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084 - How to build your network and expand your contacts

How to connect with more people who can help your business. Listen to any successful entrepreneur’s story and often you will hear about a chance meeting with someone who went on to play a major role in their business journey. But these kind of connections don’t just happen by accident. You need to have a strategy in place to increase the number of connections you are making.

In the vegan sector, collaboration is natural because we are all on the same mission. So how do you find and connect with the kinds of people who are going to help your business move forwards?

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Episode transcript:

Hello and welcome to episode eighty-four of The Vegan Business Tribe Podcast with myself David Pannell, co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe. And if you have a vegan business, or are thinking of starting one, then Vegan Business Tribe is here to support and inspire you not just to build a vegan business, but to build a SUCCESSFUL vegan business.
 
And today we’re talking about how to build your network and expand your contact base. And it can take a long while to realise how important developing a network of contacts is when building a business. In fact, the reason that successful entrepreneurs build their second business faster than their first is not just down to experience, but because of the network of contacts that they have already built up. But, that network doesn’t just build itself and it doesn’t happen by accident. There are things that you need to make sure you are doing to actively get to know the people who are going to play a big part in your business journey.
 
Just before we start though, don’t think I’m going to let you get away without a quick mention of our membership site over on Vegan Business Tribe.com, and I know I know, I go on about this every week but this podcast is only a small part of everything we do at Vegan Business Tribe and I don’t want you to miss out. So, if you are looking for help and support with your vegan business, maybe you just want to meet other people who are building a vegan business just like you, or maybe you need help with your marketing and want to study our vegan business marketing course, or maybe you just want to ask myself and Lisa a question directly in our community hub… if you have a vegan business then we are here to champion you and support what you are doing. No matter what stage your vegan business is at, from just an idea you’re trying out at local markets to having just signed your third supermarket deal – I want you to come and connect with us. But secondly, it’s also our members who fund us. So if you enjoy this podcast but you haven’t signed up with us yet then just head to the website at veganbusinesstribe.com and click on the join button on the homepage to find out everything you get when you become a member. And if you already are a member, and I know a lot of our members listen every week, then thank you – we genuinely couldn’t do this without you.
 
OK – so you might have heard me say before that it’s far easier in business when you surround yourself with people who are on the same mission that you are. Whenever I’ve interviewed founders of successful vegan businesses, quite often there’s a point in their story where they talk about a chance meeting or being introduced to someone who then went on to play a big part in their business journey. It might have been someone who introduced them to an investor, or it might have been someone who brought an opportunity or even someone who became a mentor. And at Vegan Business Tribe, a big part of what we do is connecting people together who are on the same mission, and through Vegan Business Tribe people have met investors, new business partners, mentors and collaborators. Because no business works in isolation, especially not in the vegan sector. You don’t sit locked away in your office just selling things to your customers – or rather, if you do then your company is going to grow really slowly. You need to be out there, linking up with the people in your industry who are going to help you along your journey.
 
And in any other industry, linking up with people can be really hard work. Beneficial new connections are hard-won and other people will always view suggestions of collaborating with suspicion, trying to work out what’s in it for them. In some sectors, companies are very protective of the opportunities they come across because they want to maintain an advantage over everyone else and stop other companies from taking the same path they have. However… you are not in these other industries. You are in the vegan sector, even if your company doesn’t overtly shout about its veganism. If you are vegan yourself and you are trying to bring about a vegan world, then other vegan companies will usually want you to succeed. Even if you could be considered a direct competitor. Because they want the same thing that you want. They probably started their vegan business to bring about the same change in the world that you are trying to bring about.
 
As an example, our Vegan Busines Tribe members Henry & Henry, who you may have heard me mention before because I know they listen to every episode and I love to give them a shout-out, but they recently got interviewed on Chef AJ’s podcast. And Chef AJ is a vegan chef who talks mainly about weightloss on a vegan diet, she has her own TV series and a couple of hundred thousand followers across social media and YouTube. So when she interviewed Annette and Graham Henry as guests, talking about how they help people overcome health problems with a plant-based diet, they found themselves introduced to a huge new audience and got a spike in people signing up to their own membership website. And how did they get that opportunity? They got it from someone at another organisation who Chef AJ had interviewed about the health benefits of going whole-food plant-based and that person recommended she interviewed Henry & Henry next.
 
