Growing up I had absolutely no interest in starting a business, it never really crossed my mind until I was about 18 years old. I spent most of my days playing football, climbing trees, playing tag or watching TV, I guess you could say “like any normal boy growing up”.
My parents were never really career people, although they brought me up very well, gave me a good school and supported me through all of the decisions I made, they were pretty normal people, going out to work and paying the bills for me and my other two brothers.
The other two people who did have a big impact on my life were my grandparents. My Nana and Grandad were always there for the three of us. There to help baby sit, take us to football, take us away to the caravan, they are really good people.
My Grandad is a real handy man, he’s always on the go and never likes to sit still for too long, he likes to stay busy let’s say. I started to get a little sense of business when spending time with my Grandad. He always use to ask me and my older brother for help when he was asked to do little jobs around the village or on his tiny farm yard. Weekly tasks were often cleaning out the hen sheds, cutting peoples hedges around the village, tidying gardens, mucking out homes, helping people move house and painting and decorating were all part of the job list. My Grandad has never been shy of hard work, he spent his days working in a quarry and then retired, but that certainly was not going to stop him from keeping busy to make a bit of money here and there. Even today he is out and about on his feet. He is always helping others and this is a guy knocking on the door of 80 years old and with a pretty recent double hip replacement.
But for me, for my brothers the best parts were to come. My Grandad has always been a fair, generous man and always paid us. Cash in hand, a new magazine and a 50p mix-up (when 50p mix-ups were actually 50p) were always in order and we were very happy with that. Being in my Grandad’s presence, watching him help and work with others, really hit home. He was in theory being a very good business man, he was networking with people. My Grandad is very well known in and around the village he lives in and continues to work hard every day.
My first years of business started back in 2010. I started to get some clients of my own whilst I worked as a junior developer for a digital agency here in Newcastle upon Tyne. I searched for any type of work web work at the time. Any type of client, anywhere in the world. Everything was about what I wanted, what I needed but my approach to gaining clients and building a network was so totally wrong.
After four and a half years of working for digital agencies I decided to go it alone. I had managed to build up four or five full time clients which mounted up to pay the monthly bills. The hard work was only just about to start.
In February 2013 I registered as a Limited company and began to work on monthly client contracts. Just four months in and I had lost my main University contract to a bigger agency due to no faults of my own, it just fit the bill better for them as a business.
I continued to work on small projects as well as my four remaining monthly contracts and kept business running nice and smoothly up until Autumn 2013, when I lost a second client contract due to cut backs of the company I worked for. The timing was terrible and I had no backup plan what so ever.
In the last quarter of 2013 I got to know two really good people after they had contacted me about working for their long lasting digital agency. Justin Turner the owner and Malcolm Kyle his business partner became more than a working relationship over the time I spent with them at their office. They taught me true values of running a business, how to be organised and how to approach things a little differently. All of this was just through general conversation, telling me where they had made their mistakes and how they learnt from them. This sharing of information in invaluable to any business owner starting out. It was also a real boot up the backside I needed to move forward with my business.
At that time Malcolm had ventured out to start his own networking event. I was invited along where I spent the time to introduce myself and my business to the 20 to 25 other people in the room. It was a real buzz and it was at that point I realised, I need to do this more often. I came out of that tiny meet-up with a set of 12 business cards, that’s 12 people I never knew before and that’s 12 more people who now know of me, where I am based and what I do. Not just that, they also now have my contact details in their hands. Two weeks later, I get a call with a reference that had been passed along from one of the folks I met at the meet-up. Big win.
So, The Importance of Networking. Something I have recognised has to be part of every business owners weekly schedule to be a success. No business can do without a good network, without surrounding themselves with good people who are trying to find the answers to the same problems you are having. Attacking them together rather than individually is always going to make life easier.
2014 and 2015 were to be the years of success and the current numbers say so. I strongly believe that this is down to Malcolm, Justin and my good friend Steven. All great networkers who surround themselves with the right people.
I started 2014 looking at ways I can grow my network and to really focus in on the people who I wanted to speak to. This is where I needed to really concentrate my time. Unlike before when I was trying to approach anyone, anywhere.
