This blog entry is the first in a series about increasing your professional networking abilities and tactics.

Part One: Get Started!

It’s never too late to work on growing your network. Whether you’re ready to graduate from college or are well into your career, it’s important to keep meeting people, connecting with them, and build your reputation wherever you can because you never know who you’ll need or when you’ll need them. It may seem like a daunting task—after all, there are tons of professionals in your field—and it might not even seem worth it, but the reality is that someone is out there right now who you don’t know but should. Maybe they can get you your next job, help you find a partner for that startup you’ve been building, connect you with an investor, or help you to solve a problem that you’ve been stumped on for months. One thing’s for sure: a larger network will create more options for you.

For beginners, you’ll want to hit the ground running, but don’t get over-eager. You don’t want to get so many contacts so quickly that you miss following up with them, giving them your full attention, and really connecting with them. It’s not enough in this world to exchange business cards, say, “thanks” and expect them to go out of their way for you.

Consider these avenues for beginning to build your network.

Face-to-Face Events: Meet-ups, Startup Weekends, Conferences

Before I get into the different kinds of opportunities that are hanging around you right now, I want you to be aware of a couple of things. Sure, most of these border on common sense, but you never know what you might overlook in all this excitement.

  • Give each person you meet your undivided attention. No one likes trying to talk with someone whose eyes are glazed over, or when it’s clear his/her mind is somewhere else. These people are taking time to talk with you, and, even if they don’t seem like “the people you should know,” giving them your attention and respect can help you to access their contact network (and who knows what lies in there!)
  • Set a 5-person goal at any networking event. It’s important to have reasonable goals so that you neither over-extend yourself nor sell yourself short. Sincerely meeting five people at each event will provide you with the necessary face-time to make a connection and get to know each one and will allow you a reasonable number of people to follow up with the next day. Remember: meeting isn’t enough. The follow-up and maintenance are even more important. If you can’t manage your contacts, you lose them, plain and simple.
  • Follow business card etiquette. Don’t go shoving your cards into every hand in the room and expect to make a connection. Instead, bring plenty of cards and wait until someone either asks for one or gives you theirs. If you are having a pleasant conversation and the potential contact doesn’t offer their card, ask for their card first. This way, you can offer yours in exchange. This ensures that proper connections are being made and that the card you give has value to your new friend.

Meet-ups

Meet-ups are a spectacular way to meet different people in your fields on interest and to make connections with them. If you don’t already know, meet-ups (facilitated by meetup.com) are places where people with similar interests come together for the sole purpose of chatting and getting to know one another. New to the area? This is a great resource for meeting like-minded people and networking quickly. You’ll be amazed at all the options you have to choose from.

Startup Weekends

If your passion is the agile world of start-ups, there’s no better way to meet potential partners or future teams (marketers, developers, and designers) than at a startup weekend. These are intensive, weekend-long challenges where you get together with other talented, interested individuals and build a startup from the ground up. You’ll meet some of your city’s top talent, rub elbows with local (and national) thought-leaders, and, sometimes, you’ll even end up with a completely conceptualized business.

Conferences

While I’d be lying if I suggested to you that conferences were fun, were a new thing, or weren’t a kind of networking cliché, the truth is that many smart people attend industry conferences and, in addition to meeting those people, you have a shot to stay on the cutting edge of your industry. These are great places to learn, to show off the innovative ideas you’ve been developing, and to connect with truly intelligent, important people in your industry.

In the next part of our series, I’ll give pointers on the virtual version of networking through social media.

What’s your favorite way to introduce yourself and exchange contact information? Let me know in the comments section!

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