Chef AJ will get a constant stream of people pitching themselves as guests for her podcast and Youtube videos and if Annette and Graham had just pitched themselves then they probably might have not even gotten a response. But becasue they have spent the last year connecting with people and companies who are on the same mission as they are, one of those people then brought them a brilliant opportunity that they wouldn’t have got any other way.
 
And the important thing is that they didn’t have to be connected directly with Chef AJ to get that opportunity, they simply built a relationship with the other people in their industry so that they could benefit from the connections those people already had. We see the same at our Vegan Business Tribe member networking meet-ups – we might have 20 vegan businesses on the Zoom session, but between us all you are probably only one step away from anyone in the vegan sector. And that’s how network-building works. Every new person you meet comes with their own network of hundreds of other people that they are already connected with, and your dream contact may be amongst those people. So the more people you know who align with your mission, and the more people you build meaningful relationships with in your sector, then the more exponentially your access to potential opportunities grows too.
 
But these connections are never going to just come and knock on your door whilst you’re sat at your desk, you need to give fate a helping hand. Networking and relationship-building is a key part of growing your business and you should have a strategy in place to actively increase the number of people you know in your sector. And there are whole industries that have grown to connect business people together. Vegan Business Tribe is a network of lots of vegan businesses, and should be the first place you go if you are wanting to meet other vegan business owners. But other networks like Beyond Animal and Vevolution also offer different kinds of networking events and meet-ups and Lisa and I actually go to other online vegan networking events to meet other people who are on the same mission that we are.
 
The pandemic made the world smaller, it brought us together online in ways that only early adopters were using before. Meeting on Zoom has become natural and means you can link up with people across the globe. We had a Vegan Business Tribe networking meet-up with our members last week and we had vegan businesses from nine different countries on the Zoom session. And in the same way, YOU should start to think global too. We are really fortunate here in the UK that the vegan sector is further along than a lot of places in the world – mainly because we’ve got amazing organisations like The Vegan Society who have been campaigning and active for so many years. So if you’re outside of the UK then start connecting with vegan businesses and organisations within the UK to start benefitting from their extra experience. And if you are in the UK, then open your eyes to the opportunities around the world. Australia has real legal momentum at the moment with the Animal Justice Party getting their first MPs into parliament. Many African countries are starting to explore veganism with companies like Veganic Food in Zambia, not just providing food to their domestic markets but also campaigning to educate more Africans on veganism. China is one of the biggest consumers of plant-based leather. And in the United States, the vegan entertainment industry is starting to gain a foothold with the biggest vegan TV shows, documentaries and podcasts all coming out of the US right now.
 
And you can be part of all this. The reason I am kept so up to date with what’s happening in the vegan sector is not because I am some all-seeing guru, it’s because I am always talking to all our Vegan Business Tribe members – and they keep me constantly updated with what’s happening around the world. So if you are looking to make connections then start thinking beyond just your local geographical area. Henry and Henry who I mentioned earlier are British ex-pats living in Berlin, Germany – but Chef AJ who’s podcast they got onto works out of Los Angeles in California. Remember that in veganism it’s our ethics, not our geography, that brings us together.
 
So let’s take a look at some of the ways you can actively work to increase your network and the number of people you are connected to.  First, and I know this sounds like I’m spamming you now, but if you are not a member of Vegan Business Tribe yet then, genuinely, come and get involved with us. Our networking meet-ups and community hub will give you access to some amazing vegan businesses who are on the same mission that you are. The next great place to meet other people who are moving the vegan cause forwards is actually LinkedIn. And you might roll your eyes and say you don’t do LinkedIn but I kind of don’t care – if you’re building a vegan business you should be on there. There are groups for vegan professionals, full of people who are trying to bring around the same change in the world that you are. And the great thing is, they are all linked to each other. Just spend some time connecting with and engaging with other vegan business owners on LinkedIn and before you know it you will only be a step away from pretty much anyone in the sector. Go take a look at the CEO of your favourite vegan brand and you’ll likely already have a dozen or more shared connections. And don’t just spam connect with a hundred or so new people, actually start a conversation with them. Every new connection you get, send them a short message to find out more about them and to see if you have any synergy. Put a day or an afternoon aside a week and have a Calendly link set up where people can book Zoom calls with you on that day. Send that link to anyone you get into a conversation with on LinkedIn that you think you have some synergy with. But don’t try and sell to these people, that’s not our focus here. But also don’t offer appointments to people who are obviously trying to sell to you either. Use this to build up connections with people who are working towards the same goal that you are.
 
