Networking Made Easy: How freelancers and consultants can get better at networking without trying too hard

Members of the Br8kthru team work on a digital marketing campaign at Fueled Collective in Northeast Minneapolis.

What’s one of the most difficult parts of being a solopreneur? Hint: it’s in the name. You’re solo. Alone. All by your lonesome.

Which makes getting new business a bit tricky. How can you, from the privacy of your home office or the anonymity of your local coffee shop, build a network that will bring you business?

If you’re a fearless extrovert, then you may not need to read this blog post. You’ve been blessed with a skill set that makes it relatively easier for you to make contacts and develop business relationships. But as it turns out, many solopreneurs are introverts. Big surprise, right? Especially those of us who work at a solitary craft, like writing, design, programming and analytics. Our introverted tendencies has allowed us to invest the vast amounts of time that it takes to become great at our work.

So, what can we do to build a healthy network, but without fear or feelings of awkwardness? Or even better, how can we network and maybe even enjoy ourselves at the same time? Below are some universal principles that might help you build your professional network a little more effortlessly.

  1. Be yourself – The best connections happen when others see you as your relaxed and authentic self. So, forget about pretending to be some person you think people would want to meet. Be you, in all your quirky glory. And stay away from situations where you can’t shine and contribute. The reason networking sucks for many people is that we might feel like we have to put on an act and pretend to be accomplished and successful, even if we’re not feeling it.
  2. Skip big industry gatherings – You don’t necessarily have to attend events or join groups just because they pertain to your industry. For one, some events or associations may be too general or too big for you to be able to meet people effectively. It may be difficult to find other practitioners of your skills, or the people who are in a position to hire your services. Remember, your goal it to connect to people, not to get lost in a sea of strangers, which will only leave you feeling discouraged.
  3. If you must go…bring a friend – If you feel like you really should attend your industry’s annual conference with 2,000 attendees, one strategy is to bring a mate. Go with a colleague who will stick close and help you meet people. It’s easier as a team. You’ll feel more relaxed hanging out with someone who knows you. You might even be able to tag-team introductions: “Hi, I’m Jane. I’m a project manager. And this is my friend Bob, who’s a really good copywriter…”
  4. Let your passions guide you – If you want to make meaningful connections, it’s important to find people who share your most intense interests. The stuff that you like to geek out on. Look for events or groups (or sub-groups within a bigger industry) that are more focused and likely to attract people who also want to go deep on your favorite subject. You should even consider joining hobby or special interest groups. Why? Because if you’re talking about what turns your crank, you’re more likely to come off as engaged, enthusiastic and empowered – which is attractive to other people. Plus, you’d be surprised how often referrals come from people who don’t work in the industry.
  5. Volunteer or get on the board – This is a ninja move – by volunteering at industry events or joining the board of an association, you are almost guaranteed to get connected to people who can help your business, whether it’s now or down the road. But make sure you commit and take it seriously, as others will see the quality of your volunteer efforts work as an indication of your integrity and abilities, which will affect the likelihood of getting referrals.
  6. Optimize for relationships – What is the point of networking? Is it to drum up business? Only indirectly. A healthy network doesn’t just produce results once, but continually over time. So, rather than just trying to get a few business leads, think about building relationships that become a source of leads and referrals consistently over the years. How? Be friendly, candid and helpful (as the next 3 steps explain) and let time do the rest. After repeated exposure to the friendly and helpful you, people will begin to think of you when they encounter someone who might be a good prospect.
  7. Ask before telling – This is a principle that the author Dale Carnegie made famous in his 1936 book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” The idea is to spend more effort asking people about themselves than telling them about you. Counterintuitively, people will find you more interesting, even though they do all the talking!
  8. Drop your guard – It’s almost guaranteed that someone at an event will ask you if you’ve seen a popular TV show or read a book that’s making the rounds in your industry. Rather than telling a white lie, just tell the truth. “I must be the only person in the world who hasn’t read that book!” you might say. Odds are the person you’re talking to will admit that they haven’t either. Why confess ignorance? Because you make yourself vulnerable, which in turn helps the other person let down their own guard.
  9. Give before taking – You’re an expert, right? So, why not use your talent to ingratiate yourself with new friends. This is a practical tip that I learned from Dave, a member at Fueled Collective, who was an SEO analyst. Although he charged a high hourly rate for his services, he always made a point of telling people that he’d happily take a glance at their website and give them his first-glance opinion on what they were doing well and not-so-well. You might think that Dave lost business by giving it away. But his philosophy was that by giving a gift, people would appreciate his help and, from that point on, associate him with his area of expertise. So, if they had a big SEO project or knew someone who did, they’d be more likely to think of Dave.
  10. Join a coworking space – Over our nearly 10 years of running COCO (now Fueled Collective), we’ve noticed a recurring phenomenon. A solopreneur shows up and without much apparent effort starts to assemble a rich network that includes fellow solopreneurs, vendors and clients.And that’s pretty much what you want in your network, right? Peers who can share ideas with. Other experts that you might need to hire in order to serve your clients. And the clients themselves (who might be at the coworking space, or whom you might be referred to by other coworkers).
The coworking commons at Fueled Collective at Uptown Minneapolis, where many solopreneurs work and make connections.

Why is this so effective? Because coworking spaces like Fueled Collective, which focus on cultivating a diverse array of members, will have a membership that includes a wide range of business types and sizes, from solopreneurs to service businesses to corporate work teams. Not only that, but there’s something about the culture of coworking that makes it easy to approach other people (and for people to approach you) and ask: “What do you do?” As the saying goes, people do business with people they like. And the highly collegial nature of coworking seems to help people find other people they like and want to help. See these tips on how to network in a coworking space.