Success in small business is not only about what you know, but also who you know and how well you know them. As such, networking and relationship-building is critical to successfully starting and growing any enterprise—something SCORE Foundation President David Bobbitt knows well. In addition to having started and operated a successful revenue consulting firm focused on the biomedical research sector, he helped organize the fundraising effort behind the launch the world’s newest next-generation genomic sequencing center. David also built the largest private-sector fundraising program for kidney disease services and research in the U.S.

In this interview, SCORE Foundation President David Bobbitt shares his networking and fundraising tips to help you grow your business.

You’ve had a rather prolific career as an entrepreneur. What role did networking play in starting and growing your ventures?

It was very important, and not just for finding clients, customers, and business partners. For one of our start-ups, we were unsure what the product would be. So, we networked with people across that particular market to test ideas.

How is networking/relationship building different from selling/marketing?

Both are about identifying prospects. Networking is about getting to know who they are and what they do, in addition to what their needs may be. Also, you need to be open in your approach. If you’re focused just on finding a specific person at an event, for example, you may miss other, potentially valuable opportunities. 

Many people associate networking with professional groups or Chambers of Commerce. Are there other potentially valuable networking opportunities/targets they should look for?

  • College alumni associations. These groups typically have a broad membership base, and you have an instant connection with everyone you meet.
  • Business leadership programs. Participants in these groups are eager to make connections and cultivate professional relationships.
  • Volunteering. If you get involved with something you’re passionate about, you’re sure to meet people who share those values.

There are also many ways people can network. Which to you is the most valuable or productive?
One-to-one networking is always the best. It’s great if you know someone in an organization who can introduce you to the people you want to get to know. LinkedIn is helpful for doing this kind of networking too. But again, don’t be too focused on connecting with a specific person. Be open to networking with anyone.

What are some ways to determine if a person or organization might make a good potential partner/client for your small business?
Know what your strengths are, and find people to complement them or make up for your weaknesses. Why struggle with doing something you don’t like if there’s somebody else who is good at it?  Shedding that burden is mutually beneficial, and even liberating.

What should one do to make the most of a networking opportunity, both for you and the people you want to meet/work with?

  • Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the person, firm, or industry.
  • Be conversational. There’s nothing wrong with small talk, because that’s often how you really get to know people. 
  • Thank them in person, and with follow-up note/email. Let them know you appreciate them and their time
  • Be responsive. Networking is a two-way street. If someone wants to network with you, follow up on it.

Patience is obviously important when developing relationships with potential partners/clients. Are there ways to help move things along without being “pushy” or potentially damaging the relationship?
Always be respectful of their time, which is precious. Offer to meet up for lunch, or coffee somewhere along their commute. Going out of your way to meet that person’s likes and lifestyle will mean a lot.

What aspects of a business relationship/alliance can be done via the proverbial “handshake,” and what aspects should be formalized into agreements?
We like to think we can still get by in business on a handshake, but that’s not always realistic or acceptable. At the same time, though, a legal document isn’t always necessary. If you and a business partner have come to an agreement, write up a letter or email memorandum of understanding summing up what you discussed, who’s responsible for what, and so forth. Along with ensuring mutual agreement, it gives everyone something to refer back to. After all, memories do fade, and people sometimes simply forget they committed to something.

A business relationship/alliance can go in many directions as it evolves. What are some ways to ensure that they remain mutually beneficial and fair to all involved?
Regularly communicate with your partners, and not just about transactions. Ask what’s working or not working. If there’s a problem, it’s better to know about it and try to work things out rather than just assuming everything’s OK, or avoiding the issue. 

Should you feel you’re not being treated fairly in the relationship, what are some tips for resolving the issue?
Speak up. Don’t assume other person knows the situation or what you’re thinking. Be specific about what you discuss, with good examples of what’s been done and how they affected you. And recognize that if these issues cannot be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, ending the relationship may well be the best course of action.

Many small businesses and non-profits look to grants for funding. What are some tips for preparing a successful application?

  • Do your homework…again. Grant-providing organizations have become very narrow in terms of the types of activities they support, what an applicant is required to provide, and expectations once a grant is awarded.
  • Look for matching grants. If you can bring something to the table for the grantor organization to match, it shows you have a stake in the project, and are capable of raising additional funds for it. 
  • Be ethical. That should go without saying.
  • Ask for feedback. If you don’t get the grant, ask why and if there are ways to improve your application. It may well be that you didn’t receive the grant because they receive large number of other worthy applications, or there was limited money available this year.

Is grant-writing the same as preparing a business plan, or is special expertise helpful?
A business plan is designed to attract investors, partners, or customers, while a grant application is all about meeting a grantor’s specific criteria for receiving funds. They are two different documents, and doing one doesn’t mean you can do the other. It’s best to tap the expertise of someone who specializes in writing grants. Note, however, that their compensation varies. Some write grants for a flat fee while others charge a percentage of the grant amount being requested.

How can working with an experienced mentor help a small business implement and fulfill its growth strategy, particularly when things don’t go as planned?
Owning a small business can be lonely at times. And if things aren't going well at some point, it may be hard to confide in family or friends or to know where to look for reliable help. A SCORE mentor will be non-judgmental and objective. He or she will listen as you explain everything you’re facing, then help you come up with an action plan. But don’t look to SCORE only when there’s a problem. Growth can be scary sometimes too, and not everyone knows how to handle it. SCORE mentors can help walk you through this process as well.

What’s the best, most lasting piece of advice you’ve received during your business career?
A mentor once told me, “You can’t outrun your reputation.” To me, this means two things:

  • Fulfill your commitments, do your best job, and treat people well.
  • Know yourself and how others perceive you. Perception really does equal reality. You want to know how you stand in their eyes.

About the Author(s)

David Bobbitt

David R. Bobbitt is the former President of the The SCORE Foundation. A serial entrepreneur and star of the documentary Small Business Revolution, he holds an MBA from Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

Former President, The SCORE Foundation