Nick Bryant started his own company in April 2006 because he simply knew too many people.
At the time, he did networking for a printing company as an independent contractor. He met a lot of people who needed services the company couldn’t offer. So, to help them meet their needs, he launched Nick Print, a commercial printing company that now has a database of more than 14,000 people.
In 2012, his company had clients in 24 states. And though Bryant has met some of them in person, he has clients he hasn’t met and may not ever meet. They happened upon him through referrals — maybe even referrals of referrals.
By attending seven to 10 networking events per week, Bryant formed the connections that made Nick Print a success.
He said it took a couple of years before he was completely comfortable attending events, but after doing it over and over again, it now comes naturally.
“People are people — they’re just as nervous as you are, especially if they’re new,” Bryant said. “You help the new people along and after a while, it becomes old hat.”
Networking is an intentional or planned interaction between individuals, said Heather White, the director of the University of Florida’s Career Resource Center.
“I used the word ‘intentional’ because there needs to be some sort of plan,” White said. “It’s not just meeting a person and then never interacting again.”
She stressed the importance of making the connection meaningful, following up after the initial interaction and maintaining that connection. Although it may not always arise from the need or want for employment, it can create a long-term relationship that is beneficial to those involved.
Networking can happen through different avenues — planned or unplanned. It can occur in a structured event, on the street and even online. Regardless of these options, there are some basic guidelines to keep in mind.
For face-to-face networking, White said a business card and up-to-date resume should always be on hand. Business cards should include the best ways to be reached, whether it is a phone number, email address or website.
“You never know when you’ll run into someone in the elevator,” she said.
For events or interactions that are planned, the best way to stand out is to be prepared and know as much as possible about the company, the people or the organization.
If the information you want to know is readily available online, it wouldn’t be a good idea to ask about it, White said.
On top of being prepared and having contact information handy, Bryant added that it is equally important to bring an attitude ready to make connections.
“Don’t be shy,” he said. “Go up to people. Listen to what they do. Be an active listener.”
He said people can tell when the listener is engaged or just waiting his or her turn to talk. When your turn does come, make sure to elaborate on what you do.
“People have to find out what you do in order to ever have the chance to purchase what you do,” he said.
And if they don’t need what you have to offer, they might know someone else who does. Bryant said he’s been to networking events where he has helped connect people because he knew they could each benefit off the other.
“What goes around, comes around,” he said.
Since Bryant spends a lot of his time doing face-to-face networking events, he said he probably doesn’t spend much time as others do on social networks. However, he does use LinkedIn to keep up with the connections he has made in person.
LinkedIn is the largest online professional network in the world, with more than 200 million registered users. Members maintain a profile that can list current and past jobs, experiences, skills, memberships in groups and education.
White noted that it is similar to posting a resume online, except it leaves room for elaborating on any of the categories.
Through LinkedIn, users can connect to friends, colleagues, classmates and professionals and make their profiles accessible to potential employers as well. The site does ask how you know people when requesting to be connected to them online.
White said you should always be as specific as possible on how you met, since they may have several — even hundreds — of requests daily. List where or through whom you met, or mention a topic that can remind them who you are.
LinkedIn also has groups and professional organizations users can join or follow.
“That’s a great way for networking to just happen naturally: by putting information out there, by responding to question, having discussions — just like you would face-to-face,” she said.
It’s a means by which people who may never have met can connect.
“I think it takes networking to a whole new level,” White said. “It allows us to expand the scope and magnitude of our network.”
Although there are other social networking sites and more popping up every day, White said Twitter is another popular professional networking tool on the Internet. It offers a way to connect quickly.
“It’s so fast sometimes that it’s hard to keep up with,” she said.
In the past, some may have been intimidated by approaching experts or people known in their field. But Twitter allows an easy exchange and flow of information, White said.
“Most people leave their accounts open so that anyone can follow them and are more open to answering questions and giving information,” she said. “It’s a different mindset, not having to talk face-to-face.”
Instead of having to rely on publicized information, people can seek out expert advice directly at no cost.
White said it can even make in-person networking more effective by educating people more about their field or subject of interest.
She acknowledged that the quick dissemination of information can make news hard to follow and engage in, but can also help people stay as up to date as possible.
White added that the most important aspect of using social media is for users to educate themselves.
“Once you put information out on social media, it’s always there,” White said. “Even if you delete it, there’s still that footprint of it being there.”
While having your information available to a wide span of people can be beneficial, what you put out there can form certain perceptions of you, she said.
“If you’re having to think about whether or not you should post something, you probably shouldn’t,” she said. “That’s always the safer approach.”
Networking Groups and Informational Interviews
Bryant started networking through a chamber he joined in Indiana roughly seven years ago.
Just like LinkedIn has professional and networking groups online, there are in-person groups as well. There are several in Gainesville alone, including the Breakfast Club of Gainesville, Business Networking International and the Gainesville Area Women’s Network.
Jim Payne, the treasurer of the Breakfast Club and a local business owner, said local networking groups allow people in the community to get to know each other, build their sales force and find new employment.
As a member of both the Breakfast Club and Business Networking International, Payne has gotten to know other business owners and what they do. They talk about common problems, and what’s going on in the community.
His connections serve as an information source and, sometimes, all it takes is showing up for breakfast.
Another means of gaining information is by setting up interviews with experts or professionals in the area.
White said you could reach out to them to talk one-on-one, just to ask questions or learn from them.
“That’s an approach of putting yourself out there,” she said.
How to Stand Out
When it comes to asking the “right” questions, the key factor is adjusting them based on the situation, White said.
“I don’t think there’s any set of questions that would work for every encounter,” she said.
The circumstances change the questions, but the best way to build the connection is by making it as intentional as possible, she said. This means establishing a common interest or using a frame of reference like a shared connection.
Being educated about your field and anticipating the different scenarios of networking can help you formulate questions when each situation arises.
Because networking isn’t as concrete as a resume or the type of clothing to wear, White said it often doesn’t get as much attention when it comes to job preparation.
Although networking can happen in chance encounters, she stressed that networking needs to be given considerable thought.
“Think of ways to create networking opportunities happen,” she said.
She said the more it is put into a plan and the more you put yourself in a networking position, the more effective it is going to be.
“Networking is the No. 1 way to get a job,” she said. “We [at the Career Resource Center] say that over and over and over again.”
White said the value of networking really lies in the continuous sharing of information and discussion because it is what makes the connection last.
“The connection in networking and in general takes time,” White said.
“It doesn’t happen overnight.”
She said a good time to find out the most convenient way to communicate is while exchanging contact information.
Bryant stressed that following up makes the difference, no matter how simple.
It could be in the form of an email, a hand-written thank-you note, a LinkedIn connection request, a phone call acknowledging a meeting — as long as it is a means of reconnecting with that person you met.
“The fortune is in the follow up,” he said.