Networking is essential when you are a small business trying to make yourself known in a sea of large competitors. If done correctly, networking can give you an advantage over those who don't. Done incorrectly, you could end up being the least possible person anyone wants to work with. One way to get put into that second category is to make a networking event all about you.
What Networking is About
Networking is about letting people who can help you know you exist, isn't it? No. Networking is about two parties becoming familiar with what each has to offer in a business relationship. Yes, you want to put yourself on the radar of people who may be able to help you somewhere along the line. But it is also about letting others know what you have to offer so they can contact you. Networking is reciprocal. If you go into it with only your own needs in mind, you won't go far.
What Do You Do?
This question isn't a question for you to answer, it is the best question you can ask someone you meet at a networking event. Don't just ask; listen to the answer. When you allow the other person to get excited about what they do, they link those positive feelings to your interaction. They will be more likely to ask for your contact info and remember you. If you are only talking about yourself, handing out business cards and wandering away, you limit your chance to build a relationship with them in the future.
Networking is About Relationship Building
One way you can avoid becoming a major jerk at a networking event is to think about it as building a relationship. Go into the situation with the mindset that you are setting out to make connections that can last a lifetime. Consider these things:
That man who doesn't seem to be related in any way to your business may one day be the president of your most sought-after contract.
That quiet woman in the corner may know everyone in the room and is standing back to allow newcomers the chance to meet people without her taking up time.
That small business owner over there is worth the same courtesy as Mr. Bigshot in the center of the room. In fact, he may have the skills or tools that will help your business grow more so than the corporate leader.
What is most important at a networking event, especially for small business owners, is getting to know people. Letting them get to know you and building relationships now that may not seem valuable but can grow in the future. If you disregard these contacts now, you may never have the chance to develop them in the future. If you give the impression that you are only interested in self-gain, you'll not only lose out at this event but will find your reputation spreads. A bad reputation is easier to create than a good one.
Think, Plan, Enjoy
As a small business owner, you don't have the stress that larger business owners may have. They have status to maintain, and that can be harder than forging new relationships. The best things you can do in regards to networking is to think about the big picture, not just what is happening now.
Next, make sure you have your contact information handy and a short (yes, short!) explanation of who you are and what you do readily available. Finally, plan on enjoying the event by thinking of it more as a way to build life-long relationships rather than a way to advance your business. Make it about others, and you will come out on top.