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Make Your Networking Sustainable:

A Way of Life & A Way of Business

It has been said that ‘the key to understanding the future is one word: sustainability’. But what does a sustainable lifestyle involve and how, as a small business owner, can you make a difference?

Sustainability spans both political and social realms, impacting every single one of us on the planet. Including many aspects, from climate change, to global warming to fossil fuels, we hear daily of the human impact on the environment. As much as we might like to be able to contribute to making our planet sustainable, environmental issues can feel remote, too big or at national or international levels that make our contributions feel insignificant. So, as a small business owner, what can we do?

In its simplest terms, sustainability refers to ‘meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising future generations’. Considering how humans co-exist with the Earth’s biosphere is a large and complex topic. Rather than trying to address deforestation of the Amazon Basin or the Congo, or how to get China, India, Russia and the US to become less reliant on fossil fuels, let’s look at how you and your networking can make a small change, that if everyone adopted, could have a significant and lasting impact.

Most business owners attend networking events, so for many of us this is an area of business that is close to our hearts, and an activity that as individual entrepreneurs and leaders, we can use for good. As the Regional Lead for Business Buzz across the Central Midlands, I believe there lots of small adaptations in how we meet & connect with other business owners, that if we choose to implement, we will see making a difference. Let’s break it down, to consider how each of us can take a more sustainable approach to networking.

Steps To Networking The Sustainable Way

When everyday life ground to a halt in 2020, so did in-person networking. Virtual “conference” style platforms, like Zoom and Remo allowed us to keep in touch with our friends, families and colleagues, and to continue to network to build our businesses.

For many of us, the sheer thought of using a webcam, seeing oneself on screen, listening to oneself speak and worrying about networking, under a new and unfamiliar spotlight, was a truly daunting prospect. Of course, the flaws you see in yourself are not seen by others - we are our own worst critics. Once we got into the swing of virtual networking, we all became much more forgiving and wonder why we had not done it before. Online networking is now a staple means by which to network and is truly complementary to in-person, face-to-face-events. It is only in a small number of cases that business owners aren’t returning to face-to-face networking. In these instances, businesses have evolved & have a more global appeal, rendering local business networking less relevant. For the vast majority of us, a combination of both face-to-face and virtual networking works wonderfully.

You probably know what the practical benefits of virtual networking are, but what are the environmental ones? Let me explain a little about both. First and foremost, you can join the meeting from your home or office, reducing the need to drive. Therefore, this means using less fuel, which reduces your carbon footprint, and of course, your petrol or diesel costs. Plus, the time previously used for travelling can be invested in other tasks in your business or towards your own well-being. There are many environmental advantages to virtual networking, including that we don’t need as many paper or plastic versions of things, such as stickers, name badges, marketing materials like flyers, or business cards. We can use digital tools to connect. Using fewer disposable items helps us to cut down on both the materials and resources required to create them. Even where items are recyclable, the process of doing so has an environmental cost to be mindful of. Using digital tools like LinkedIn to connect allows us to be more sustainable. In addition, being more efficient creates more sustainability in one’s business!

However, being a solo entrepreneur, lone and home worker can be isolating, so as much as virtual networking has been brilliant for some of us, it has been truly challenging for others. The option to meet once more in person is really appealing and there is a dynamism and atmosphere that the virtual world can’t quite match.

Maintain To Sustain

Sustainability, from a less environmentally focused perspective, refers to being able to continue a certain activity over a period of time. In business, we often call this equilibrium, ‘business as usual’. From this standpoint, how do we ensure our networking activity is sustainable?

Attending fewer events, but committing fully to the events you do go to, is the most efficient way to network. Doing less can definitely create more opportunity, when you have a plan.

Business Buzz is centred around creating meaningful, lasting business relationships and local interconnected communities. To be active in your local business community requires both time and commitment. Rather than simply meeting people, and handing out as many business cards as you can, successful networking involves directed conversations and follow-ups. There are no quick fixes, building business relationships relies on a solid foundation of trust and understanding, which can only be gleaned if you have devoted time, energy and thought in to your networking interactions. By spreading yourself too thinly, and attending many networking events without enough time to dedicate to follow-up conversations, you will get much less return on your time and investment, meaning where you use fuel & other resources their impact on and in your business in far less, while your environmental footprint increases.

