Go Shake Some Hands

When I started my first business in 2000, we didn't have new-fangled tools like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to make connections with potential clients and partners. We had to go to Chamber of Commerce networking events and shake hands with insurance salespeople and office supply reps. I hated going to those things.

By 2006, when I started Recursive Function, the landscape had changed and I revolted against traditional networking. It even took me several months before I bothered to get business cards made.

It's is in the blood for many entrepreneurs, but there are a great deal of us who cringe when thinking about going to networking events. We enthusiastically welcomed the advent of social networking because that meant we didn't have to go to boring events, eat stale hors d'oeuvres and shake hands with a bunch of strangers. And we welcomed it so much that it started to seem like an investment in Twitter and other online networking tools should be enough.

The beauty of the web is that you can be connected to people all over the world, but if you're starting a company and not well-connected to people in your city, it's going to be hard to be successful. You need good relationships with vendors in order to get things done — lawyers, accountants, web designers, IT consultants, and yes, even good insurance salespeople and office supply reps. You need to make connections with talent in the area when you start to hire employees (it's so much easier to convince someone to work for your startup when they know you or know of you). You also benefit from the advice of peers, and while you learn a lot from blogs and conference speakers, there's no substitute for listening to stories or getting advice over coffee.

And if you've worked Twitter to death but don't have good relationships with potential vendors, have someone that you'd hire in a second if the right position opened up, and have a credible peer or mentor who'll help you with a challenging problem in exchange for a Guinness or two ... well, then your networking strategy has fallen short. And no, "there's nobody doing anything interesting in this town" is not a valid excuse.

It took me a while to fully appreciate the importance of these business relationships, and the key ingredient for building these relationships: I have to get out there and shake hands. This is a no-brainer for some, but I don't think it's so clear for those of us who are more comfortable behind a computer screen than in a crowd of strangers. In theory, it seems like you can build your network through social media tools alone.

Despite a full list of online followers, friends and contacts, I have a hard time thinking of someone who's had a strong, positive impact on my business that I haven't yet met in person. I can also think of a handful of people that I met "cold" at a networking event and probably wouldn't have met otherwise.

Social networking sites are good tools for keeping connected and up-to-date with contacts, but not a great way to establish lasting relationships. It's not often that I'll friend or follow someone I haven't met or don't know of, and very rare that I'll actually be engaged enough to read their blog or tweets. Even though I can be a bit of a Twitter curmudgeon, I'm pretty sure this is the same for power users too — people won't pay attention to you on Twitter unless they're already familiar with your work or have met you in person.

You won't get the most out of your online networking if you don't occasionally attend the Tweetups, join a user group, or attend local conferences like Master of Business Online and TechPoint Innovation Summit. You don't have to turn into a power networker or even go to any of those dreaded Chamber of Commerce events. But you do need to force yourself every month or two to get out there, shake hands with old and new contacts, and buy a round of beers.

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