Networking: What if I meet someone who does the same thing I do?

When networking, it is entirely possible that you are going to meet someone offering the same sort of service you do. What should you do in this situation?

1. Run away as soon as possible
2. Blank them
3. Be cagey about what you do so they don’t realise you’re in competition
4. Greet them like a long lost relative

The answer, a little counter-intuitively, is ‘4’, especially if they’re successful.

The main point of networking is not to land a new client there and then. It is to increase the contacts you have out in the world, and impress them enough that they will refer you to someone else when they meet someone who wants your service.

Who meets lots of people who might need your service? Someone who does the same thing as you and gets out and about a lot.

Who won’t be able to handle a project that comes up when they’re already busy? Someone who is better at finding work than you.

Through networking, you are likely to find a person who is both of these things. But the useful bit to you is…

Who is most likely able to refer work to you? Someone who does the same thing as you, and who is good at sourcing work.

When you are good at finding work, it is much easier to pass projects you don’t want on to someone else than it is to just say “No” to a prospective client. It stops the client trying to convince you to work for them after all, because they have a lead they can follow instead.

Admittedly, not everyone is likely to be this way, but it doesn’t hurt chatting to someone who does the same thing as you at a networking event (or tech event, conference, coworking space, wherever.) The chat will likely be interesting because you have a lot in common, and it’s not like they can get hold of your clients anyway as you don’t have to tell them exactly who your clients are.

Personal history

When I was first freelance, I used to go to a lot of local networking events. Ecademy (a general business group), lots of tech groups which have passed in to history, Wired Sussex events, and the Farm.

The Farm had the highest number of people who did what I do. I even met the person who wrote the PHP book I used to learn to programme in PHP. I felt I was never going to be able to show him any of my code!

The weird thing was, of all the places I networked, I received the most work from people in the Farm. Before I was freelance, I presumed you never had too much work on, or if you did, that you’d hire people to do it for you. Now I am an experienced freelancer and good at finding work, I know it is common to be fully booked and be turning away work offers, and that hiring staff or subcontracting work to others is a lot harder than I presumed it would be.

Now, when I get asked to quote on a project I can’t fit in, I supply the potential client with the details of people I’ve met and I know can fulfil their needs. I take the time to connect the two of them, if someone is a friend and I know is looking for work at the moment. It takes a little longer, but it’s a great feeling when I hear about a project that’s going well because I took a few minutes to put two people who need each other in touch.

Why refer all that work away rather than just saying “No”?

What goes around comes around. I now know lots and lots of people who owe me favours after sending them work. When I say I’m light on work and could do with a bit more, they send me leads when they see them. They’re more than happy to help me in the same way I’ve helped them, and they know I’ll do the same in future.

A sales force you don’t pay

Effectively, my “network”, the people in my profession I know and get on with, are my occasional sales force. They are sure I can do a good job, and the ones I haven’t sent leads to know I’m the sort of person who will when I get a chance. When they have the chance to send something my way, they will. Or at least they will enough times that I haven’t been lacking for work in 14 years.

So if you’re nervous of meeting someone who does the same thing as you when you’re networking, I say: Don’t be! Get them a drink! Have a chat, you never know what it might turn in to. That person might be the most successful sales person you’ll never need to pay, and as a bonus, they might turn in to a friend too.

Don't miss any of our freelancing tips by joining our mailing list:

More advice for freelancers