We were absolutely honoured and privileged to have Stefan Thomas speaking with us, 4Networking’s Network Director and author of Business Networking for Dummies, published in April 2014. Stefan travels all around the UK to facilitate breakfast, lunch and evening networking meetings that they host to help people in business network in a structured way.
We’d like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to Stefan for taking part in this interview, and even more so as he has kindly given us a signed copy of his new book, Business Networking for Dummies, to give away to one lucky reader – all you need to do to is subscribe to our blog (you can sign up using the form below) and we’ll announce the winner at the end of July.
Watch the full interview above, or have a read through this abridged version below.
Scott: Tell us a little about yourself, and why the great team behind the Dummies books came to you to talk about business networking.
Stefan: These days I do a lot of networking, but it wasn’t always like that, I walked into my very first networking event in late 2005 and I was terribly nervous, but I saw something in business networking that I thought would work for me. I carried on doing that, then had a little bit of a life change in 2007 and had to reinvent myself – I went out networking with brute force really, I threw myself at it, because I had to start building something for myself, and particularly had to get an income.
In June 2013 I ended up at a networking event in London, and was sat next to someone called Sarah. I asked Sarah what she did for a living and she said she was the commissioning editor for the Dummies series of books for a publisher called Wiley. Later on in the conversation, because we also talked a lot about wine, and then we drunk wine quite a lot as well, I asked her if they’d ever thought of doing a book on business networking and she said “No, we’ve been looking for the right author for about three years,” – and then life speeded up a little bit for me. Three weeks later I was meeting a senior commissioning editor from Dummies who flew into the UK to meet me, and 6 weeks later I signed a contract and now a year later the book is published
That’s fantastic – I’m a huge fan of serendipitous meetings
And that’s where I might go off on a tangent, because a few people have accused me of being in the right place at the right time. I’ve sort of made a career these days of finding an art in being everywhere, so whether I’m networking in real life or joining it up with online networking. Let’s not forget you were at first an online contact; I commented on your blog, we ended up chatting on Twitter, we ended up meeting in Edinburgh, and here a few months later we’re having an interview on Skype. It’s those serendipitous meetings; plenty of people would have chosen that weekend not to go to the networking event in London – people who were just as qualified as me to write the book – but I was there.
How important is being everywhere and engineering serendipity, and how much of it is about mindset and how you approach those chance events?
It is massively down to mindset, because you have to be open to possibilities, you have to be open to what might be round the corner. So, I comment on Scott Torrance’s blog, or I think I retweeted it or tweeted you a comment about it.
I think social media social media offers that bridge that allows people to stay in contact in a way that 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have even made the contact and we definitely wouldn’t have stayed in touch, do you agree?
That’s what is so beautiful about networking in 2014 – it’s about mindset, it’s about the why. If I join in in communities whether they are real life or online then something may come of it. I can never remember if I use my social media networking to join up my real life networking or whether I use my real life networking to join up my online, or whether it doesn’t matter, and I just join everything up along the way.
Which one do you think it is?
I don’t know – I exist in both worlds – because literally I’ve networked with around 100 people this week so far in various counties of England, and that’s been fab, and some of them we’re keeping up the relationship with online, but then also some of them I when I met in real life I already had a relationship with them online, so it’s both and neither, I just join both up and understand that I can’t see people as regularly as I’d really like to but I can keep simultaneous conversations with them as often as I want.
We’ve chatted on the Head Resourcing blog on the importance and the difference between strong and weak ties in your networking, and how social media helps with the scaling of the weak ties, allowing you to manage your relationships in a way that wasn’t necessarily easy to.
And those relationships are constantly in flux of course – someone who was a really important contact to me a few years ago, I now keep in touch with semi regularly with but that relationship isn’t as strong as it was; her and I have both moved in different directions in our careers. Some people who may have been loose relationships can all of a sudden turn into something terribly important, and it is by balancing your communication with people both virtually and in real life you can react when those relationships do flux, or when somebody drops something into conversation you can think, ‘oh, that guy was at the same event as me let’s go read his blog,’ et cetera.
In your book you talk about using networking as an excuse – that to me feels a little bit more about being strategic and focused – can you talk a little bit about the idea behind this?
I can talk about what it means to me – it is that going to real life networking events does give you an excuse to talk to anyone in business, anywhere. How networking worked for me as an excuse was that rather than put in a cold call to someone and try and sell them on the idea of doing business with me, actually just speaking to someone who you want to engage with and invite them along to a networking meeting – using that networking as an excuse – has been a massive eye opener. This is because it’s a much easier conversation for a lot of people, particularly a lot of self-employed people, than going out there and trying to sell yourself. It leads to a circumstance where you are actually in front of the person and talking with them anyway – that is, the same set of circumstances as picking up the phone and trying to sell yourself to someone, but in a much softer way.
