by Jonathan Hung
This article is an edited version of one published on Jonathan’s personal blog. To read the original post, please visit JonathanHung.com.
Networking during COVID is a critical skill for entrepreneurs and founders. For emerging entrepreneurs and startups, professional and active networking is an essential part of their business strategy. After all, a startup’s chance for success is improved by the formal and informal business networks they build with other entrepreneurs, investors, and mentors.
Forbes recently published an article citing research by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which clearly stated that “for 78% of startups, networking is vital for entrepreneurial success.” In a comprehensive study, the EIU found that successful entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv, Ho Chi Minh, Hong Kong, London, New York, and San Francisco emphasized digital and in-person networking. The importance of networking is not surprising because networking is a powerful tool in connecting you with prospective customers, possible investors, and potential mentors, all while helping you project your presence in your niche industry.
However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, usual business practices have come to a staggering halt. With strict social distancing measures put in place, there has been hardly any way to network during COVID. Getting entrepreneurs in a room for in-person social gatherings or business meet-ups is nearly impossible.
There is no need to let this deter us, though. The pandemic has taught us resilience; businesses have re-strategized their practices with creative solutions to survive the pandemic’s adverse impacts. Digital networking, aka virtual networking, is just as useful for ensuring entrepreneurial success as in-person networking is. Some experts might argue that virtual networking is more beneficial because it is faster, cheaper, and less awkward.
Why Entrepreneurs NEED to Engage in Networking
Let’s get the basics out of the way first. Why do entrepreneurs need to strategize networking into their startup plans properly? Why is it so vital to entrepreneurial success? Here is a quick run-down of six long-term benefits that networking offers to startups.
- Fostering Connections & Friendships: Meeting with people who think like you or challenge your ideas is quite necessary to develop a reflexive approach towards your business model. Interacting with your peers and other expert business people from the industry can go a long way in helping you benefit from their combined knowledge and experiences.
- Getting Much-Needed Referrals: One of the most obvious benefits of networking is the expansion of your business and social networks. An expanding network can help you connect with potential clients and vendors, which will ultimately profit your startup and allow it to grow bigger.
- Increase Your Goodwill: Let your reputation precede you—in the right way! A great benefit of business networking is that you can build its reputation progressively and increase its goodwill. As an entrepreneur, it is crucial to create a good impression on leading representatives from your industry because it can impact the number of profitable opportunities coming your way.
- Gaining Access to Potential Mentors: In the world of business, knowing the right people is critical. Business networking platforms often invite established and high-influential businessmen who are potential mentors for young entrepreneurs. Building rapport with people who have been in the field longer than you can be extremely beneficial because of all the valuable advice that they can provide. Business incubators are often the easiest way to get a couple of mentors who can dish out great suggestions; however, networking events are another platform for connecting with potential mentors.
- Collaborate, Create, and Innovate: A confident and motivated entrepreneur leading a new startup is always looking for opportunities for partnerships, collaborations, joint ventures, client leads, etc. Such opportunities are the perfect way to grow your business and transform it into something bigger and better. Business networking allows you to interact and engage with other passionate leaders who might have ideas that you can adopt or collaborate with others.
- Put You on the Angel Investor’s Radar: Finally, networking not only makes you better known in your industry, but it also puts you on the investment radar of many angel investors. Besides, a strong network will allow you to tap into your network for warm introductions to potential investors.
Virtual Networking Through Online Platforms
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom has risen through the ranks as a prominently used platform for online networking events. Google Meet, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and LinkedIn are not far behind. As long as you have stable internet connections, you are good to go.
It is essential to understand that the first principle of virtual networking is that you are working towards cultivating genuine relationships. When it comes to online conferences, I’d advise you to contact people through email or private messages afterward. Express your willingness to brainstorm with fellow entrepreneurs and established business people. Getting together with a small circle of entrepreneurs within your network to host a webinar or an online video conference is a great way to build a more robust professional circle. It creates the impression that you are dedicated and showcases your dedication as an entrepreneur.
An important concept here is to “Give more than you get.” If you’re seen as always asking for something rather than offering help, your network will become wary of you and less likely to collaborate or assist you. If, on the other hand, you tend to be open and willing with your time and give back to the community you’re developing, then that is a positive thing. It’s not calculating to be interested in helping others; it is just good business and will open you up too many more opportunities.
There are authentic challenges that virtual networking can present. In a detailed article, Anne Kadet writes about how it is harder to get people to show up to an online meeting, which is somewhat counterintuitive. Using personal experience, Kadet discusses that platforms like Zoom work like a charm for many entrepreneurs gathered together for a small online meet-up; however, there is a chance that the conversation dies down and awkward silences descend. To combat this challenge, I would recommend that business networking meetings include a guest speaker or moderator-led format. A good idea is to provide a meeting agenda with rough times and topics, so people know what to expect, and they know that it is not an open-ended, endless meeting.
Take Full Advantage of Digital Networking
Today’s technology makes virtual networking more accessible than ever. While these tools have been around for a while, it took something like the pandemic to make people comfortable with virtual interactions. I’ve even seen a founder create slick pitch videos to send to angel investors that are a combination of a pitch deck and a demo. They use their network to broker warm introductions so they can send the link to the video pitch to various angel investors. This type of networking is much more efficient than in-person meetings or long presentations. It’s an effective way to reach a potentially large number of individuals and get their feedback. If they are interested, then you can follow up immediately. I’d like to think the silver lining to all of these lockdown and COVID-19 issues have been people’s acceptance of virtual interactions and making efficient use of their time.
In-person meetings are critical. However, utilizing powerful networking tools and techniques can make finding and connecting with people much faster, which can reduce the investment cycle dramatically.
As a side note, integrating with social media is also are a great way to expand and develop your network. All mass communications in the past have always been one-sided. The newspaper, the radio, the TV, all these mediums have been practical tools, but have not stimulated the kind of buzz, the sort of conversation that social media can. Social media’s interactive nature makes it one of the most excellent networking tools a startup can have at its disposal. Coupled with a strong and powerful brand, the organic growth your idea can receive is only limited by the number of active users on each platform.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put increased importance on strong networking. I know that I’ve seen an uptick entirely in networking outreach and the first thing I do is look at the strength of the personal network and their brand. How authoritative are they? What do they represent? Do they showcase expertise in their market? All of these things are important factors for me even to consider their investment opportunity.
Networking and brand building during COVID-19 has become essential to maintain momentum and build the opportunities that will undoubtedly present themselves after the current situation.