Networking Your Way to the Top
4 June 2014 at 10:13 am
The rapid development of the social enterprise community in Australia has seen the emergence of a plethora of networking opportunities for social entrepreneurs, from conferences and incubator programs to competitions and social events. The trick is to make the best use of them.
Entrepreneur Jamie Green’s burgeoning sleepwear social enterprise One Night Stand is the latest in his string of ventures – some successful, some not.
First hand-making and selling jewellery at 17, Green went on to start an events company, a custom bike studio and eventually a cafe in 2010, before founding One Night Stand, a standout in the sector tackling youth homelessness.
Pro Bono Australia spoke with Green, whose own success has come in part from hundreds of cups of coffee with mentors, allies and experts, about his experiences in procuring and retaining the most productive contacts.
He says the imperative must always be to “find someone that knows someone, always find that someone who has a foot in the door” – but after that person has been located, what is next?
Here are Green’s three top tips:
1. Tailor your approach to your audience
Green says while peers in the social enterprise space are likely to understand and appreciate the notion of a social mission, this may not be the case for everyone.
Different audiences will require different approaches, particularly prospective investors and corporate partners.
Green says a common mistake is asking something of a person straight after meeting them.
“You need to flirt around before you can jump into bed,” he says. “I learned something great from a former CEO at SSE,” Green says. “When approaching people, never ask for money, but ask for advice.
“For me, If I’m approaching anyone with money, I ask for help. You know he’s rich, he knows he’s rich – you don’t just jump in and ask for the $100,000 investment you need.
“Research them in advance if you can. Discover what they’re into so you can talk to them about things they’re interested in.”
Green gives the examples of things as personal as football teams or children, but concedes that his personal and professional barriers are less stringent than those of people he has met in the corporate world.
“Business is business, but it’s got to have a day to day aspect as well,” he says.
Uncomfortable “fish out of water” situations where social entrepreneurs need to communicate and relate to people from the other side of the fence can be tremendously productive, Green insists.
“I made sure that every time I had to do that, I took the opportunity, even if I felt really uncomfortable. Whether it’s a social event or pitching to a board room, it’ll help you learns what really works best for different types of people.”
According to Green, if done the right way, not all initial contact needs to be in person.
“Blind emails are another way to go about it. If you can be articulate and write well, using a funny headline, be a bit cheeky and catch their attention, that’s another way.”
2. Tell your story, and tell it well
Green is adamant the power of the story cannot be ignored.
“People react better to stories than fact,” he says, recounting the story of Subway ambassador ‘Gerald’, a man who lost hundreds of pounds eating Subway products and made the company millions by telling his story, far outstripping previous marketing efforts centred solely around the health qualities of the products.
Green, well-practiced at telling his own story, has key strategies he employs to ensure he stays confident and on track. He has picked up some from Richard Branson – whom, he says, has an effective way of always returning to his key messages.
“Develop three to four key points you can always go back to. Points you can cycle back to that you know will trigger other things.”
“Answer with real life experiences,” he says. “And practice. You can only get better at telling your story.”
Green says that while the media has communicated his feel-good story fairly, he suggests being mindful of the aspects of the story that will attract the attention of journalists, taking extra care to plan how those elements are to be articulated.
His own story brings with it elements of drama – drama Green says often was overplayed in news coverage after he was not clear enough in his communication.
The reality of his story was that a struggling cafe business saw him sleeping on the premises to make ends meet.
“I spoke to some media early on, and it ended up being about how Jamie from One Night Stand came from the gutters!” he says.
3. Follow up strategically
Green advises mapping out your networks on a wall to understand how your contacts are interrelated and see where there might be possible openings.
“I’ve got a big pile of business cards,” he says. When I’ve got an event I go back through and check who I’ve talked to who might be relevant.”
If you’ve built a relationship from the start, Green says, and it’s never too late to rekindle contact with someone, whether for the first time after meeting or after a lapse in activity.
He says contact should be strategic, recounting an approach to corporate giant Virgin early in his career when his idea was “way too green” for the contact to be productive.
“I’ve learnt those lessons. It’s backfired on me in the past but has caught up with me.”
“That was 1.5 years ago, it’s taken us this long to be ready. You’ll know when you reach the point where you’re ready to show someone.”
Green maintains that sharing should not be a concern.
“The advantage of being open and sharing ideas, even with competitors, is that it forces you to innovate,” he says.
“Don’t get stuck worrying too much about people stealing your ideas. If you are, you're probably not ingrained enough with your cause.”
Green’s own social enterprise is in operation to reduce youth homelessness. He says that if a competitor was also able to contribute to solving the problem, he would be pleased.
Now that Green himself is a successful social entrepreneur he is in the sights of a new generation.
He is clear on what impresses him.
“I always find that people being passionate about what they’re doing is the most important thing,” he says.
“Even if their idea might not be developed, they want to make it work, no matter what.”