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    How to grow your network — and your business

    Anyone who operates a small business knows it’s essential to invest much of their time in day-to-day business operations. But have you thought about investing more time in growing your professional network?

    Relationships can help expand your business — often through word-of-mouth marketing. But a strong social capital can also directly help you financially. Take, for example, the 2012 sale of Eloqua, a marketing automation and intelligence platform, to Oracle. The sale was completed for $871 million, more than 200 percent of Eloqua’s estimated public market value.

    A big reason? Eloqua co-founder Paul Teshima said it was because he built a strong network with people at Oracle, making the entire process seamless.

    It’s clear networking and relationships bring countless benefits, but how and where can you start to expand your own network?

    Join organizations with similar interests

    Do a little research to find an organization aligning with your business and interests. Joining them can connect you with other like-minded individuals, making relationship-building easy and fun. Trade associations are an obvious place to turn to, and there are many throughout Iowa. For example, if you work in the insurance space, it might benefit you to join the Independent Insurance Agents of Iowa. Or if you operate as an independent real estate agent, consider joining the Iowa Association of Realtors.

    NAWBO Iowa is a quality organization for connecting you with other women business owners. And who knows? Members might end up using your product or service.

    There are also opportunities within your community, especially if you operate in a small town. Networking in small towns is even more important because of how residents in that community choose businesses — often based on who they know and trust.

    Here’s a small list of easy-to-join local organizations:

    • Your local chamber of commerce.
    • Rotary Club International.
    • Your regional SCORE Association branch.

     

    Find community events — both big and small

    Events within your community can be a great way to connect with other influencers and leaders. The size of the gatherings can also alter your approach to networking.

    The bigger the event, the more of a plan you’ll want to formulate. With hundreds or potentially thousands of people in one space, there’s simply too much to do all in a matter of a few hours. Make sure to research the event: who will be there, the dress code, the itinerary. You can either meet as many people as you can or actively seek out a few key people you have in mind. Either way, it’s important to have a 30-second elevator speech and business cards to quickly explain your business and who you are.

    At smaller events, the assumption is it’s much more casual. There are fewer people, meaning more time for conversation. Because smaller events are generally more intimate, it helps to have a previous connection there to move across the space with a friend. 

    At the end of an event, follow up with your new connections over the next few days. Whether that be a LinkedIn request, an email or a handwritten letter, the follow-up will help your name and business stick in the minds of others.

    Find sponsors

    Piggybacking off the previous tip, having a sponsor — a person you know well — can help broaden your network, especially if they have large networks themselves. The sponsor can be your boss at work or another mentor in the community.

    The benefit is they can introduce you to new people and encourage you to go to places where you can make connections.

    Stay confident!

    One of the biggest issues for women business owners is having the necessary confidence when discussing or selling their business. A 2013 study from Montana State University found that women often are afraid of touting their achievements for fear they may sound arrogant. Men don’t typically have this problem.

    Remember, when you’re networking, it’s OK to talk about your accomplishments, especially if they are impressive. You don’t want to dominate the conversation, but when you’re asked, don’t be afraid to brag a little bit. You worked hard to achieve what you’ve done, and you’ll stick out.

    Three important resources for Iowa women business owners

    While the number of women-owned businesses has been sharply increasing in the past four decades — they now represent four of every 10 businesses in the United States — they still contribute a small part of the total revenue — just 4.3 percent in the private sector. Iowa boasts organizations and programs with goals to bridge the margin.

    If you’re looking to grow or wanting to make the leap on your own, here are three places you can turn to for help — both financially and strategically.  

    Iowa Center for Economic Success

    Founded in 1987, the Iowa Center for Economic Success was formed to assist Iowa business owners in financial and strategic planning. In 1998, the organization launched the Iowa Women’s Business Center, which was funded in cooperation with U.S. Small Business Administration. The center was the first in the nation and continues to be the only SBA-funded Women’s Business Center in Iowa.

    Through the Women’s Business Center, business owners can leverage continuing education classes, one-on-one business counseling, private loan counseling and education, and connections to other resources around the state. Services are offered in both English and Spanish.

    The Iowa Center also offers loans up to $50,000 for established businesses and $30,000 for new businesses, featuring favorable interest rates, fixed monthly payments and up to five-year terms.

    Business owners can also take advantage of the Iowa Center’s advocacy and networking events, which are great for connecting with other like-minded individuals. 

    Iowa Small Business Development Center

    One of the state branches of the America’s Small Business Development Center program, which started in 1981, the Iowa SBDC has worked with nearly 17,000 clients in the past five years and helped created 7,450 jobs. The center provides no-cost, confidential, customized advice to business owners. The Iowa SDBC has 15 locations all around the state, including Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Ames, Council Bluffs and Davenport.

    For business owners looking for advice in all stages of business — starting a business, growing a business, succession planning and more — the Iowa SBDC offers one-on-one mentoring and courses.

    Every year, the Iowa SBDC also awards the Deb Dalziel Woman Entrepreneur Achievement Award to standout women entrepreneurs around the state.

    Targeted Small Business Program

    Administered through the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the Targeted Small Business Program specifically gives help to women, individuals with minority status, service-connected disabled veterans and people with disabilities with small businesses in the form of state benefits, loans and awareness.

    To qualify as a Targeted Small Business, a business must be for-profit, have annual gross sales less than $4 million and be at least 51 percent owned, operated and managed by women, minorities or persons with disabilities. 

    One of the biggest benefits is the long-term loans and equity grants through the state with low or no interest rates. The loans specifically can be deferred three months for startup businesses and one month for an existing business. To see more benefits of the program, click here.