For freelancers and independent designers, networking is a critical part of building a successful business. Even designers who work as full-time employees have a need to develop a strong network since designers and developers often find out about new opportunities through their network, and many also freelance on the side.
Regardless of where you are in your career as a designer, networking should be of significant interest. If you’re just getting started you may want to focus on reaching out and meeting new people. If you’re more established you may want to focus on strengthening the contacts that you already have and turning them into mutually beneficial relationships.
Principles of Effective Networking
In this article, we’ll look at 5 simple principles that can help you in your professional networking, regardless of where you are in your career. These are basic principles that can and should be applied in your own networking efforts.
1. Win/Win Situations Produce Strong Connections
Having a strong network is extremely valuable because of the long-term impact it can have on your business. The relationship you’re building today may benefit you for years to come. That being said, if the relationship is going to have that long-term impact there must be a win/win situation where both parties benefit.
In the world of web design, having a professional network is often desired because of the possibility of getting referrals. Let’s look at two potential scenarios to illustrate why win/win situations are important. In the first scenario, there is an experienced web developer who doesn’t do any design work. You are a designer, and you met this developer recently. You’ve received a few referrals from this developer but you haven’t sent any clients his way because you already have another developer friend that you refer clients to.
In the second scenario, we’ll look at a potential relationship between a freelance designer (you) and a design agency. Your work on client projects tends to be with small businesses, blog designs, and other projects you can handle on your own. From time to time you get inquiries from potential clients looking for help with a large project that’s beyond the scope of something you would handle on your own. You refer these people to a friend who runs a design agency that has a team of designers and developers and is better equipped to do an effective job on larger projects. In return, the agency sends you a fee for every referral you send their way that results in a paying client.
In the first scenario, there is no win/win situation. The developer is sending referrals to you, so you’re getting something out of it, but there’s nothing in it for them because you already have an established relationship with another developer. The developer will eventually stop sending referrals to you if there’s nothing in it for them since they can find a better situation with another designer.
In the second scenario, there’s a definite win/win situation. You’re sending quality referrals to the agency and when they result in business, you’re getting paid for those referrals. Unlike the first scenario, this one is likely to last because both parties benefit.
When it comes to networking, many designers concentrate on what they can do to get referrals, without giving much thought to what they can offer others. In truly effective networking situations there will always be some benefit for both parties. It may be referrals, money, services, advice and help, introductions to others, or just about anything that may be desirable.
When you’re working on building your own network, make sure that you understand the importance of finding win/win situations and look for opportunities to build these types of relationships. A good place to start is to examine the connections that you already have. Approaching these people will be much more effective than reaching out to someone that you have never had any contact with. Look at the people that you already know. How could you help them, and is there a way that they could give something back to you as well?
2. Give More Than You Get
As I mentioned in the first point, many designers approach networking as a way to help their career, but oftentimes they don’t consider what they could be doing to help others. In general, if you are willing to help others, in some way they’re likely to return the favor when the opportunity arrives. It’s like the old saying, “what goes around comes around.”
Focus on getting to know more about the people already in your network. Look for ways you can do something to help them, without focusing on what you will get in return. Those who are genuinely helpful to others will be appreciated and will likely benefit greatly from their network.
3. Activity Beats Inactivity
There will be times when others reach out to you and great opportunities fall in your lap (especially if you are more established) but in general, it’s a good practice to be proactive in your networking. Don’t sit around and wait for others to approach you. Make an effort to initiate contact and get to know someone.
Networking for designers can come in many forms. Twitter and other social networking sites are popular hangouts for designers. Email is also a great way to connect. More traditional face-to-face networking with those in your local area or at professional conferences and events is also highly effective.
Whatever your approach, be proactive and don’t leave your networking to chance.
4. Quality Over Quantity
A small network with fewer but stronger connections will be much more effective than knowing hundreds of people but not having any depth to the relationships. If you’ve been a designer for a while, chances are you already have a number of contacts in the industry or in related industries. You may not need to meet a ton of new people in order to strengthen your network, you just need to get to know the people in your existing network better.
Particularly when it comes to social networking, we tend to be consumed by numbers. Followers could be an example. But someone with 100 followers can have a bigger impact than someone with 10,000 followers. It’s all a matter of the quality of the relationships. So don’t be concerned with getting to know everyone out there, just focus on developing some quality connections.
5. People Do Business With People They Like
While this may not always be the case, in general, it’s human nature to want to do business with people we like. Just from my own life, I can think of my real estate agent, the guy I bought my cell phone from, a car salesman, restaurants that I go to repeatedly, and the place I take my car for repairs. In every case, I could take my business somewhere else, but I chose to go to someone because I like them and they’re easy to work with.
The same concept applies to professional relationships. There are a lot of talented designers out there who can get the job done. People in your network will want to work with someone that they like, not just someone who is good at what they do. Be yourself, be considerate of others, and be pleasant to work with. It will go a long way.
Looking at the same principle from another angle, it’s not always necessary to have a specific purpose for networking with someone. You may get to know someone and enjoy connecting with them, but there is really no tangible benefit to either of you. That doesn’t mean that there is no reason to continue to network with that person. Aside from friendship and comradery, at some point in the future a situation might arise where there is a possibility to work together, and at this point, if you already know and like each other, you are that much closer to a win/win situation.
For more on the business side of design, please read: