Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dive right in

"Now I'll never dance with another, whoooo, when I saw her standing there" - The Beatles

To the uninitiated, networking might seem like a grade-school dance. Remember those long-ago times? Boys on one side, girls on the other. Both sides peeking shyly at the other, waiting for someone to make a move. It was like bottled anticipation.

So who usually had the most fun in those situations? That's right, those who were willing to make the move. Those who swallowed hard and took the chance. Those who overcame their shyness, inhibitions, whatever, and spoke to that other person who looked interesting (or was it just cute?).

The wallflowers didn't win. They waited and kept on waiting.

Other kids stayed close to their cliques, circles tightly closed, and repelled through sheer body language. They didn't make any new friends, either.

There's a famous book which, when paraphrased, states that all we need to know we learn in kindergarten. For learning how to network effectively, we can extend that out a few years, but not too many are needed.

The last post here posed a brutal but valid truth: Networking does not match human nature. We aren't programmed to go up to strangers and start talking to them. Maybe it's fear of rejection, maybe it's social niceties that our parents taught us, maybe it's fear of funny looks in return - it's just not natural.

So here's a bit of advice for those holding back: Dive right in.

You want more? OK, try this: Be a kamikaze.

For the historically challenged, the term "kamikaze" doesn't refer to the vodka-triple sec-lime juice shots you pounded down in college (if you remember them, that is).

No, "kamikaze" refers to the Japanese suicide pilots who crashed their planes into American naval craft late in World War II. They killed and maimed thousands of brave U.S. military personnel, so this is not intended as praise for them.

Rather, to be a kamikaze in networking means to be fearless as you plunge into the crowd. It's about stuffing that natural hesitation in your back pocket and going forth. It's about doing what it takes to make new connections - and isn't that what networking is all about?

If the response to this is "Oh, I could never just walk up and start talking to someone I don't know," then here's another piece of advice: Find a job where you're allied with some major-league rainmakers, or one where business just magically comes through the door. Because if you're in a position where developing new business is a must, networking might be the biggest "must-have" skill a person can possess.

Developing a fearless "kamikaze" approach takes time. But it can happen, no doubt. Eventually you'll find yourself scanning the crowd for new faces to meet, not the safety net of someone you already know. It's all a matter of taking those first steps. The rest get easier and easier.

The next post here will address some of the niceties of networking. You see, as much as you want to tell others all about what you do, they probably don't want to know every last excruciating detail (sneak preview there).

In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. There's a whole world of people out there to meet. It's time to fly.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The "work" of networking

OK, don't get distracted here. This is going to sound like the typical lead-in to a lot of jokes - "This guy walks into a bar ..." - but stay with it.

This guy - we'll call him Jack - walks into a networking event (See? You were warned). He doesn't recognize a single face. Uh-oh. What now?

Take a deep breath. Be cool. Jack heads for the first convenient distraction: the bar. That will eat a bit of time until there's a familiar face or two.

He gets a drink. Well, that's done. Getting a little nervous here.

The next destination is the food table. Jack's killed 10 minutes or so, and still no one obvious to talk with. How can he not know anyone? Mild panic starts to set in.

"I can't believe it," he thinks. "What am I supposed to do here? How long do they expect me to stay? Am I supposed to just wander around by myself in this crowd?"

So Jack does exactly that: Wanders around, his head on a swivel, desperately searching for someone he knows. Maybe he finds someone. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe his insecurity gets the best of him and he leaves early. In any case, he gets absolutely no value out of the event.

Get the picture? Jack doesn't know jack about networking.

Networking is the art - and yes, it is an art - of making new connections. It's about turning strangers into acquaintances, business contacts and maybe even friends. Like it or not - and here's where a lot of people get uncomfortable - networking is often about walking up to a complete stranger and starting a conversation.

Yet if you're in business, networking might be a lifeblood of your operation.

You see, the one thing they never teach in college is how most business really gets done. One could submit that this is a considerable failing of higher education.

Business is all about relationships. It's about knowing people. It's about personal trust between individuals. It's about mutual respect and, to use a somewhat hackneyed term, "likability."

Need an example? Ask any salesperson about the difference between cold calling and warm calling - where they have a personal contact within a sales prospect - and be prepared for descriptions like "night and day."

Networking is crucial to building relationships, and herein lies the conundrum: its practice really goes against human nature. People aren't programmed to walk up and start conversations with others they don't know. Didn't your mother warn you about talking to strangers?

