Guest post by Melinda Emerson @smallbizlady

Meet Melinda at her extensive half-day training in Washington, DC on May 25. Attend her Succeed as Your Own Boss Tour and get the tips that will help you grow your business. Visit http://bit.ly/byob2011dc for more info.

In small business, your network is key is to your business success, but it is astonishing to me that people with no friends will start a business. I believe it’s best to plan 12 months before you quit your job to start a business.  In that year, one the most important things you need to do is build and reinforce your personal network. Why? Because, people do business with people they like and people they know. Hopefully, you can be both to your clients. There are many businesses like yours, but one thing that separates your company from others is who you know and how you know them.

An entrepreneur’s most valuable skill is the ability to make friends and influence people.

Look for Ways to Meet People Encounters with people you don’t know are important. Look at it this way: You don’t meet strangers; you meet friends you just don’t know yet. There are a few rules to this kind of networking. Always invite the person to talk about themselves first. After all, the more you know about them, the better you can tailor your thirty-second pitch. Be ready with your short commercial about your business. Consider this your opportunity to make a first impression.

The 30 Second Commercial Before you hit the street extolling the virtues of your great product or service, it is crucial that you have a clear thirty-second commercial (also known as “the elevator pitch”) for your business. When someone asks you what you do, you need to have a crisp and memorable response that makes it clear what business you are in and how you solve problems for your customers. Your commercial is intended for very brief, chance encounters. It is important because it helps you make a lasting first impression. You use it to showcase your professionalism, the benefits you provide, and your expertise. The goal is to capture your target’s attention and interest so that you can engage them in a more substantial and meaningful way. A strong thirty-second commercial will help you create better networking connections, and it can draw people to you. People will seek you out if you present yourself and your business professionally.

It is very important that you sound excited about what you do when you talk to people. You are always selling the business and yourself. Be careful never to tie up someone more than few minutes unless the contact seems to want to prolong the conversation.

Trains, planes, and buses are a great way to meet other business people. I only take the Amtrak Acela express train, which is how most business travelers in the Northeast ride. When I ride the train, I look for an open seat next to someone who looks like a businessperson. You just never know who could be a high-ranking executive, so I keep my mind and my options open. I try to make a friend or at least to learn something from someone during the ride. Most of the time, I accomplish both goals.

A Friendly Conversation Can Always Turn into a Potential Business Lead Learn how to strike up a conversation with anyone. Giving a compliment is a great way to start.  Look for something you have in common such as kids, sports, tired of being in line—anything you can thing of to make a personal connection with the person you are talking with. Whenever you attend networking functions or, for that matter, go anywhere, you should always have business cards. When it comes to networking, you never know where you might meet someone who can help you grow your business, so it pays to always be prepared with plenty of business cards. It’s like that old saying goes “never leave home without them.”

Build Personal Network When I first moved to Philadelphia, I put my nose to the grindstone for a few years to build up my career, then I turned my attention to meeting people. I did three things. First, I joined the Urban League to do volunteer work, socialize, and participate in professional development activities. Then I found a church home. The third thing I did was to reach out to the alumni association of my alma mater, Virginia Tech. These three associations paid off in spades years later when I started my business. My first customers came from those associations.

The Cocktail Hour Before Any Event is the Event! Be early for the reception so you can circulate. Once you sit down to dinner, the only people you can network with are the other nine people at your table. An accountant once told me that the rule of thumb is that you should go through 500 business cards roughly every two months when you first start a business. I even carry business cards to the hair salon because you never know who’s in the shampoo bowl next to you.

The Follow-Up The way to build relationships is through continued contact. It is essential to follow up within two weeks after meeting with a potential business contact. You can do this in multiple ways. The quickest and easiest way is e-mail. I prefer to send a handwritten note on my company stationery, since I feel this adds a personal touch. You can have note card stationary printed with your company logo on it.

Leave me a comment if you have any other good networking tips or stories to share.

Melinda Emerson “SmallBizLady”is a Veteran Entrepreneur, Small Business Expert and Social Media Coach who hosts #smallbizchat on Twitter. #Smallbizchat is the trusted resource on Twitter to discuss everything entrepreneurs need to know about launching and running a profitable small business. Melinda is best-selling author of, Become Your Own Boss in 12 months! A Month-by-Month Guide to a Business that Works!

Meet best-selling author Melinda Emerson and learn from her in an extensive half-day training in Washington, DC on May 25. Attend her Succeed as Your Own Boss Tour and get the tips that will help you succeed. Visit http://bit.ly/byob2011dc for more info.

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