are now because of the people who helped them along the way. A strong professional network can help you achieve things that you'd never accomplish on your own, from solutions to seemingly impossible problems, to word-of-mouth recommendations that grow your customer base.
Whether you're handing out your business card at an event or reaching out via social media, networking is only effective if you're smart about it. Entrepreneurs and business leaders shared their best advice for growing your startup through your connections. [See Related Story: Networking in the Age of Social Media]
1. Offer your help first
"Many individuals come into a networking event with a problem or challenge they're facing and immediately seek answers from others. When you meet people, ask questions and discover how you can provide value to them first, instead of the other way around. Ask yourself what you can bring to the table, and share tips with others to be helpful. When you give advice, it's much more likely to be reciprocated." – Scott Roen, managing director of global digital, BlackRock
2. Become a resource on social media
"Use platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to produce, comment on and engage with relevant industry content to build trust among your followers. You'll also generate inbound networking — contacts will find and reach out to you, so you'll spend less time having to actively seek more contacts." – Frans Van Hulle, CEO and co-founder, ReviMedia and PX.com
3. Do some basic press outreach
"A critical part of networking as a small business owner is to build relationships with your local media, as they are the ones who can help to tell your business story on a larger scale. [Read] your city ... newspapers [and] watch your local nightly or morning news. This will give you a sense of what is happening in your community, and will help you determine which reporters are most likely to take an interest in your business news. Once you have established a list of reporters, send an email introducing yourself and let them know you appreciate their work. When the time comes for you to share your own news, your name will already be familiar." – Paul Koulogeorge, vice president of marketing, advertising and PR, Goddard Systems Inc.
4. Get customers involved in your process
"We have a 'Mombassador' program at The Little Gym where we invite our most loyal, enthusiastic customers to become advocates for our brand and help spread positive word of mouth throughout the community. These moms typically hand out referral cards, welcome new parents as they join the gym, attend open houses and grassroots events, and post about The Little Gym on social media sites. They are almost like networking assistants on a mission to help us gain more visibility in our local community." – Karalyne Ley, owner, The Little Gym (Knoxville, Tennessee)
5. Stay in touch with former connections
"It's essential to develop relationships with contacts because they can convert into milestones for your business and career development. I had the chance to open the second location for Hungry Howie's Pizza after connecting with a former employer who was looking into growing his one-location pizza brand. I decided to open a second location of the one store brand of Hungry Howie's Pizza and we now have almost 600 locations in 21 states. Without that original contact, this would have never happened." – Steve Jackson, CEO, Hungry Howie's
6. Always be ready to offer samples
"Put your product in their mouth! I always carry samples of our coconut chip snacks just in case I happen to see someone noteworthy. On a recent flight I spotted a famous musician and gave him a sample which easily started a conversation. It was as if I handed him my demo tape and had him listen to it right there." – Vincent Kitirattragarn, CEO and co-founder, Dang Foods
7. Participate in your local small business community
"Participate in advisory committees, attend every expo and conference applicable, and get yourself out there. You generally get out of it what you put into it, and if you expect people to come to you, it will never happen. You have to put in the time and energy to make it happen through your own efforts." – Ashley Morris, CEO of Capriotti's
Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.