Yet networking is, especially for small businesses, an essential part of staying vibrant. Understanding and implementing a few simple tactics can be the key to successful networking. We'll get into these in future posts. So check back soon to delve further into this practice, which many find daunting and others just mysterious.

Above all, pledge not to be like Jack. It's hard to be successful when, well, you don't know jack.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ten minutes to safety?

Ten minutes.

Ten freakin' minutes!

Granted, it's not a big slice of time. It's a mere blink in the context of one's entire life.

But should I really have to wait 10 minutes for a toaster oven to toast a piece of bread? And, even longer if it's an English muffin?

Here's why it's annoying. When a toaster is involved, it's usually during a meal that tends to be rushed. How many people grab breakfast running out the door in the morning? Or take lunch as a quick break from work?

That's why the "10-minute toasting" is a problem. It's an inefficient, nonsensical waste of time in a world where time is increasingly the most important commodity.

It hasn't always been like this. Until about five years ago, my toaster oven browned that bread, or bagel, or English muffin, in no time. It was wonderfully fast. Granted, the toaster oven wasn't the most attractive appliance, but that's another story ...

About five years ago, Nancy and I replaced that good old reliable - if a bit worn - toaster oven. Here's where I learned that not all are created equal. Suddenly it took twice as long to get some bread browned. At first it was just an acclimation issue, but increasingly became infuriating.

I thought it was just that particular brand, an appliance brand that I have since learned to avoid when it comes to cooking implements. So we replaced it. And I learned that it wasn't any particular brand - no sir, this was apparently a trend.

The new toaster oven, now about four months old, takes even longer. So long, in fact, that one day I finally timed it. You got it - 10 minutes!

Now, I understand why this has all occurred. Anyone living in our modern society can figure it out. One or two people got drunk, put something in a toaster oven, passed out, and burned their house(s) (or apartment(s)) down. And, of course, they sued the appliance maker - because it obviously was the toaster oven's fault - and won.

The manufacturers responded in an expected way - they drastically reduced the power of the appliances. So now the rest of us have to suffer through interminably long waits just to get a piece of toast. Heaven help the poor parents who have to wait on a painfully slow toaster oven while their hungry kids screech away in the background.

No, 10 minutes isn't a big slice of time in the grand scheme of things. And maybe this is really just all about impatience. But people are more pressed for time more than ever these days, and having to wait so long for something that used to be so quick can register pretty high on the aggravation scale.

It just seems like another example of responsible people paying for the actions of the irresponsible. No, I can't prove it, but the hunch is pretty strong. Let me give it some thought. After all, I have 10 minutes while my toast gets done.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I won't drink to that

There's a longstanding debate among football fans: college or pro?

This missive isn't about tackling (no pun intended - OK, well maybe) that topic. Let's consider instead the off-field issue of what it's like for the fan in the stands.

I had a great time a week ago at the Badgers game at legendary Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. The game was exciting, the fans exuberant - most will admit that is a staple of the college game - and the day, overall, very enjoyable.

Here's where the admission comes in - I'm a pro football fan. Yes, the NFL is a big-money, big-ego, price-the-average-fan-out-of-the-game business. Still, like the hordes of other NFL junkies across our fruited plains, I can't get enough of the hard hits and terrific athleticism that make pro football exciting viewing.

So that got me thinking: Why was the Badger game so downright enjoyable? It didn't take too long to figure it out.

Anyone who has ever attended a game at Lambeau Field (the other football shrine in wacky Wisconsin) has seen one, if not five or ten or fifteen, completely soused fans stumbling around. They bump into people, yell inane remarks and generally annoy other fans. These fans usually have put in a good bout of pregame imbibing, then come into the stadium and keep the party going via the beer tap.

Herein, I realized, lies the difference. No beer (or any other alcohol) is sold at Camp Randall Stadium.

This is not to say that drinking isn't part of the Badger game experience for many fans. Heck, the game we attended was at 11 a.m., and the alcohol was flowing cold and constant everywhere at parties and bars beforehand. People were celebrating a fall tradition, and putting away a few drinks beforehand was part of it. This is Wisconsin, after all, where drinking is a big part of our culture.

Wait a minute - is that an oxymoron? "Culture" and beer bongs? Not your average definition, to be sure.

But that's where it ended. Once inside the hallowed football hall, no more booze was available. Zero. Zippo. The exception is sneaking it in, and getting caught means, to paraphrase a famous "Seinfeld" episode, "No football for you!"

So, anyone who entered inebriated to some level was generally calming down by the second quarter. There was nothing to keep their intoxicated state going. Hence, the game experience was more enjoyable for everyone around them as any idiotic behavior was slowly quelled.

