As a technologist talking about networking, most people’s minds seem to turn to either one of a few places. First thoughts of technology & data networks are common, that is routers, switches, servers, that sort of thing. As are social networks, or at least the platforms that facilitate them like facebook. If their thinking is more business focussed, then the other option is sales through traditional face to face business networking.
Of course, the answer is all those things and it’s none of those things. You see, we build networks of any kind to create value. We use technology to enable and unlock that value. But first, we need to understand what that value actually is. That is at least, where our own journey started.
The perils of (business) networking
Business networking is numbers game, or at least so they tell me. Reality is it’s a game of hope. Like throwing darts blind folded in the hope one day you’ll meet that person that will change your life forever. Hope that the more events you attend, at least eventually someone will like you enough to flick some business your way.
Frankly, I find that a pretty reactive way to do businesses. It’s inefficient, ineffective, and throwing in a healthy dose of introversion, a pretty unappealing way to spend your valuable waking hours.
We needed a more proactive strategy. More over, we needed strategy to help deliver on every part of our business, not just sales. Simply turning up to events and meeting people isn’t proactive. At least for me and with the benefit of hindsight, in most cases it was a complete waste of time.
Over the years of playing with sales, networking, and referral strategies, we have learned two key points:
- Hand shake encounters with some vague agreement to refer business or collaborate in the future are basically worthless without a clear set of written commitments.
- Our shortest sales cycles come from referrals by business associates and partners actively doing business with the client. Our record from introduction to deal is a slightly rushed business lunch, with some others not too far outside this.
“Our value is not in what we do, but the value we create for others…”
All this might be sounding pretty obvious so far, but our nirvana moment was this simple phrase: Our value is not in what we do, but the value we create for others. In each one of those opportunities we’ve garnered over the years, there was a direct value opportunity for the referrer.
So what does a proactive networking strategy look like? Our conclusion: where we as a business are driving direct and indirect value into our network. The more valuable our network is with us in it, the more valuable we become. The more valuable we are, the more our network will protect and provide for us (re Profit).
If you’re into gangster movies, it’s a concept you’re probably familiar with. Without of course, all the fear mongering, hired goons and mysterious disappearances.
Defining your value
How would you define your business value? I would bet most would turn to their balance sheet and P&L statements. Something I would call the internal value of your business. Not to diminish it’s importance, here’s the thing about internal business value: Unless you’re looking to sell, nobody but you cares about it.
What other people care about is the value you create for them. Value that isn’t just financial, but covers functional, social, and emotional factors. Whether it’s your customers, suppliers, employees or partners, your external value is why others engage directly with your business.
There’s a third and fourth type of value; network and civic value. These represent the value your business generates for your broader ecosystem, and indeed society at large. Linking back to our earlier phrase, demonstratable network and civic value would be the ultimate description of the value that you create for others.
I would suggest most businesses are (or at least should be) acutely aware of their internal value. They might be across their external value or at least some aspect of it. Very few, however, would focus on, or indeed architect with purpose, their network and civic value.
To me that’s a gap itching to be filled. If we wanted more value partners across our ecosystem to work with us, then that’s precisely what we needed to do.
A Common Job
In among our networking successes and failures, we came to realise that the one thing that tied us and our network together was an overlap of purpose. Too much overlap and the relationships were competitive rather than collaborative. Not enough and there was simply nothing to endear us together.
That purpose can be excellently described using the Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) framework. What are the functional, emotional, and social aspects of that job that need to be solved? Which of those aspects are you looking to solve? Which of them are you currently leaving on the table?
Your search for value partners then becomes targeted and deliberate. Curating your network to include adjacent and complimentary services that solve a common purpose or job. Defining clearly what is needed to combine those services together.
Only when the combined mutual value significantly exceeds the sum of their parts will there be any mutual motivation to deliver. There has be a level of value, a minimum viable product if you will, that makes you and your new-found value partners stand up and take notice.
Let’s face it here, chump change gets left in the cracks of the living room couch. Don’t be chump change.
Finally, what role do you expect to play in all this? Unless you are able to define and drive these opportunities, your role in this picture is only ever going to be reactionary, at best. A position that is little more than hope really isn’t a valid business strategy.
Leading Network Value
What started out as a journey to understand true business value and define a proactive networking strategy lead us to our final realisation. We didn’t just need to be proactive with our network, we needed to lead it. Taking charge of our own destiny by carefully shaping and curating both our value ecosystem, and the opportunities that lie within it.
We’ve quickly come to realise this final step has become a maturity challenge. By striving towards a more proactive approach, we have been taking more of leadership position. As reactive as it was, without the strong base of traditional business networking, we may not have had the contacts, experience, and know how to start curating our ecosystem effectively.
While part of this journey was most certainly about practicing what we preach, we needed a simpler approach than the more complex ecosystem analysis we had done in the past. Something we can do quickly around a white board or note pad with a new prospective value partner or client. Validating opportunities and defining objectives in the time that it takes to share a cup of coffee.
As the journey continues, each opportunity to share and experiment with our peers has become an opportunity to continuously refine the approach. Distilling down the core essence of what’s needed has allowed us to shape a framework that we think is efficient and effective. Making it easier for us to define and drive transformative opportunities for our customers, partners, peers, and ambitiously, society at large.
Looping back to our opening comments, there is of course a role technology and social platforms play in all this. But that is perhaps a topic for another post.