Venture Out On Your Own

Posted by The Editors on June 16, 2011
Venture Out On Your Own

There's a strong argument that the most essential career qualification for any entrepreneur is not capital, but rather a strong network. Think about it: Your first and often most loyal clients are likely to be contacts you've made over the years. These people have some history with you, and therefore more reason than most to believe you can deliver on your word. To be successful these days, a business also needs reliable, honest vendors; strong technical support and recommendations; and a great accountant. Your network not only can help set you up in business, it also may keep you in business through personal referrals and testimonials when times are tough and advertising returns are down. Capital is easy-come, easy-go, but a network will see you through good
times and bad.

Entrepreneurs-and freelancers in just about any field-have to make special efforts to maintain strong networks, since these provide the foundation for their professional reputation. The following are five networking considerations of which those who want to strike out on their own should be especially mindful.

The Difference Between Contacts and Clients
Clients already have an established interest in your products or services, so it's fine for you to discuss their relative merits or any new offerings at length. With contacts who have established no such interest yet, this would be dull and rude. They might expect a sales pitch from a salesperson, but not from someone they know primarily as a friend of a friend or a business school pal of a coworker. Explain what you do, but don't forget that this is a chance for you to get to know and learn from someone in your field.

Personal vs. Commercial Networking
When you're engaged in personal networking, you are the product. You contact people who can help you find jobs, inform you about new career opportunities, and keep you posted on developments in your field. This is different from commercial networking, where you're cultivating contacts that can help you develop, promote, distribute, and sell a product or service. If a freelance advertising copywriter has lunch (with or without the three martinis) with an agency creative director, a headhunter, or a small-business owner who needs a few ads, that's personal networking. Now let's say that copywriter later becomes a partner in an ad agency. He may have lunch with an old colleague who is now the marketing director at a footwear company. He may schedule a golf game with his second cousin, a venture capitalist who regularly works with startup companies. This is commercial networking-he's using personal contacts to promote his business.

Mind Your Ethics
Conflicts of interest will arise with contacts, and you have to use your best judgment in handling them. Is it kosher to drum up business for your company from your fellow nonprofit board members while you're serving as chairman of that board? Are you sure the relatively inexperienced friend you're using as a subcontractor merits the hourly rate the client is paying? Should you pay a finder's fee to a contact for initially putting you in touch with a new hire? It's an ethical quagmire out there, so you'd better know where you stand on these issues before you wade out too far. That said, it's best to be cautious.

Watch Out for Burning Bridges
One burned bridge with a contact can damage your reputation-even if you were right to sever the tie. While the spurned contact may decide to take any grievances public, you would probably only make matters worse by prolonging the debate. Less is more.

Stay Top of Mind

Freelancers need to know that not only will their contacts remember them, but they'll remember them first when a need for their product or service arises. This means making an extra effort to be thoughtful, sending more personal notes, issuing more invitations to events, staying on top of the latest developments in the field, and generally being more social-all this, and somehow finding time to do stellar work on the job.

Share the Wealth
Entrepreneurs often depend on their community for their livelihood, so they need to foster it by donating funds to worthy organizations in their community and their field, imparting their knowledge to the next generation. They should also occasionally provide goods or services to community-based organizations at little or no cost. This builds goodwill in the community, which returns to them tenfold with new contacts who have heard of their good works, clients whose loyalty is cemented through a shared concern for the community, universities that send the best graduates in their direction, and above all, the daily satisfaction of living well and doing good at the same time. 

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