It’s fair to say that your business life has shifted from being a business owner to being an author and a speaker. How has that changed your approach to networking and the strategy you’re taking?
I try not to strategise too much. I didn’t see myself writing a book – it wasn’t what I was expecting – so I may not have chosen to sit next to a couple of ladies from a publishing company a year ago. I quite like the serendipity that we’ve talked about.
I particularly enjoy networking events with some sort of structure, because I’m not terribly good at just walking up to strangers and introducing myself. That for me leads to those random encounters with people. Typically if you put me in a room full of people I don’t know, I’ll find the one guy I do know at the back of the room and go talk to him instead of actively networking with people. My strategy has been to be open-minded about those people I might meet and just to see where it leads. Sometimes people think too hard about who they want to speak to, and miss these huge opportunities which are going on just outside their blinker – it’s that strategising by not strategising – that’s worked for me.
I like to focus on the inputs and not the outputs, so when I talk about a strategy I talk about being purposeful about following up and how I connect with people – but I love this idea of strategising without strategising.
The real value in networking comes not from the event, comes not from that one interaction, but from following up, although not necessarily in the traditional sense. Most people think that following up is after a networking event is to send an email that says “Hi it was lovely to meet you this morning, and now here are 800 words about why you should buy from me”.
With social media it’s so easy now to get onto someone else’s turf and talk on their terms as well – the potential is massive but most people still think about following up in a very salesy way
Do you think people in business do you think people are good at leveraging all those channels?
No, they’re not – it’s possibly because of this expression social media, people are still treating it like a post office noticeboard; they think the way to follow up is to fill their timeline with adverts about their business, rather than actually using social media just to continue those conversations. It is about assembling a crowd, having that set of people around you, so at those rare moments when you do have something to sell, for example, you’ve already got that crowd of people around you and they show interest and see value in what you are doing. But you’ve built the crowd by engaging on other people’s terms, and the really sad thing about it is that people think that they are engaging, and sometimes people are being coached to fill everyone’s timelines with adverts.
So much of the advice that I was given in my early career was to take the conversation out of just selling. In the olden days you had the front of the Rolodex card where you wrote down the details of what someone was doing in business, and the back of the Rolodex card where you would write down their children’s name, what sports team they were into – that sort of thing. Now, without having to ask someone, I could have a reasonably good idea of what they’re into, yet most people still just broadcast about what is interesting to themselves. Some of that old advice has been forgotten because along the way maybe people have gotten confused by the technology – you’re still allowed to use the telephone in 2014! As someone who is a real advocate of real life business networking it surprises people sometimes that I’m also such a big advocate of social media because some people seem to see them in competition with each other – the idea that now we have social media we don’t need real life networking. I think the real savvy people are the ones who have learned to join all that up.
To connect with someone and say ‘I really liked your blog’ is huge, because to click on the favourite or retweet button is so simple to do that is has almost become meaningless. Actually picking up the phone and saying to someone, that was really good, that just takes the relationship to a whole different level.
What do you think is the difference, if any, between ‘business networking’ and ‘relationship building’ – they’re often used interchangeably.
There is a subtle difference. Building a relationship with a finite number of people and strengthening all of those relationships is really sensible, but networking then adds into it the people who weren’t in my network before then. Now, some of those will go on to become really strong ties in my network, some of them won’t, but by accepting that my network is constantly in a state of flux, networking helps to get the people in and then you work on building the relationships with those people. Everyone’s busy, so it is up to you if you want to develop those relationships and put in the effort to do it because everyone else is tied up in their own stuff. The expression I’ve always loved going back to a very early Gary Vaynerchuk video I saw is that it takes ‘sweat equity’, you have to put it in yourself.
Who would you call out as being the number one networker, that’s had the biggest impact in your business life?
That’s simple, there are two people for sure – I’ll give you two names that will be very familiar to you. The first one is Brad Burton, Managing Director and founder of 4Networking, because he taught me through example of getting out of my comfort zone. Brad does that thing of just making sure that he talks to people along the way, making sure that he creates the conditions where the right people come into his life, and some of that was hugely outside of my comfort zone.
The person who I have learned almost as much from and yet have never had a one-to-one relationship would be Gary Vaynerchuk, because I’ve been reading and listening to his stuff for 5 or 6 years now, and just picked up so much about how to actually engage with people that’s been really valuable to me.