Have you ever noticed how successful people always seem to have a very wide net of friends and acquaintances? Howard Hughes became an infamous recluse only after he was fabulously wealthy. His network of business associations enabled him to excel in aviation, manufacturing, heavy industry, oil, movie making and hotel/casino ownership. He tapped into the best managers, engineers and executives available within each industry he tackled to manage his properties and provide essential expertise.

Most people are very lucky if they have two or three truly close personal friends in a lifetime. Do not confuse personal friends, friends and acquaintances. An acquaintance is a person we see from time to time, know in passing and have some basic knowledge of their background. A friend is more likely someone we socialize with, invite into the home and make an effort to schedule onto our social calendar. The rare personal friend is that person to whom we will divulge innermost secrets, trauma, joys and fears.

You will never have a personal friend, social friend or acquaintance unless you perform some type of networking. Remember the first day at a new school. You want to be accepted, avoid rejection at all costs and meet someone with your values and interests. At first this is an intimidating circumstance, confronting new surroundings and lack of any familiarity can be daunting.

After a few classes, or a few lunch periods, you enjoy that ground breaking first conversation with a fellow student. The chat is almost always a series of exploratory questions. What is your name? Where are you from? Why did you transfer? Are you trying out for cheerleader today? In addition to breaking the ice, the foundation questions establish the base line for constructing a minimum platform from which to begin a potential friendship at some level.

An entrepreneur faces the same networking issues faced by the new student. Typically, everyone involved in the field he is trying to enter is a stranger. He probably does not know a patent attorney, investment bankers, product designers, sales agents, marketing strategists and so many more specialists he might need to successfully bring the invention to a successful fruition.

Successful entrepreneurs are constantly networking. They view every human contact as an opportunity to meet someone that might represent a potential friendly acquaintance and mutually beneficial business contact. Today’s casual acquaintance often evolves into a business contact. Maybe, today, there is nothing more than an exchange of names and handshakes. But, tomorrow, a situation that includes opportunity may arise.

I recently was looking at a house to buy. I had never met the real estate agent attempting to sell the house to me before the tour. I gave the lady agent my business card and told her what I do. I already knew that she was a real estate agent. She began asking questions about my business, services, contacts in the pet toy area, and more. I did not buy the house, but I did engage a new client. She loves cats and had an idea for a terrific cat exercise toy that she needed help in commercializing. This is Networking 101!

I am always amazed at how many times I ask someone for a business card and they do not have one. This is a lost opportunity. I never go anywhere, ever, without business cards. Remove a credit card from your wallet, cut it up and replace with some business cards. This is a far more productive use of wallet space.

Networking is possible in almost every public situation. I recently saw a fellow with a funny hat in the mall. I had never seen such a hat: it was novel, clever and had a winning design. I introduced myself to the gentleman wearing the hat. He took off the hat, proudly pointed out all of the features built into the hat, and then advised me that he wore the hat in public to gauge responses he receives on the style. He looked at my card and in disbelief said, “I have been looking for somebody with your background to help me sell this cap for two years”.

I encourage new entrepreneurs to immerse themselves in the industry they are attempting to enter. If there are industry specific conferences, attend as many as possible. Ask questions. Stay afterwards and introduce yourself and give everyone you meet a business card. Do not drink alcohol. Make sure the business card contains a clear and obvious reference to your project (i.e. do not list Mike’s Inventions, instead, Patented, Ergonomic New Paint Applicator).

Attend trade shows, walk showrooms, introduce yourself to potential mentors, join the Lions Club, Rotary Club and local Chamber of Commerce. Enter competitions for new inventions and product submission. Talk to people, ask questions and listen closely to the answers. The more you network, the easier it becomes. The fatter your Rolodex the more access you will have to the answers: guidance, contacts and the expertise you will need to conquer every task a fledgling entrepreneur will face. Additionally you will expand your base of acquaintances and friends, a nice bonus.

In 1993 I met Jane, who had a project that targeted children’s obesity. She was a very nice person but she recognized that she was not passionate enough to succeed as an entrepreneur. We casually stayed in touch. In 2005 I received a contact from another lady with an exciting opportunity in the jewelry category. She called me based on a reference she received from a neighborhood acquaintance, Jane. The meeting I had taken with Jane in 1993 had seemed futile after there was no positive result. And yet, I had left enough of an impression on her that she brought to me a new opportunity with a terrific upside.

Networking can take many forms. If you are truly passionate about your new business opportunity you will want to share the details with as many people as possible. Be careful! Learn to describe your novel product without providing details. Never provide details unless you receive a signed and dated Non-Disclosure Agreement (secrecy). Nevertheless, you have to paint a picture for your new network generated contacts that excites and creates a thirst to know more. Speak in broad terms, with enthusiasm but not sophistry, about the opportunity. Discuss the benefits society and consumers will derive from your product without giving away your inventions specific workings.

You can not network successfully without a positive outlook and demeanor. Sadly, many inventors feel abused by the process of launching a new business opportunity or product. They are convinced that they have the next really big thing. And, in actuality, they might have the next really big thing. However, the free flow of ideas thrashing about in the modern marketplace is not always perfectly efficient in choosing the winners and losers that we might deem appropriate in a perfect world.

Some good products never get to market, while lesser quality offerings often succeed. My experience over many years of working with inventors and entrepreneurs is that ideas and inventions are crucial, but their novelty can be trumped negatively by personal deficiencies. It can be hard to keep going when the trail seems to always end at a stop (NO!) sign. Keep networking! Keep pushing, positively! The next stranger you meet in a networking situation might be the missing link that will take you to success. If you do not keep trying to find, and get to know that key person, you will be short- changing your invention and your potential to realize success. And, you are missing the chance to make a new friend.

Author's Bio: 

Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.

After putting himself through the University of Kentucky (B.A. Broadcast Journalism, 1969) and serving in the United States Marine Corp, Mr. Ficke commenced a career in the cosmetic industry. After rising to National Sales Manager for Vidal Sassoon Hair Care at age 28, he then launched a number of ventures, including Rubigo Cosmetics, Parfums Pierre Wulff Paris, Le Bain Couture and Fashion Fragrance.

Geoff Ficke and his consulting firm, Duquesa Marketing, Inc. (www.duquesamarketing.com) has assisted businesses large and small, domestic and international, entrepreneurs, inventors and students in new product development, capital formation, licensing, marketing, sales and business plans and successful implementation of his customized strategies. He is a Senior Fellow at the Page Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Business School, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.