From successful entrepreneurs, words of wisdom on networking: ‘Just do it’

When starting your own business, going to events and meeting people might be low on the list of things to do. It shouldn't be. Networking is a key part to building a successful business, and entrepreneurs who don't do it are missing out.
When it comes to starting your own business, it can sometimes feel like you're on your own out on a ledge. Whether you're scrounging for funding, writing your brand promise or searching for office or retail space, you're often too busy getting your business off the ground to seek out help or make connections. But networking is a vital part of business, especially for entrepreneurs, who require social and strategic support to transform their idea into a workable business.

For many founders with already packed schedules, it's hard to know where to start. Each region has its own business culture, and the path to lasting connections is not always clear. To help others navigate that path, four professionals sat down to discuss the careful art of networking and its many benefits. Because even entrepreneurs, who are often skilled at working alone, need friends and colleagues to thrive.  
According to James Czerew, owner of Tech Connect and Radi8er, when it comes to networking, intention is key. "If you're just going to networking [events] to sell something, you're missing out on a big part of what networking is supposed to be," he says. Instead of attending a conference with the intention of making a direct sale or grabbing drinks with a colleague to beg for funding, focus on relationship-building.

Joining aimWest, the technology association of West Michigan, in 2008, Czerew began hobnobbing with local tech gurus. Making friends and connections one meeting at a time, Czerew formed three businesses over the next eight years: Tech Connect, a company that specializes in network infrastructure and network security; Dancers Connection, a ballroom dance lesson and DJ organization; and Radi8er, a local music discovery app that received funding from Start Garden. In 2013, he joined the board of aimWest and in 2016, he became the president of the organization.

James Czerew

For Czerew, networking was a slow process that benefitted his businesses over time. By making connections and becoming a valuable member of the community, "you become known as someone who wants to help. Someone who wants to see good things happen," he says. Simply making friends in tech, for example, made him visible to other entrepreneurs and potential funders. "It's not just who you know, it's who knows you," says Czerew.

Becoming a valuable member of the entrepreneurial community can also help lift an entrepreneur's spirits as they trudge through business development. "Entrepreneurship can be a lonely, lonely journey," says Kris Ridings, Women’s Entrepreneurial Initiative Manager at the Michigan Women's Foundation (MWF). "Rarely do they take the time away from the business to connect with one another."

At MWF, Ridings assists female entrepreneurs with education, expertise, networking and fundraising. With year-long programming, MWF assists women in taking some of the first steps outside of their own head to make meaningful connections for both personal and professional benefit. Especially at the group’s annual Entrepreneur YOU conference, which more than 150 people recently attended in Grand Rapids, entrepreneurs have the opportunity to learn from industry experts on everything from marketing to legal issues.
In addition to the helpful, skill-building information provided in break-out sessions, women attending the conference are "most excited about connections they're able to make with one another," says Ridings.

But why have an organization and events just for female entrepreneurs? "I just think men are better at asking and expecting from a relationship. I think they're more comfortable naturally doing that than women," says Ridings. Plus, in the early stages of networking, Ridings thinks, holding events just for women likely helps on a comfort level.

This approach is clearly attracting female business owners. In only its third year, the Entrepreneur YOU conference has grown significantly. The Lansing event doubled in size from its first to the second, and the Grand Rapids conference grew 20 percent from the second to the third year.

Kris Ridings

This year's keynote speaker at the March 3rd event in Grand Rapids was Holly Katko, a national business consultant and owner of U Connect, Inc. Katko travels the country speaking and working with entrepreneurs. "My passion is helping entrepreneurs get to the next level," says Katko. Asking questions in her break-out session like "What makes you unique?" and "Why is it important to your client?", Katko offers insightful advice in a social atmosphere that encouraged camaraderie and affirmation.

"Our biggest critic is ourselves," Katko says to a room full of 30 or so female entrepreneurs working on everything from accounting services to restaurant start-ups to healthy snacks. Events like the Entrepreneur YOU conference are helpful, says Katko, because "it brings [women] together," allowing for confidence-building and learning from their peers. To women and other entrepreneurs questioning the value of networking, Katko says, "do it now."
Hether Jonna Frayer, an entrepreneur in attendance at Katko's break-out session, enjoyed the experience. "It was helpful and inspiring to connect with other women entrepreneurs at the Entrepreneur You Conference,” she says. The health food guru behind Kalemazoo Chips, a green snack made from sustainable, Michigan kale and the Fresh Food Fairy, nutritional education sessions, Frayer attends events like these to gain visibility for her unique business platform.

"Many people have not heard of Kaleamazoo Chips or Fresh Food Fairy, so it was a great opportunity to let others know what I do," says Frayer. "I also enjoyed learning about others' endeavors. We share so many of the same challenges."

No matter your industry, successful business owners agree: networking is vital for entrepreneurs. Whether you're part of a professional organization like aimWest or Grand Rapids Young Professionals, or simply attend annual conferences and skill-building classes that connect you with colleagues, personal relationships make you visible to both friends and funders, even if the connection doesn't benefit your business for years.

Kris Ridings & Kimberley Woodland, owner The Lake's Edge

"If you're an entrepreneur, you've just got to be part of the scene," says Czerew. For new businesses, new clients or simply new products for an existing business, constant connections are key. "If you're too busy to network and you don't have another sales pipeline, I think you're missing out," he adds.

It can be as simple as grabbing a coffee or attending a professional happy hour. "Find an event that excites you on some level, even if it's not specifically business focused to start," says Ridings. "Just do it."

Photography by Steph Harding

“Making It In Grand Rapids” is a series about local entrepreneurs and the issues that matter in building a sustainable startup-friendly community. Support for this series is provided by Start Garden. You can reach the editor of this series, Allison Spooner, on Twitter or e-mail her at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.