I remember the words well. “You must push yourself forward and speak up, or you’ll get trampled on.”

They were spoken by my primary school teacher, who was at the time trying to console me after I’d burst into tears in her class. The reason? I’d written a short story that my teacher had liked so much that she’d asked me to come to the front of the class and read it out loud to everyone. What my teacher thought of as a great honour had absolutely terrified my 8-year-old self.

My teacher’s words echoed through my head 30 years later as I sat in a draughty hall with 26 other people, all of us wearing name tags. I had recently started working for myself, and to find extra work, I’d decided to join a networking group. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

Being part of a group of 27 people—all jostling for attention—wasn’t ever going to work for me. My energy drained away, and I could feel my palms sweating and my throat drying up as the moment for each of us to stand up and give a minute-long description of our business to the rest of the group neared.

My heart threatened to leap out of my chest as my turn came, and I scraped back my chair and stood up. My words came out shakily, but I got through it. But after the meeting, I went home, shut the door, and sighed. Surely, there had to be a better way to start business relationships!

Like a great deal of introverted people, I really don’t thrive in group environments, and I like to make meaningful connections that go deeper than a brief chat about the weather.

And so my “better way” involved finding my own tribe of people to connect with. I did this by making a list of the types of people who might become my customers and then setting out to find them in my own way. I gave my business cards to my friends and family and requested that they pass them along. I searched online networking sites for people with relevant job titles, and I sent them personal messages, asking if they would be interested in working with me. I researched companies I thought would be a good fit for my work and messaged the people at the top, asking if they could possibly spare me some time.

Building connections online and through friends meant I could create a personal first impression my way: in writing or through somebody I already knew. This meant that when I met them in person, it was on an individual basis—an environment in which I could thrive. I found that people were flattered, too, to receive a personally tailored message—it showed that I had taken the time to understand who they were and what they might want from me.

My business is doing well these days, and when I look back, I suppose I did follow my teacher’s advice to “push myself forward and speak up”—just in my own, quiet, way.

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