How to Build a Business by Networking, Online and In-Person
by Adam Harrington
A lot of different things go into building a successful business, but one tactic that will serve you throughout the life of your business is networking. Here's how one entrepreneur has used networking to build his business from the very beginning.
Image source: Graphicstock.com
Ask any entrepreneur and they’ll tell you that successful businesses are based on strong relationships. Some are built one relationship at a time. But scaling a company takes a lot more than LinkedIn endorsements. It’s about taking the time to build relationships with the people you work with — customers, vendors and mentors — so that as your company grows, you’re well suited to grow your network with it.
I went from prototyping a dog toy product in my parents’ basement to working with 3D printers and an international production company by recognizing key networks, both in my backyard and across the globe. Leveraging and building those relationships has allowed my business to sell in boutiques and major retailers across the country, with international sales and new products on track for later this year. It’s been a little less than two years since I started a fully bootstrapped business — one that scaled quickly without taking on a major advertising budget or a lot of debt — all by utilizing support from the local and global community, customers and other entrepreneurs.
I know a guy who knows a guy
Unsurprisingly, your existing community of supporters can be a great resource for a new business. Moral support and word of mouth are incredibly valuable, but you might be surprised by the ways in which your existing network can lead to a big breakthrough.
The idea for Tuggo toys struck as my family watched our dogs excitedly try to play with a bowling ball. In true bootstrapped fashion, my parents’ basement was my first workshop. Once the neighbors noticed my two boxers, Harley and Hailey, playing with prototypes in the yard, I shared the story with anyone who seemed interested. When it came time to find a facility to build our products, my friend’s next door neighbor had just moved back from a job in China’s plastic industry and he helped us find the perfect production partner.
Look for learning opportunities
Some of the best entrepreneurial advice I’ve received is to see everything as a learning opportunity. While it’s incredibly important to learn from your own mistakes, learning from other people's mistakes may save you a few bumps and bruises. Seek out advice and find a mentor, either online or in your community.
At the end of the day, no matter how different their industries may be, most businesses share the same goal: success. I grew my network and found much-needed guidance by joining the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and an organization called Vistage, which connects CEOs to network and brainstorm. You can learn a lot about building and running a business by talking to other small business owners. I invested in branding materials and hit the road for trade shows on the recommendation of a more seasoned entrepreneur and my company’s growth exploded as a result.
Take trade shows seriously
Trade shows can be stressful, but you can get a lot out of them. They may not all be glamorous, but shows provide a unique opportunity to quickly forge countless relationships with a very targeted audience. Even smaller events offer the chance to meet new customers, contacts or vendors; it’s just a matter of finding the right events to attend in your industry. Much like most networking, you get back what you put into a trade show. Learn from informative sessions, scope out partners and competition on the show floor and appeal to individual and corporate buyers once you start setting up booths of your own.
We took 500 early, handmade sample Tuggo toys to a pet expo in Nashville. At this point we were running a tube through plastic balls and melting them to form a seal. When we sold out, I knew we had a good idea on our hands. After establishing our production line, we filled bigger orders at larger shows. We were invited to compete for PetSmart’s Innovation Station awards after selling out at a big show in Las Vegas. The outcome? Our toys are on shelves across the country.
Bring on help to build your brand
While it’s particularly important to catch people’s attention and make a strong first impression at trade shows, it’s a widely applicable lesson. Effective branding and marketing are a must-have for any growing business. Unless you’re a trained marketer and/or graphic designer, you should invest in strategic counsel and professional design services for a logo, business card, website, packaging and any collateral design. You can do all this without breaking the bank, too.
“Good old fashioned” networking is great, but the best part of a global economy is the ability to work with people you may never meet, around town or across the globe. I work with a distributed team of partners I trust, but haven’t met them all face-to-face because I found them online. My marketing consultant lives nearby and we meet up to plan campaigns, but I found a freelance graphic designer that I can afford and love working with on Fiverr. He and I have been working closely together since I started the company — he made my logo and now knows exactly what I want as I start describing a new flyer or banner graphic. Just like a face-to-face relationship, it’s one built on mutual trust and admiration. I even sent him a new computer a few months ago as a thank you. I’m also working with content writers across the country to build up a blog next. It’s a lot easier to find help on a budget now that anyone, anywhere can sell their skills online to build a business of their own. Expand your network and use it to your mutual advantage.
Create an edge through personalization
If you invest the time and energy required to build lasting relationships for the backend of your business, it should be intuitive to build similarly strong relationships with your customers. It doesn’t matter if you have a one-man selling operation or a full-fledged team, there should be a strategy in place that centers around getting to know customers. Adopting new tools can make it easier, too. My team uses Zoho for customer relationship management, but there are plenty of great CRM solutions on the market for solving the same problem. Your software choice isn’t nearly as important as the way you use it though.
We sell dog toys. What that means is that our customers aren’t exactly our users. We recognize that reality in our communication and our collateral, and it pays off. We don’t just get to know our customers, we get to know their dogs too. We take the pets’ names and breeds down with all our other notes so we can ask how Zeus, the in-house terrier at Pets on Main, is enjoying the test kit of toys we sent when we follow-up. A professional but personable approach and personal touches go a long way to build trust with new and potential buyers.
If you want to see your business grow, go out and introduce people to it. Building a broader network is the best-tested, most cost-effective solution to almost all of the challenges associated with scaling a company.
Entrepreneur/inventor Adam Harrington achieved national prominence in 2014 when his Tuggo water-weighted dog pull toy was singled out by major retailer PetSmart to receive its coveted Innovation Station award. Tuggo has been featured on NBC’s Today show and in the New York Times.