Sacha Cohen writes for www.ework.com – a Ms.Money partner.
As just about anyone who has been self-employed will tell you, loneliness is often the greatest downside to your newfound freedom. If you work at home most of the time, you have just the phone and e-mail to keep you connected to the rest of the world. Weekly lunches with coworkers, casual hallway conversations and work-sponsored social outings are all things of the past. You’re on your own.
But, hey, this is what you signed up for, right? Freedom, the chance to be your own boss, nobody to answer to, and the chance to work in your pajamas. What you may not have counted on are the long, sometimes endless days when the phone doesn’t ring, when e-mail is all but a fleeting memory, when the only person you talk to all day is the postal carrier (who now flees when he sees you coming). Yes, control of your destiny comes with a price.
That’s why one of the first rules of working for yourself is this: you must network, you must socialize and you must get out in the world.
Believe me, your postman will be relieved.
Don’t be a Wallflower
Networking is the fuel that can jump-start your career. When Merry Bruns, an editor and writer, first came to Washington, DC, she thought about her interests, what she is good at, and volunteered her time with a few professional organizations such as the New Media Society and DC Web Women. “I signed up for a lot of committees, and attended meetings religiously. The reward is that people get to know you, they see that you can accomplish what needs to get done, they see your skills and abilities, and you make professional/personal friends en route,” Bruns says.
Of course, you know that attending professional events and conferences is vital to an eWorker’s well being. But while you’re out and about, don’t be a wallflower. “Try to talk to everyone,” says Bruns, who is a natural extrovert. “Be able to say in one swift sentence what you do, as you hand over your card. Rehearse it. Keep it simple.” As for those of you who are nervous about striking up a conversation with a stranger, “Get over it,” she says. “They’re nervous, too.” A good way to break the ice is to simply ask questions. “People love to talk about themselves, so let them,” advises Bruns. “This sounds like your mother’s advice, but really, people will think you’re just wonderful if you let them talk about themselves.”
Sara Cormeny, a seasoned eWorker, recommends investing in a PDA (a handheld “Personal Digital Assistant,” such as a Palm Pilot) that you can keep stocked full of contact information of the people you meet personally or professionally. “The more people you know, and the more often you can make a referral for other services, the more likely you are to be able to grow your business. I love trading contact information using the infrared beaming option!” Cormeny says.
Cormeny also emphasizes the importance of how you present yourself. “Your letterhead doesn’t have to cost a fortune, but your business cards should be top-notch. The business card is the ‘currency’ of networking,” she adds.
This Is Networking?
“Is there anything that’s not a networking opportunity?” says Cormeny, who runs her own Web design firm, PaperLantern.com. “As long as I’m carrying business cards, I’m ready to network! I was with my boyfriend in the Australian rain forest on vacation, and I was wearing a baseball cap from his company. Another guy who works in the industry happened to be on the trail as well, and after catching up with us at a swimming hole, we had a conversation which resulted in an exchange of business cards (mine, because I’m never caught without one),” remembers Cormeny. “The guy became a beta user of my boyfriend’s software in Australia. That’s power networking!”
Although in-person interaction is essential, don’t overlook the online opportunities that can help you build your personal and professional contacts and keep you from feeling isolated. Online discussion groups and even the occasional chat are opportunities to meet others in your field or people with similar interests or circumstances.
As a writer, I rely on several discussion groups related to the topic of online writing and publishing, and spend about an hour each day reading the list digests. Occasionally, I’ll discover that a writer on the list lives nearby or that we have mutual friends in common. In that case, a quick e-mail can lead to a meeting over coffee and perhaps even a new friendship. Check out the various discussion group Web sites, where you can search for discussion groups and e-mail lists by subject.
Get Outta Here
One key to not going completely stir crazy is fairly simple: Get a change of venue. Bruns frequents a local coffee shop so she can at least see other people. “Hopefully, I can manage to pull enough work together to complete on my laptop so that I can do this fairly often,” she says. Bruns also recommends that you set lots of lunch dates, including face-time meetings with clients, lunch/dinner/coffee with friends, etc. Don’t let the convenience of e-mail and the phone keep you from seeing your friends and colleagues in person.
In addition to business lunches, seminars and the like, take time out to play. Whether you’re fond of pottery or photography, it’s important to find activities outside of work that you enjoy. During my first year as an eWorker, I took dance classes at the gym regularly and even signed up for group voice lessons. Tapping into creative and physical activities can make you more productive as an eWorker and provide you with additional networking opportunities.
Finally, think about your attitude. If you view networking as a necessary evil, it’s going to seem more like a chore than what it can actually be: A good time and a great way to grow your business. Think of every social and professional event as a chance not only to mingle and hand out your business card, but also as a time to make new friends and relax.
So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and mingle.