When someone first suggested I try networking for my business, I thought they were mad. I’d had some experience of it when I worked in the City – 6am breakfast meetings populated by very sensible, suit-wearing men who had absolutely no idea what to do with even the watered down version of me.

I hate mornings, I hate forced formality, I hate being frowned at for swearing as punctuation, and I especially hate not having the freedom to recommend who I want to rather than the people I actually rate, and combined with the bemusement of my previous experiences, it felt like it wasn’t going to be super useful for my business.

So I approached my first one with some trepidation – but I trusted the friend who had suggested it, and it sounded fairly chill – a lunchtime gathering of women, with the only formality a round-the-table 60 seconds each to say whatever you wanted about your business.

Four and a bit years later, I’m still going to that group every month, and have been to quite a few others in between – because it turns out, if you can find the networking group that actually suits your vibe, it’s bloody brilliant!

My biggest takeaways and tips if you’re thinking about dipping your toes into networking:

Find your vibe

Even within an organisation or franchise, each group has its own vibe, and you’ll fit in with some better than others. Some might feel cliquey at first – some might actually be cliquey, although I’ve been fortunate not to experience this too much. Keep an open mind until you’ve visited, but also remember to go with your own instincts.

Use all the visitor passes you can get your hands on to get a feel for each group. You can usually visit twice before you have to make a decision to join. And don’t be pressurised either to visit or join. In my case, there are a few groups in the county whose members regularly contact me and ask me to visit with a view to joining, and because their meetings are at 6am, nearly an hour’s drive from me, the answer is always a polite no, no matter what state my business is in. I am not a lark, I will never be a lark, and there is no point paying for people to see me as non-functioning as I generally am at 6am. The same goes for weekly meetings for me, because my schedule is too unpredictable with commercial work to be able to commit to every single week.

While you’re visiting, find out if the groups you’re looking at need subs – when a regular member can’t attend, the usual practice at the groups I’ve been at is to find someone to stand in for them, who then reads out the member’s 60 seconds, and also gets a chance to read their own. Getting on the list of people who are willing to do this is a great way to get to more groups – subs generally don’t pay as the member already has, whereas visiting usually has a cost attached.

Credit: Ambitious Women in Essex

Some groups are run with an annual membership plus monthly attendance fee, some are more drop in and pay as you go; some always have a speaker on a relevant subject so you can learn as well as network, some are focused wholly on the connections made. What works for you will depend on your own preferences, and I like to have a combination of regular and drop in meetings.

I am over the moon to be back at real life networking with actual humans and hugs, but there are also some fantastic online meetings which I do attend from time to time – and some groups which run hybrid, so one month IRL and one month online. It’s all about finding what works for you!

While you’re there

I was equally dubious about the lockout policy that many groups have – so only one member at a time is allowed to represent each profession. If a group already has a photographer, I can’t join till they leave – and so far I’ve only found one organisation that allows multipod membership, so you can talk about more than one business in the round-the-table pitch section.

When I first joined I wasn’t sure about this – I am all about collaboration and community – 2020 taught me that it can sometimes be a really good thing, because it creates a safe space. While yes, you’re there to create a good impression of you and your business, over time it becomes a close knit group of supportive people who know you – and that meant when it all went tits up in early 2020, we were all able to talk about the specific impacts without worrying about comparing ourselves with anyone doing the same thing in the room. Sounds specific, but I’ve grown to like it – and it’s only one part of my marketing and peopling strategy, so it doesn’t exclude collaboration & community with fellow photographers.

It’s not all about the food, but some venues have much better food than others – and if it’s a meeting over a mealtime, good food (and cake!) is a definite bonus.

Put some effort into your 60 second pitch – it’s not a lot of time, but you can fit a surprising amount in if you put some prep time in. Bonus – you’ll probably end up amending some of your online bios as a result of your new, snappy way to talk about what you do!

Don’t go assuming you’ll get new clients straight away – but do go with the intention of expanding your network, locally or otherwise, and finding people who understand the weird self employed compulsion.

It’s all about the people

Even if you’re not especially a people person, you might find a group that works for you. But networking really is less about the meeting itself and more about the people.

Never write someone off because what they do or sell isn’t something you need. One of the best bits of advice I had was that it’s as much about the people outside the room as the people in it – everyone in that meeting knows many other people, some of whom might need you, and some of whom you might need. It’s always worth having a conversation, and you never know where the conversation might lead.

Don’t spam people by adding the emails on the attendance list to your mailing list without permission – I really shouldn’t have to say that, but it’s happened to me, so I’m throwing it out there.

Do, however, make time to meet people from the meeting individually – either before/after the meetings or separately, in person or virtually. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but the real power of networking for me has been in the deeper connections I’ve made when I get to talk to someone properly and find out more about them and what they love and what makes them tick. And don’t judge them by their cover, either – some of the most unlikely people have the most unexpected things in common.

This does mean I am totally incapable of having the recommended hour-long one to one meetings and mine are usually more like three, but the next time I follow the rules will probably be the first, and I have made some fabulous proper friends this way.

Planning-wise, this has meant I often struggle for time, so I’ve recently shifted my calendar around to mean every Monday is Meeting Monday – and I alternate virtual weeks (on my “in” weeks) and IRL meetings (on my “out” weeks) to manage my energy and introvert tendencies. And yes, there is a Calendly set up for each one! (hop over and book a virtual cuppa if you fancy it!)

And finally

I’m not going to create a networking directory, as that way madness lies – but I will say that I’ve attended and had a lot of joy and connection from the following in the Essex and Suffolk area:

WIBN (Women in Business Network)

The FSB (Federation of Small Businesses)

Pop Connect

Ambitious Women in Essex

Digital Women (online, nationwide)

Have a Google, look on Eventbrite and check out your local business support services (like Colbea in Colchester) and coworking spaces (like the Innovation Centre in Colchester and Patch in Chelmsford) – and happy connecting!