I’ve been thinking a lot about networking recently and how important it is when you’re starting and running a business. According to some research conducted by Populus I read recently, nearly half (47%) of professional people felt they didn’t have the connections they needed to succeed in their career. I tend to have a different view. For me networking isn’t just about collecting people’s business cards at an event – it’s more to do with having a growing group of people who you’ve come to know, trust and like over time. They can be people you’ve met socially, former colleagues or clients or someone you originally struck up a conversation with on Twitter, but they have one important thing in common: they provide you with an external point-of-view.
This is a big deal because it’s incredibly easy to get tunnel vision when you’re running a start-up. Focus is a great thing, but it can end up with you thinking that there’s only one solution to a current issue, and one that can feel just out of reach. This is where a good network shows its worth. It doesn’t mean having a list of people you can cold-call. It means having someone, or a small group of people to whom you can turn and share notes or advice with to give you that all-important external perspective.
If you’re struggling with something, chances are you’ll know someone who’s encountered a similar problem in a different sector. For example, I was part of a discussion recently where I learned how agronomists approached assessing whether a piece of land was suitable for a specific group. At first glance this had very little to do with fashion recommendation, but nevertheless it triggered a thought about a missing component from our fashion algorithm. It was an idea we’d never have had if we restricted the limit of our interests to what was immediately in front of us.
For us, networking means sharing ideas with like-minded people and remembering that learning and inspiration can come from anywhere. Sarah and I do a lot of speaking, which is a great if you love exploring ideas and concepts, but we also talk more often to a few people one-on-one. Those people are mostly outside of our fashion technology sector and work in both start-ups and corporate companies. They often have insights and experiences that could completely transform the way we’re doing or thinking about a specific thing. And we would only know this by sharing our own ideas and experiences too.
And that’s the other thing about creating a strong network (as opposed to ‘networking’): it works both ways. So whenever it’s possible for us to help someone else – whether that’s in the form of advice, insight, a referral or so on – we do it. It’s about investing in the relationships that you have with other people as much as expecting something out of them.
You could say that the precursors to building a strong network are one and the same as those that make you a better person: it’s a process that rewards everyone so long as you are open, curious and helpful.