And if you don’t really understand LinkedIn, then jump right back to episode 11 of this podcast where I explain how to use it to connect with your dream vegan connections and how you can use specific emojis and symbols in your name so that other vegan professionals can find you.
 
But networking doesn’t have to just be virtual, it’s just that online networking has really supercharged getting to know new people and, if we’re being honest, we quite like being able to network when we know people can’t see what we’re wearing from the waist down! But before the pandemic, the biggest way to meet other businesses was by joining your local business networking group. And if you are not specifically selling to vegan businesses, then these might still be useful to you. Your local Chamber Of Commerce may have its own group or most towns and cities have someone running a paid business networking group that you can belong to. Just Google the name of where you live followed by ‘networking group’ to see what’s in your area. Most will let you attend a couple of meetings to try them out – and you should do just that. From experience, different networking groups have a completely different feel to them and you should try a few different ones to see which are a fit for you. Some networking groups are ultra-structured and require you to be there each and every week, others are more flexible and relaxed or offer pay-as-you-go networking. I was a member of an early morning business referral group that met at 7 o’clock in the morning and you needed to attend every single week else you got kicked out. Does that seem a bit extreme? I guess so, but that group provided 50% of all my new customers for several years.
 
You can also use websites like Eventbrite to search for business events in your area where you will be able to meet other local companies. In fact, you might be surprised at the number of events you can attend that are within driving distance. But again, when you belong to a business networking group based on location, remember that the whole reason that group of businesses have come together is because that’s the geographical area that they operate in. The businesses won’t share the same ethics as you, they won’t be as motivated to help you succeed either because they don’t share your same mission. But if you are not just selling to vegans, then you can still make some very good connections and discover exciting collaborating opportunities by getting to know the other businesses in your local area. And if you don’t have any local networking groups, then set up your own event and invite them. For many years, I lived in a small stone-built village in the foothills of the Yorkshire Pennines. I organised a networking event in the village hall for the other business people in the village, and we got more than 40 people book on to it. So if you operate in a sleepy, remote area yourself then you may be surprised at what other businesses there are in the area but at the moment they might not have any way to connect.
 
If you belong to an industry body or organisation then keep an eye on what events and conferences they run too. You might think that it’s a waste of time hanging out with other people in the same industry, after all they are your competitors. But you’re not just expanding your network to find more customers. You might find people who can share advice on how they grew a similar business or even who are happy to act as a mentor. I was at the Podcasting Conference in London last month and met some amazing new contacts and picked up tips from other podcasters, but there are now vegan conferences you can go to too. Come join us at Vegan Business Tribe Live in November if you’re in the UK, or Plant Powered World Expo is now in both New York and London. You can go visit VeganFest which is one of the world’s biggest vegan festivals in Tel Aviv with speakers and industry experts from around the world. Vegan Life Live, VegfestUK in London – go to these events, listen to the speakers and link up with them afterwards. Someone is far more likely to accept a LinkedIn request from you if it comes with a note saying how much you enjoyed their presentation!
 
Events like VegfestUK where you can also book a stand are crucial places to get visibility. It’s not just the general public who visit these events, buyers from supermarkets and retailers do too. It’s where people like Nākd Bars first got their big breaks and getting to know the people at other vegan companies who have already got deals with wholesalers and retailers will put you in very good company to do the same.
 
You might also want to look for non-business events and groups to get involved with. Some people have an active community around their religion or culture where they can develop relationships with people who have similar backgrounds and life experiences. And a percentage of those people will either be in business themselves, or have friends and family who might be good contacts for you and already share a natural affinity. I mean, I once even joined my local squash club – and I am terrible at squash, I don’t have a physically-competitive bone in my body – but it was where all the local business people hung out and the club bar was a great place to pick up new contacts.
 
If your vegan company leads with a vegan message, then consider also getting involved with your local activism groups. Just like our members at Vegan Business Tribe, those in the activist community will appreciate that you run a vegan business and will easily become your champions. Go visit your local vegan cafe which is always a good hub for what’s going on in your area, get to know the owners and find out what groups they know so you can get involved in your local vegan community. Our local vegan cafe even ran a book club you could go to once a month to meet other vegans!
 
And then finally, if you are really struggling to find somewhere to meet the kind of people you really need to meet, if you just can’t find a group that has the right kind of people in, then create your own! If your niche is so niched that no one else has thought to make a group for it, then make one yourself. A vegan bakers support group, a vegan personal trainers group, a vegan finance group – heck I’ll even help you set it up. Or plan an online summit like we saw with Vegan Interior Design Week, to attract people from all over the world who you have synergy with.
 
