Tina Marshall, organiser of Oxfordshire SOUP. Photo credit: Vine House Studios
Continuing on the theme of networking, the highlight for me this week was without a doubt attending the very first OxfordshireSOUP in Witney. SOUP?
Originally from Chicago and firmly taking root in cash-strapped Detroit in 2010, the SOUP concept boils down to locals growing local businesses collectively through innovative crowdfunding.
A brilliantly simple concept which was picked up by local business owner and entrepreneur Tina Marshall of Creating Sense:
Does Oxfordshire need SOUP?!
Now, Oxfordshire is an affluent part of the world and certainly compared to cities like Detroit, where SOUP has had an incredible impact. Oxfordshire has a comparatively huge range of free business support for start-ups and small companies to tap into, and for those who know to go about it, great opportunities to find private funding.
That’s just as well, because the UK now has 5 million micro businesses compared to 3,5 million in 2000. In a 2015 report the RSA puts this growth down to factors such as rising skill levels, technological developments and government-driven deregulation. Oxfordshire, with its easy connections to the capital and the M4 corridor and of course world class education and research has become a hotbed of innovation and spin-offs. You’d think there’s plenty of start-up money to go round.
For those of us who start up on our own, funding is in surprisingly short supply in Oxfordshire with the disappearance of publicly funded resources such as the Growth Accelerator programme and local start-up grants. Unless you bring your own capital or are lucky enough to have funding in place already, getting funding for your start-up has become much harder in the last few years.
Bringing businesses together
The winning pitch was delivered by Catherine Warrilow or Seriously PR, who presented the brilliantly obvious idea of a Tinder-type app for work experience opportunities. The audience which had gathered consisted of small and larger businesses, councillors, the media and representatives of Wood Green School where the event took place, and the room rippled with ‘ingenious – why didn’t I think of that?’ sentiment.
Catherine Warrilow is presented with the OxfordshireSOUP prize pot of £1,000 by Victioria Williams of sponsors The Learning Ladder. Photo credit: Vine House Studios
Runners up Ken Norman of Flock Comedy and Clare Turnham of Only With Love may not have walked away with the £1,000 pot, but they spent the morning being congratulated on being the first to stand up and pitch and making new contacts. As there were some exceedingly well-connected people in the room, the event will undoubtedly pay dividends to them too.
Clare Turnham, Ken Norman and Catherine Warrilow. Photo Credit: Vine House Studios
Meanwhile a lot of business networking was going on over breakfast, aided by lively discussions of the pitches that had just been delivered. Where many networking events can feel rather contrived, at this one the room moved about as people grabbed breakfast, sought out opinions, chatted to the ‘contestants’ and made a trip to the ballot box.
Yup, that’s me deliberating with my fellow SOUP judges! Photo credit: Vine House Studios
Photo credit: Vine House Studios
The whole thing was done and dusted by 9.30am and I daresay everyone left with a grin to start their working day with renewed energy. I’ll be looking forward to the next one later this year!
Last month I delivered a workshop about business networking to one of my business networks. It is a little bit flattering to be invited to share some networking insights with a network, and so I made sure to create a few handy little tools for delegates to take away from the workshop in a bid to deliver value.
Of course those who attended the workshop did so with a view to developing their skills as a networker and might therefore be called a self-selecting audience. There were two seasoned network marketing entrepreneurs who had been successfully running their businesses for 7 and 10 years respectively and who could hardly be called inexperienced networkers. Others had just started a business or had run their business for some time but were relatively new to networking. There were also a few newbies to Oxfordshire who were busy making new professional friends locally.
It was a nicely mixed group, but of course it was not a representative sample of my local business community.
What did people associate networking with?
Taking the temperature in the room, I asked what words came to mind when thinking of networking:
‘putting yourself out there’
‘nerves and crippling shyness’
‘connecting with people’
‘being out of my comfort zone’
The majority admitted to feeling uncomfortable with networking to some degree for different reasons. The overwhelming view was that business networking is a necessary ‘evil’ which nobody really enjoys, but is considered essential for business. And although this was a group of people who wanted to brush up their networking skills, I also asked several very experienced networkers the same question and they gave similar answers.
Few of us truly live to network it seems.
What is the trouble with networking?
A top reason cited by my merry band of business owners was that business networking events are contrived occasions. Most described feeling uncomfortable with walking into ‘a room full of suits’ where often men still are in the majority, and then proceed to artificially talk about business. Some felt anxious about starting conversations and others about being rejected as uninteresting.
As the conversation in the room developed we discovered that there are remedies for these things and skills to master to help us deal with these situations.
But that’s not the whole story.
