Is local networking worthwhile?
If you’ve ever tried to sell yourself or promote your business you’ve probably been there: in a roomful of strangers, looking round a little desperately for someone to talk to. “But not her, I think I’ve spoken to her. Or was it that woman over there? And I’m sure I’ve swapped business cards with that guy in the check shirt.” It’s a networking session and the question I want to ask here is: are they really worth bothering with?
I went to a networking session last week in the city where I live. It was organised by my accountants and my reaction, when invited, was more that I should go, rather than that I wanted to. But I persuaded myself that I shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to get out there and try to sell myself, so I accepted the invitation and turned up at the appointed time. When I looked at the list of attendees I was given when I arrived, however, my heart sank: some insurance agents, a couple of nurseries, a company that made something for dogs… almost no-one who would be interested in the services of a translator.
I sat quietly and listened to the mildly interesting talks, and then it was on to the main business of the evening: chatting and swapping business cards. The conversations, in Catalan or Spanish, went something like this: “Hi, I’m Simon. I’m a translator.” “A what?” “A translator. I do translations. From Spanish, Catalan and French to English. Do you ever need translations?” “Not really. I let industrial units/I’m an architect/whatever.”
Because networking is like going on a series of dates. You start talking to someone, find out a bit about them, and realise they’re not the one for you. And they realise you’re not the one for them. Then you both start surreptitiously looking round the room to see if someone else is available. After several of these abortive conversations and a chat with a chat with a man from Spanish Yellow Pages trying to sell me direct marketing databases, I bumped into Marco, a fellow translator and neighbour of mine. Ours is a curious story. We live in flats in virtually next-door buildings but we didn’t know one another until he found me one day doing an Internet search (not at any kind of networking session). We both agreed that the evening was a complete waste of our time. Marco went off to the cinema and I stayed for a few minutes to chat to some of the people who keep my accounts in order before making my way home.
You might think that perhaps the problem is the city where I live and it’s perhaps true that Badalona doesn’t have a particularly dynamic business life, bearing in mind how close it is to Barcelona. But it is the third largest place in Catalonia, with a population of 220,000, so it is hardly insignificant. In any case, I’ve been to networking sessions in Barcelona which were more or less the same, bringing me little if any work or new customers. And that leads me to wonder whether this kind of event is ever really worthwhile for translators.
We’re always told that we should get out of the dark caves where we work into the light of the real world to meet customers. Last week one of the things that motivated me to go to the event was the feeling that it was a good idea to meet people in business in my local community. But is standing around talking to people who, whether we like them personally or not, are never really going to bring us business the way to do it? To be honest I’d rather meet fellow translators (even though we’re also often told that too much concentration on colleagues is a mistake) because at least there’s a chance that one day they might put some work my way (see last week’s blog post).
To be brutally honest, nowadays it doesn’t really matter where out customers come from. If we don’t have any local ones, it isn’t anything to worry about and if we’ve never actually met half of the people we work for it it’s not a serious problem. As one of the speakers at last week’s networking event, an online marketing consultant, said, the Internet really is where it’s at. What matters is that potential customers can find you there.
Later on, I had a brief chat with him. “Are you happy with your online presence?” he asked me and, when I said I was, his immediate response was: “Shall we have a look?”. My heart sank, expecting criticism followed by a hard sell. He pulled out his tablet and googled me, finding my LinkedIn profile, which came up just ahead of my website. He had a look, while I wondered what he would say about an element of my online presence which, to be honest, is not the one I spend most time looking after. I needn’t have worried. “This is great! I’d like to use this in my talks as a model of what a LinkedIn profile should look like.” So I must be doing something right. And next time I’m tempted to stand around with a pocket full of business cards looking for someone to chat up, I might just stay at home and tweak my website instead.
Quite. As freelance translators, we are constantly being told to get ourselves to industry events and ‘network’. The truth is, networking only works for certain types of people at certain types of event. If you’re outgoing, confident and enjoy meeting people, you may make a few useful contacts. If, like me, you don’t present yourself well (whether though shyness, or aversion to small talk, or a sneaking suspicion you’re wasting your time) you could end up doing your ‘brand’ more harm than good.
As always, research is key. Is this event going to be attended by a substantial number of people who have a high likelihood of needing translation services? Or is it just a generalised chinwag and a chance for a free glass of wine? The more specifically the event relates to a) translation and b) the industry you work in, the more worthwhile it is to attend. But networking just for the sake of it is, I agree, a waste of time: you’re better of marketing yourself online to a carefully targeted audience of people you have researched beforehand.
Thanks for your comment, George. I absolutely agree with you.
Agree with George about doing a little research before going to any networking event. The whole idea of networking is to meet people and spread the word about yourself and what you do. If you find yourself in a room full of people who couldn’t care less about who you’re or what you do (they’re simply not interested), then you’ve probably wasting your time.
Networking is hard for me too. I think it’s hard for many translators just because of the whole nature of our jobs. But, on the other hand, it is important to get yourself out there and meet a few people. You’ll never know what it might bring. And it’s quite exciting.
Thanks for your comment, Dmitry. As you say, networking itself isn’t the problem, it’s finding the right people to network with. Based on my experience, I simply don’t think that what I call "local networking" – going along to meet other people in business in your local area – is the right place to do it. It would probably be a lot more useful to go to events associated with specialist areas, but obviously they are fewer and further between.