For years I shrugged off the idea of building a network. I had the mindset that if I had a great service, people would come. I was grossly mistaken.
At 19, I decided to start my own photography business. Photography had always been a passion of mine, which I had picked up from my father. I quickly got to work researching the best equipment I could afford, and invested in a Canon 7D body, several quality lenses, and strobes (flashes). I created my own website on Wix, and began to develop my own brand. It took about a year before I developed quality work. I recruited friends and family as models for free portrait sessions and managed to get a few weddings. In addition to quality photos, I took pride in serving my customers to the best of my ability. I was extremely organized and attentive to their needs.
My main focus was wedding photography. I set out to establish myself as a known photographer and purchased a booth at a local bridal fair. I was confident that if I displayed my work I was sure to gain clientele. Prior to opening, I walked around admiring and observing the other vendors booths. There were approximately 4 other photographers (this was a very small and local bridal fair). After carefully critiquing their work, and later observing their interaction with potential clients, I felt confident that I would recruit the most clientele. Again, I was grossly mistaken.
It made no sense to me! Granted my view of quality work and customer service was subjective, I couldn't understand why I was not recruiting more customers. I had nothing but great reviews and feedback from my clients, yet I was struggling to gain new prospects. Most of my future clients were referrals from previous customers. What was I doing wrong?!
First, I isolated myself. I had always been very reserved holding no more than 3 or 4 friends at a time. I went to work and came straight home. I had no involvement in my community and chose to judge others in my field. "Why is their work so demanded? How can they charge such an outrageous price?! Their work isn't that good."
Although I may have been able to produce the same quality of work as my competitors, there was one thing they had that I didn't; a reputation.... They knew people. They knew people in the community, they were involved in the community and they also knew people who ran the small town newspaper. They had built up a name for themselves. No matter how good my work was, how well I branded my business, it would take years to build up clientele based on word of mouth alone.
As the years went by my clientele began to slowly increase. 80% of my clients were based on referrals. I eventually moved, closed my business and went back to college. I began to reflect on my mindset and lifestyle. With a major change in my environment and social life, I began to see the benefits in "knowing people". At first, I had to push myself to get involved. There were many times where I committed to attending a social event only to back out last minute with an excuse. After forcing myself to "bite the bullet" and go, I started to enjoy the experiences. It took several years before I truly valued the idea of community. Instead of seeing me versus them, I began to see the beauty and power of unity. It was no longer "what can you give me?", it was "what can we do for each other?".
Too often, we get into the mindset that networking is about how many followers we have on social media, rubbing shoulders with the people who have leverage, and kissing asses to get what we want. This skewed mindset is one I held for many years, which is one reason I dismissed the idea of networking (I refused to kiss ass). If you are going into a "relationship" or reaching out to individuals and organizations for the sole purpose of what they can do for you, you are doing it all wrong. Most high level contacts are going to see right through your scheme and dismiss you.
After I graduated college and began my first post grad job, I made it my mission to get involved in my organizations culture. I wanted to start my assent up the corporate ladder. After signing up for several events it became much more than a means to an end, it became a passion and gave me the feeling of purpose. I met genuine people and started to build genuine relationships. I make it a priority to stay in contact with the individuals I have met along the way. Many of these individuals have become highly involved in other organizations I am a part of, and many have transformed into wonderful friendships. Networking is so much more than who you know and what they can do for you. It's a community. A community of individuals who want to see one another succeed. I like to think of it as a potluck of skills, knowledge, and ability.
Go build your community.