Contrast this to Lambeau Field, where anyone of legal age can buy beer until the end of the third quarter. There's no limit, either - if you can drink 10 beers in that roughly 2-1/2-hour period, then knock yourself out (pun fully intended). If you can afford it, you can get it.

People take full advantage of this, often to the detriment of those around them. I can't imagine taking a kid to a Packers game given the foul language and boorish behavior that is commonplace there, much of it fueled by alcohol.

Here's a true story. I attended a Packers game several years ago and sat next to a slightly older man and his adult son. The younger man consumed three 24-ounce beers by the third quarter and was in full demonstration of his alcohol-soaked cranium. After an official's call that he disagreed with, the inebriated offspring was fully vocalizing his plans to kill the referee after the game.

"He's dead. He's dead" he repeatedly slurred to his father, who seemed aware that this didn't exactly resemble a bonding moment from "Leave it to Beaver."

There were no similar proud father-son moments at the Badger game. Instead, people cheered, people got on their feet without falling over, and no one yelled boorish remarks that would make a sailor cringe.

I don't recall when alcohol sales were banned at Camp Randall - 15 or 20 years ago, I think - but I dare say they got it right. The stadium is a family friendly atmosphere that represents what's best about sports. It's almost enough to make a hardcore NFL fan rethink his ways.

As for the drunken louts at Lambeau Field, they have reached the pinnacle of affecting public policy. When several roundabouts were recently proposed for roadways near the stadium, a state legislator objected to the plan.

His reason? You might want to sit down for this.

Rep. Jim Soletski was concerned that inebriated drivers leaving Packers games might not be able to navigate the Euro-originated design. Thank goodness he was concerned about them not hurting anyone! Or, then again, maybe that wasn't quite the point.

The old "inmates running the asylum" analogy doesn't quite fit here. It's more like "letting the drunks who we want to keep off the roads determine the design of the roads." It's catering to the lowest common denominator. It's letting sound public policy be dictated by fools who show up, on average, exactly 10 days out of every 365-day year.

The Badgers, on the other hand, play only eight home games a year. Their fans don't walk out of the stadium totally blitzed.

You don't have to be a math major to figure out which scenario sounds better, do you?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

It's not all about you

It happened again recently.

I was at a networking event (not an uncommon occurrence when you're a small business owner) and approached a woman I hadn't met. I introduced myself and asked an introductory question or two - the standard stuff, i.e., what's your name, what do you do, etc.

(BLOGGER'S INTERCESSION: No names will be revealed to protect the guilty.)

OK, I'll say this much: She works for a phone operation. But that's all.

Anyhow, she answered the initial queries and stood there. So I asked a couple more questions about her business. She answered and, once again, stood there. I asked one or two more questions. By now it should be no surprise to hear that she answered them and, again, stood there.

The expected response from her - "And what do you do?" never materialized. Arrrgh. Why are you at a networking event, my dear, if you don't want to actually interact?

Anyone who does any level of successful networking understands one thing - it's all about give and take. You make an introduction, ask a few questions, then the other person does the same. You show interest in the other person, even if you figure out quickly that you'll never in a million years likely do business with them.

Why? It's common courtesy, for one thing. If someone takes an interest in you, you do the same for them. What's to lose?

From a business perspective, though, it's much bigger. You recognize that everybody knows someone. Maybe you won't ever send this person an invoice, but who do they know that might need your services?

Not everyone gets this, though. Call it the increasing self-absorption of our society, or the coming of age of a generation that grew up on technology at the expense of human interaction, or however you want to label it - when the person you're trying to get to know stares back at you with that blank look, the old saying "this just ain't right" practically screams in your ears.

This woman, by the way, isn't the first person with whom I've experienced this stony silence. There have been others. It's not limited to women, either - several were men. Social awkwardness is apparently not a gender issue.

Frankly, it's their loss. Business is built around relationships, so an inability to engage in what most people would consider "normal" conversation will greatly limit one's business potential.

Then again, maybe these people just really, truly didn't care about anyone besides themselves. The trick in networking, though, is to at least act like you do. Fake it, if you will.

But again, it's their business.

Friday, August 7, 2009

It's been a long time

No, the title of this post is wrong. It's been FAR too long since I found a moment to scratch my head, organize some coherent thoughts and write them out here.

Running a small business will do that. It's forever, to borrow a line from REO Speedwagon's "157 Riverside Avenue" (you know, the song on the live album where Gary Ricrath and Kevin Cronin wage a guitar-vocal duel? You don't know it? OK, never mind), a situation of "not enough time and too many things to do."