The last thing to remember is that building up your contacts and network isn’t instant. It takes time. People don’t just become your best friends and open up their contacts book the second you get introduced to them, even if you are both vegan. These people need to get to know you and you need to get to know them. You will probably need to have a number of meaningful conversations with them and maybe even work together a couple of times to work out what synergy you have. It might be that you get to know someone and they come across an opportunity that makes them think of you several months later, like with Henry & Henry who we mentioned at the start. It might be that they respond in kind after you’ve been able to help them – remember that you can get everything you want in the world if you help others get what they want. But the most important thing is that you actually have to decide to do this, your contacts book won’t just fill up on its own.
 
I’ve spoken to successful vegan entrepreneurs who tell me about the months and years they spent constantly setting up calls, meetings and Zoom sessions with people that seemed like a waste of time, but slowly and surely, some of those conversations turned into opportunities – often several months after the event. They made those opportunities happen. Don’t think you are doing all this on your own, there are lots of people out there who want your business to succeed. Whether you are a local vegan cafe or a global campaigning organisation, increasing the people in your network who you know, have synergy with and who align with your mission will help you achieve that mission quicker.
 
OK, so as always a really interesting topic to go into – so let’s have a bullet-point reminder of how to build your network and expand your contacts:
 
  1. It’s far easier to build a business when you surround yourself with people who are on the same mission that you are. In almost every successful entrepreneur’s story, there’s a point where they talk about a chance encounter or being introduced to someone who then went on to play a big part in their business journey. You need to go out and make these encounters happen.
  2. In most industries, people view suggestions of collaborating with suspicion, trying to work out what’s in it for them. But in the vegan sector, even if someone could be considered a direct competitor they will probably be happy to link up and explore what synergy you have.
  3. The pandemic made the world smaller, it brought us together online. Use Zoom or Teams to link up with people across the globe and explore the opportunities that are growing for vegan companies around the world.
  4. Regardless of your views on LinkedIn, you need to be on it. There are so many vegan business people on LinkedIn right now and everyone is connected with each other. It won’t take long to find you’re only a few connections away from some of the biggest vegan entrepreneurs and business people. But don’t just connect and forget, start conversations with these people and set up calls and Zoom meetings with those that you have synergy with.
  5. Networking doesn’t have to be just virtual. Every local town or city has a local business networking group, or you can use sites like Eventbrite to find business events in your local area. Also see what conferences and events your industry body runs in the real world too.
  6. Go to the big events like VegFestUK and Plant Powered World Expo in New York, or VeganFest in Tel Aviv, where you will meet the other movers and shakers in the vegan movement. Even considering taking a stand at these events to give your company maximum visibility and attract people who might want to know more about what you do.
  7. You might also take a look at what non-business networks are open to you, such as groups based around your culture, life experiences or religion, to meet people who you have a natural affinity with. Some of them will have their own businesses or know others who have. You might even want to get involved with your local vegan activism group to find those who share your same ethics.
  8. If you are really struggling to find a group that has the sort of people you are looking to connect with – then create your own! A vegan bakery-owners support group or vegan personal trainers networking group for example might be something that a lot of people would find useful.
  9. Building contacts isn’t instant – you can’t expect someone to just open up their contact book and start sharing opportunities for you the instant you meet them. Explore working together, get to know each other and try helping them out too. It might be several months down the line that making a new contact then results in an opportunity.
 
And that is it!
 
So as I said earlier, genuinely, if you are looking to increase your network and you are not yet a member of Vegan Business Tribe then come get involved with us. Our members want your vegan business to succeed because you are on the same mission as they are, that mission to create a world where animals are not throw-away commodities, a world where sentient beings are not killed and consumed. Because why should we have to have a label as vegan businesses? Surely it should be the companies that DO cause harm to animals that have to carry a warning. And it doesn’t matter what stage your vegan business is at or where you are in the world, you will get so much value from being part of our amazing community. Just go take a look at the website at veganbusinestribe.com and click on the join button on the homepage – I guarantee you won’t regret it!
 
So thank you so much for giving up your time to listen, we really couldn’t build Vegan Business Tribe without our members and listeners and Lisa and I are going to be at a number of vegan events around the UK over the next month or so including Vegan Camp Out here in the UK – so if you see us in our Vegan Business Tribe hoodies please do stop us and lt me know you are a listener!  And I will see you, on the next one.

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