Start Sustainably Networking In 3…2…1

Visiting one Business Buzz networking event per month & making the most of the opportunity should take around 8 hours of your time if you follow the Buzz 3-2-1 principle. This allows for driving time, time at the event, (that’s up to 2 hours with Buzz at least once a month), finding your new connections on LinkedIn and other social media, picking up the phone to invite a visitor, arranging your 1-2-1s, meeting for your 1-2-1s that should be about an hour long and ideally include coffee and cake (virtual cake is never as exciting as the real thing!) and getting there and back when not virtual. So, sustainable networking means networking that we can fully commit to, while maintaining work & life commitments. If we over-commit, we are likely to start cutting corners and missing out elements of the 3-2-1 principle. Trying to attend multiple networking events every week will most likely mean you do not follow-up with the people you meet and building those trusted relationships will become less likely. I often hear people say “networking doesn’t work” and that is more often than not because they try and be in all places, all the time. Networking becomes overwhelming for them, and they are not known fully by their fellow networkers, so they eventually run out of steam and stop attending. Someone else with a networking plan will take their place as the face of their sector.

How To Make Those Little Adjustments

Be clever with your networking. Make a day of it! Let’s suggest you are a regular visitor to Business Buzz for Birmingham, which is every month on the second Wednesday between 10 am & noon:
• Are you aware that Birmingham City Centre is a “Clean Air Zone”, so dependent on your car, you might need to pay a fee to drive into the city centre. Why not take the train, tram or bus to visit Birmingham Buzz? Birmingham is so well connected by public transport both locally, but also across the entire West Midlands region & beyond.
• Keep your networking local where you can and place Business Buzz for Birmingham (or your local Buzz) at the centre of your networking strategy.
• When you are at the event, think about the waste that can be avoided. You can bring your own reusable cup with you. Where the venue provides cups, you can reuse your existing cup rather than taking a new one, when you want a refill.
• Do you really need to hand out flyers or business cards to everyone you meet? What do you do with the cards you collect? Most of us carry a smartphone, so make sure you have LinkedIn and Twitter easily accessible and connect there. My smartphone has a notes facility, so I jot down the names of people I meet, with whom you want to follow-up.
• Make a day of it. Pull some of your 3-2-1 principle activities together. Why not arrange a meeting with an existing contact before Birmingham Buzz at a nearby coffee shop & do the same immediately after the event in the venue? You can always arrange some more 1-2-1s for the remainder of the day. Get people to come to you & encourage them to travel by public transport for short journeys.
• Work for the rest of the day at our lovely Business Buzz partner venue, The Florence Pub, they have power sockets for laptops, Wi-Fi available and you can order food to keep your energy levels up. Take some time to work on your business.
• Attend the virtual Business Buzz West Midlands monthly event, which runs on each fourth Friday and is powered by Remo. It complements a visit to the face-to-face Buzz for Birmingham perfectly.
• Where we meet in person, it is part of the Business Buzz ethos to be town centre based. We strive to create some additional footfall to the high street, so while you are in Birmingham for Buzz why not visit the shops in the Bullring & the surrounding area? A little retail therapy might be just the ticket to look after you own well-being and mental health.

Irrespective of where your local Buzz is, you don’t have to jump in the car to visit. Many towns & cities are considering introducing congestion charging & clean air zones, so now is a great time to think about what change you can make before it is forced upon you.
I choose as the Buzz Lead, to use wherever possible PDF version of my teams’ Buzz event flyers when promoting our events across the Central Midlands. I also use my Buzz Mug, which is made from recycled plastic for my personal teas & coffees to reduce the amount of paper & plastic waste from single use cups often provided by our venues. When it is practical and straightforward I used public transport to get me from home to Buzz and back again.

A Little Goes A Long Way

Nothing happens in business without consideration. To make your networking sustainable from an environmental standpoint as well as from a practical one deserves the same consideration you apply to other business decisions. I recommend no more than one or possibly two local Buzz events a month, supplemented with a virtual regional Buzz by applying the Buzz 3-2-1 principle, this should be manageable and not overwhelming. At this level, your networking will have a positive impact professionally, have a greater return on your investment and be a sustainable work practice allowing you to grow your business and reduce your carbon footprint. It is a win-win for everyone.
Hopefully, applying this approach will reduce pressure on your time, your resources and take away that feeling of being overwhelmed and stressed which may eventually lead to being burnt out. In turn, you’ll flourish through quality connections, established via a multi-faceted, sustainable networking approach.

Sustainable networking is a true balance of human, social, economic and environmental factors. By committing to sustainable networking practice, we can all contribute to creating and maintaining a safer, positive and supportive community with longevity, and seeds well sown for success. A little networking can go a long way and thoughtful networking can have a sustainable outcome for you, your business, your well-being and our planet.

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