Some people are questioning the purpose and benefits of business networking full stop. They compare the investment – memberships, paying for the meetings themselves, taking time away from the job and travel costs – to the results and are asking themselves whether other ways to make connections might not be more effective. Networking takes place everywhere now: through online and offline communities of interest, social media interaction and even at 30.000 feet.
The relative safety and ease of online interactions where we can hide behind a Twitter handle compared to face-to-face networking which can involve getting up at six am on a frosty January morning to attend a business breakfast fifteen miles away is surely very appealing. Online interactions allow us to crack open one eye at six in the morning to look at the smartphone and engage before going back to sleep, job done.
Perhaps the real trouble with business networking is that our personal skills required for effective relationship building in person are being eroded by hiding behind social media and email too much.
Do you enjoy networking in the real world? Do you prefer online interactions to taking time away to join a roomful of strangers for a fry up? Come on – post me a comment below in between bouncing the baby on your knee and stacking the dishwasher!
Like many business owners, I spend quite a bit of time on networking. Opportunities to meet other businesses and make new friends are plentiful in the Thames Valley and beyond, especially once you’ve made it onto the mailing list of a few networking groups – it snowballs from there.
‘Everyone hates networking’
Funnily enough a question which comes up regularly is ‘don’t you just hate having to do your spiel at these things?’. It’s artificial and contrived to go out to meet people, armed with your elevator pitch and cards, and then not do the things all the experts tell you you shouldn’t do, such as asking for people’s cards or – heaven forbid! – their custom.
Except doing business is the very reason networking exists and why we show up at 7.30am at a hotel on a roundabout out of town. The vast majority of us are at least also in business because there are bills to pay. Might it be easier and less time consuming to stand on a chair in the middle of the room and shout ‘come and get your [insert product or service] here, please form an orderly queue’?
I am pretty sure I ‘d give such networking a miss. Besides, I’d also be deprived of the pleasure of networking like 007, something I’d miss! Here are my Bond Strategies for your reading pleasure.
Bond strategy No. 1: Map the room
Being a card-carrying spy, the first thing Bond does when he walks into a room is map it. Not just the exits, the buffet and presumably where the gents’ room is (always useful), but specifically who’s there and what they’re doing.
When walking into a room full of people who are there to network just like you, there is no rush. Take a minute to walk around just to see who you might talk to and if they are ‘available’. Also if there is a speaker later, where would you prefer to sit? Are a few people at tables already, and if so do you see anyone you would like to connect with? Bag a chair and head back into the room, you’ll be guaranteed to sit at an interesting table later on.
Bond strategy No. 2: Aim
Bond never goes anywhere for no reason. Like businesses he’s usually chasing something or someone, or busy preventing a disaster in order to keep the world turning. He has an aim and a goal and an unwavering focus on achieving it. Bond is also a very busy man, so once he’s done mapping he goes straight for the target.
Set an aim or a goal for each networking event you attend, for example speaking to a particular organisation or individual, or introducing yourself to at least five new people. Give a friendly nod or brief hello to familiar faces – if there is time, speak with them after you’ve reached your goal for the event. Catching up after the event is another opportuity too.
Bond strategy No. 3: Improvise
Of course Bond would be boring if all his mapping and aiming worked all the time, therefore unexpected developments are to be expected. Bond’s improvisation is helped a great deal by Q’s clever gadgets that we were introduced to at the start of the movie and have forgotten about by the time he is in a pickle.
Improvising is about using whatever you have available in a situation, and this is of course helped in turn by preparation as Q knows all too well. Bring some props you might not think you’ll need and use them, for example with people who are not normally in your target audience. What is an overfamiliar example of your product to you could be the very thing that helps another visualise what you do.
Bond strategy No. 4: Follow your hunch
Bond’s spy-business is thoroughly unscientific when it comes to presenting evidence prior to taking action. Part of the fun is of course how he ignores the rule book and direct orders to follow his instincts, and always lives to tell the tale.
If you have a pitch you normally use when networking, try listening to your gut about how to use it. Adapt it according to the event or person you are connecting with, and see how a departure from your usual way of presenting your business lands.
Bond strategy No. 5: Flirt and snog
Surely this one needs no introduction… Now, I won’t be held responsible if any reader takes this literally the next time they’re out there! What I mean by this one is be interested, complimentary, and show your attractive side. Be genuine about your interest; people can sense if you’re just being polite.
Bond strategy No. 6: Come back
Inevitably, Bond suffers from knock-backs, mostly of the literal sort. That’s just as bad because he has a job to do, and he is not one for giving up. Neither should you. So you had a bit of a useless morning at an event: figure out what it was that made it so, make a plan about tackling similar situations in future, put it down to experience and book yourself onto the next one.