If BNI has taught me anything, it’s that networking happens pretty much everywhere all the time. In BNI, we do what we call one-to-ones. They’re hour long meetings between two members designed to help us get to know one another. We share some personal history, like how we got into the business we’re in or what your personal passions in life might be, and we share details on our businesses, like our current business goals or our service and product offerings. The theory is by getting to know one another, we can better refer business to each other.
I carry the concept of one-to-ones into my regular life daily. When I’m out and about, I take the time to talk with just about everyone I encounter. I use the same listening skills I’ve developed through my BNI one-to-one practice to hear what the people I meet want and need. I get to know them, even if just on the surface, and I offer them a glimpse into my world as well. Often, that glimpse includes the fact that I run a graphic design business. Sometimes, it includes my work as an herbalist or podcaster or publisher. When it makes sense, I hand out my business card or ask for theirs. Sometimes it includes offering up the name of someone I know who could help them with a service or product I don’t offer. It all really depends on what the person I’ve just met needs.
To some extent, it’s a lot like being a salesperson 24-7. Thanks to BNI, however, I don’t think of it as always selling. Instead, I think of it as mini one-to-ones. Always selling is exhausting to me, just as it is to most other small business owners I know. Taking time to share short stories or a laugh or two with a new acquaintance, however, is energizing. The BNI concept of one-to-ones has helped me shift my own thinking about how I sell on my feet, so to speak. It’s helped me remember that my business is a vital and interesting part of my life, one other people will want to hear about if even in passing. Rather than selling them my services, I’m mentioning what I do in a casual but clear way.
To put this approach into practice, start by always carrying your business cards or similar marketing materials. I have a place in my wallet specifically for the cards for both my businesses. I keep a stack in my car and a handful in my workout gear bag. I even stock my jackets with a few business cards and keep another stack on the bookshelf in my living room. My goals it to never be more than a few paces from a card I can hand out—and I order my cards by the thousand so I never feel inhibited by lack in handing them out.
Once you’ve stocked every nook and cranny with business cards, work at shifting your thinking. First off, never hide what you do. It’s a part of you as much as any of your other passions. More often than not, I find people are interested in the fact that I run my own business, regardless of which one I’m talking about. We small business owners and employees make up a staggering percentage of the workforce. In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau reported businesses with 500 or fewer employees make up 99 percent of the businesses in America. Those with fewer than 20 employees make up nearly 90 percent. Despite that, it seems most people assume working for a big corporation is the way everyone makes a living. When I mention I’m a business owner that often opens the door to easy conversation.
Secondly, speak up when you hear an opportunity to talk about what you do. Seek those opportunities, even. Back before BNI, I more often than not kept quiet even when I heard a new acquaintance mention a need for a service I could provide because, honestly, I felt shy. I didn’t want to be the guy no one wants around because he’s always selling something, so I kept mum. BNI helped me realize I can mention what I do even when the opening seems somewhat vague..and that I should. How can potential clients see I can help if I don’t mention to them what I do, right?
The fastest way to build a network is by listening to what other people are saying or doing, and to share what you do with them. It goes for other business owners you may encounter in business settings as much as it goes for the check-out clerk at your local grocery or the guy you just met on the bus. Thinking about those brief encounters as mini one-to-ones can help you shift from keeping your business life separate from your personal life to integrating them in a way that builds trust and a wide-ranging network of potential customers. Mini one-to-ones can happen anytime, anywhere, and they just might lead you to your next big sale.