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Published 26 February 2024
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6 minutes

7 Networking Tips for Self-Employed Workers

From free market research to protecting your mental health, networking offers loads of benefits for sole traders and self-employed workers. But without a strategy, attending events can be a waste of time and money. Use these expert tips to level up your approach.

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Whether you’ve recently gone self-employed or have been running your own business for a while, building brand awareness without burning through your budget can be tricky.

Two business consultants offer their expert advice on networking, revealing some unexpected benefits.

1. Free isn’t always good value 

For anyone new to networking or self-employment, the desire to make a name for your business may tempt you to sign up for every free event you can find. But remember that each event you attend is an investment of your time and energy – plus travel expenses if you’re attending face to face. 

It’s therefore essential to be selective. “That might mean actually going to fewer events, or it might mean paying for events, but that’s far more cost effective than investing lots of time and energy into all the free ones if they’re not the right people for you,” says Jeni Smith, networking strategist and founder of consultancy NetKno.

When selecting which events to attend and budgeting for tickets and membership fees, Smith advises business owners to “work backwards”: Start with what you want to achieve from networking, such as new clients, alternative suppliers or simply some fresh ideas. Once you’ve identified who you need to connect with, you’ll be able to make a more informed choice about which events are worth your time and money.

2. It’s OK if you just go to learn

According to Smith, “knowledge is the most powerful thing we get from attending networking events”. For sole traders embarking on their business journey, networking events can be a great place to discover what grants, other funding and resources you can access. “The business support landscape changes all the time,” she says, so speaking to people who have “tapped into something themselves” could save you hours of searching. 

Morag Kelly, a business adviser at BizBritain, a broker specialising in finance for start ups and small and medium-sized businesses, says that local networking groups are often connected with organisations offering free training or mentoring support.

While adding value for others is the best way to build your social capital, if you’re new to business ownership, it’s OK to attend networking events simply to listen, learn and ask questions. Smith describes the feeling of ‘not knowing enough’ as a “massive barrier” for those nervous about networking. However, she offers reassurance that “everyone has value to give…You’ve got your own experiences and so you’re coming from a unique viewpoint”. 

Even if your experience as a business owner is limited, don’t forget that you’re a customer too. “You potentially are someone else’s target market, so they’ll get value just from asking you questions,” says Smith. 

3. Treat networking as free market research 

Whether you’re testing out a new business idea or looking to drive up your sales figures, networking events can be a great place to test a concept without incurring costs. 

Smith advocates speaking directly to networking attendees to gauge the right price point for your product or service. “You end up not only creating a better business, but you’ve also validated ideas,” she says. By listening to feedback and “bringing your customers on this journey with you,” Smith describes a ready-made customer base of people who know you, are emotionally invested in your business and are therefore more likely to buy from you.

Ask fellow delegates what other networking events they attend and look out for events that align with your target market. “If you have a local business, like, let’s say, plumbers, hairdressers… local networking events could really help boost your sales,” adds Kelly.

4. Consider speaking at an event

For established business owners keen to share what they’ve learned, putting yourself forward as a speaker means you’ll likely be included in any pre-event marketing sent out by the organisers. If the event has a budget for presenters, you could even make money while simultaneously raising the profile of your brand.

5. Prioritise diverse groups

Spending time with others who think the way that you do can lead to echo chambers of knowledge – environments where your existing beliefs are reinforced and alternative viewpoints may not be considered. For this reason, business owners searching for fresh, innovative ideas should step outside their sector and network with people from diverse backgrounds.

It’s widely accepted that CEOs whose networks contain people with varying skill sets and from different demographic backgrounds create companies of higher value. Firms with a diverse workforce are also better able to meet the needs of diverse consumers, with almost two in five (39%) of 1,945 adults who took in Mintel’s UK Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Market Report 2023 saying that it’s most important for brands to prioritise employing a diverse workforce.

Experts also report the benefits of a diverse network for personal and professional growth, with research suggesting that more inclusive organisations are more profitable and make better decisions. 

With this in mind, consider how you can leverage social networking platform LinkedIn to build a more diverse professional network. This can help to ensure you are embracing different perspectives, which can, in turn, lead to deeper innovation and more success. 

6. Talk to everyone – even your competitors

As well as being respectful to everyone you encounter, Smith warns networkers not to dismiss someone just because they’re not your target market. “When you’re networking, you’re not just talking to that person. You’re talking to everyone that they know or will ever know in the future,” she explains. 

It could even be good for your business if you strike up a conversation with a competitor, as it could create opportunities for collaboration. This tactic is particularly helpful for sole traders who may have to turn down work once they reach capacity. “Being on each other’s books is always really helpful,” notes Smith. “Having people that you can then outsource to if your workload gets too big, they can white label for you and vice versa.” 

7. Feeling lonely? Try networking

Running a small business or working as a freelancer can be an isolating experience, while long hours and no paid time off can take a toll on your mental health. 

In fact, a 2023 survey conducted by Simply Business and Mental Health at Work found that almost two fifths (38%) of the 749 participating micro-business owners had experienced a negative impact on their mental health in the previous 12 months.

According to Smith, networking “helps build support ecosystems”, which improve emotional wellbeing. Networking just for human support is as good a reason as any, says Smith: “If you work for yourself, it can be really lonely… but you’re going through this thing together and it bonds you, look for that group.”

Image source: Getty Images

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