So, how did I become a good networker? The answer to that was with sound advice from the people named above and approaching events, conferences and meetups like this;
1. Why should they care? – Make sure you know your business well enough. Can you describe your business, its services and how you can help others in just a few words? Make sure you can demonstrate value and are able to express your knowledge.
2. Start with the contacts you already have – In a way, my networking had already begun. I already had more than handful of very good contacts and this is where I started. Sitting down over a coffee with past and current clients helped me a lot in finding out where they were networking and who they were speaking to. They also left some good testimonials for me on my website which always helps.
3.Start locally – Always start with local events. Every single week there are free meetups and free events in your local area. If you are struggling to find out where these are then have quick browse on websites such as Eventbrite or Meetup. Get to know your industry in the local area and meet the people who are trying to achieve the same goals and solve similar problems as you.
4.Mix It Up – One of my first errors when starting to network was that I only ever attended events where web designers and developers were present. Yes some of them ran businesses and they had some great ideas and discussion but the conversation was often the same. Be prepared and have in mind the type of people you want to speak to. For me I like to spend my time speaking with people in the Sports Industry as well as working alongside Universities, Colleges and people who run events. Attending events like CONFEX and TheStadiumBusiness Design & Development Summit are always good places to meet new people in my focused industries.
Conferences, Meets, Hack Days, Activities, Charities – Get involved! What ever the industry is, try and take part! Try and learn more from the people you meet and the people you work with. There are more conferences and events than you can ever imagine. Take to Google to try and plan out your conferences and meets for the year if possible. The web industry has so many great conferences which I personally attend each year, they might be pricey but I can assure you they are well worth it. In the web industry we also have charity events where designers and developers might get together to have a hack day to help out charities design and build their online solutions. Recently I was involved in a 24 hour hack day and it was so much fun. I also met some great people!
Ask questions – One thing that really bugs me are the people who do not ask questions. If you are unsure about something or have no idea about what people are talking about, then ask. People are nice enough, they’ll give you answers and its the best way to learn.
Take the time to listen and take notes – Free and paid events often have some great speakers. People who have been there in business and made the mistakes. These are absolutely invaluable, make sure you listen and take notes.
Have business cards available but don’t throw them around – It’s not attractive when you attend an event and you see people handing out business cards without and proper conversation. Approach people, start conversation, be polite and engage with them. Offer your card after the conversation and always offer your own first.
Follow Up – Now that you have those business cards in hand its time to reflect on the conference or event with some follow up calls or emails. I often follow up with each of the people I have spoken to, there’s normally a good handful of them. Making a general thanks is perfectly fine, do not start selling all of your services when following up. Send an email that will make them remember you, utilise LinkedIn. It’s also a good idea to thank the organisers, whether that’s through email or Social Media.
Use Social Media – As everyone knows social media is one of the world’s best methods to connect with others around the world, it’s never been so easy to find great content and good discussion. Once the conference or event has finished make sure you keep a keen eye on the event hashtag. You can also make valuable connections here, as well as have great discussion sharing opinions, information and thoughts.
Use your hobbies – Just because you’re not at work doesn’t mean you have to stop networking with others. The one person that utilises this best is Sir Richard Branson. Kitesurfing is one of his favourite hobbies and he manages to do some great marketing off the back of it (Kitesurfing off the top of the Great House on Necker). Personally I love to get involved in Football, Formula One and more recently Jiu Jitsu. It’s been great to meet new friends and reach out to people who work in totally different industries and at the same time, have loads of fun and learn new skills.
12. and finally… – Make sure you reconnect, but do so in good time. After each event I set calendar reminders to check in with the people I meet. I normally leave about three months between these times just to make sure I’m not being a pest. It’s good to keep up with what people are doing and what direction they are heading in.
As a business owner or even as a person looking to have a successful career creating a strong, valuable network of people around you is so important. Having this will allow you to be the person who excites and innovates in the industry you work in. Go out, have an opinion, say the wrong thing, fail, say the right thing and express yourself. Failure is OK, not trying is not. Its perfectly fine to be wrong, its perfectly fine to be right. Discuss, make new business relationships and just be apart of what is going on. I love business, I love the industry I work in, I just want to be involved.
I hope to see you out there soon!