Well, I've missed it. I hereby promise to do everything in my power to post something every week, even if it's a half-thought-out malapropism that leaves the reader saying "Huh?" Isn't that what the "comments" section is for, to say "What the heck are you blathering about?"

Props are in order to my good friend Keith Klein, president of OnYourMark, LLC, who provided a gentle nudge and reminded me that it's important to update this blog and, what's more, he enjoys reading it. I can't let down a friend, can I?

Keith's an interesting guy. He's a quintessential American success story of someone who has succeeded by wits, ingenuity, diligence and plain hard work. He has a sharp eye for technological trends - he started an Internet marketing company in 1994, back when most of us were still marveling over the fax machine!

Keith was kind enough to invite me to give a presentation on "PR 101" last week to Wisconsin Business Owners, a networking group he organizes. He videotaped it, too. The day before, we had a great time taping a "Wisconsin Business Owner" interview from his studio. Both will be posted online soon enough. Isn't that cool of him?

I'm fortunate to know many people who have been helpful as I've worked to get Lunar Communications launched. The good things in life certainly don't come easy. But it sure is more enjoyable when there are others willing to share an experience, lend a bit of advice or just offer a sympathetic ear now and then. I hope they all know how much it's appreciated.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The neverending season(s)

So here we are in mid-June, and if you're a sports fan that means - what? It's baseball season, right?

Well, yes and no.

True, baseball has been under way for just more than two months. Best of all, our vaunted Milwaukee Brewers are in first place in the National League Central Division (let's hope I can still write that in three months).

But, hard as it is to believe, it's still basketball season. The NBA Finals might not finish for nearly another week, which might come as a surprise to those who always thought of basketball as a winter sport.

Even hockey - yes, a sport played on an ice sheet even as temperatures hit the 90s in some places - just finished last night! What's worse, it starts again in four months!

It's obvious that some professional sports leagues never learned the meaning of "enough is enough." The seasons have gotten so long, the playoffs so diluted and stretched out, that only the most hardcore fans (and those whose teams are still contending) care at the end.

This isn't hard to figure out. Professional sports are a business above all, as cold as that sounds to some followers who live and die with their teams. It explains the contract holdouts, the complaints about playing time (playing time equals stats, which equals bigger contracts), the personal seat license fees at new stadiums, and the $7 beers at said stadiums (and older ones, as well). The more games played, the more TV coverage that gets paid for, the more revenue comes in.

But does the NBA really need an 82-game regular season to separate the contenders from the pretenders? Even then, only half the teams are eliminated from the playoffs!

Counting playoffs, the NBA season lasts a mind-boggling 8-1/2 months. It slops over into baseball and the warm summer, when the last thing that any sane person wants to do is sit inside and watch the finals of a league that started playing in November!

Sure, we could sit and discuss the merits (or demerits) of the NBA game, which many view as a bastardization of James Naismith's original idea. Anyone familiar with the rule of "continuance" in the NBA might find it hard to argue with that. Most NBA games are relegated to cable TV channels. Meanwhile, the bonkers network TV ratings generated by the annual NCAA tournament are evidence that many basketball fans vote with their remotes.

Let's get back to season lengths - baseball isn't much better, frankly. Its season lasts seven months. What baseball does correctly, however, is to only allow four teams from each of its two leagues into the playoffs. This creates much greater importance for the regular season (162 contests!) and exciting races at the end of that marathon.

If there's one sport that probably has it right, it's football. The NFL season lasts just over five months and only 16 regular-season games. Its finale, the Super Bowl, is a marketing and entertainment spectacular that Hollywood can only dream of. This might explain why the NFL is the pro sports juggernaut, the one league that consistently garners huge TV ratings and some perpetually sold-out stadiums.

What's the point of all this? Probably to blow off some steam, and express my ire at the arrogance of some sports executives - NBA's David Stern, are you listening? - who somehow believe that I should still care about their product long after its annual shelf life has expired.

I don't care, and I suspect there are many, many others who feel the same. Hockey in June - who are we kidding? Summer is here - let's get outside and enjoy it! In fact, let's go to the ballpark - the baseball park!

That said, I confess that I'll be mailing my ticket package order next week for the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks. I've been a lifelong fan and truly enjoy attending the games. But there's no hurry - the start of that season always means the onset of cold weather.

So, I'll be happy to wait - even if David Stern doesn't like it one bit.