I believe that today’s entrepreneurs can gain huge benefits from business networking. When I worked as MD for one of Richard Branson’s Virgin companies, I attended countless lunches, launches, cocktail parties and conferences, all with a distinctly corporate feel to them. This is why I understand why many business people today throw up their hands in horror at the thought of networking.

But I’m not referring to the stiff corporate handshakes and formal exchange of business cards, but a new, more enjoyable form of networking, which aims to help entrepreneurs and start-ups feel part of a supportive community and gives them a chance to learn from each other’s experiences. If you’re still dubious, here are some “rules” to help you get to grips with the new business networking:

Thou shalt not start with a card
Networking means more than business cards and handshakes today – it is the sharing of experiences, personal and professional, and the chance to learn from one another and be inspired in an informal business environment, without ‘the big sell’. Backing this up, recent T-Mobile research found nearly half (43%) of female business leaders see business cards as one of the least important assets to a company.

Thou shalt mix business with pleasure
It is a reflection of how busy our lives are that we can no longer distinctly separate the personal from the professional. If you ask me, we should embrace the fact that we can now socialise and informally enjoy our peers’ company within a business context – why shouldn’t an educational discussion about a tax return at a networking event be followed by a burlesque dancing demonstration, for instance?

Thou shalt shout about thy achievements 
It is amazing how modest many entrepreneurs can be, particularly those in the creative industries, who may naturally shy away from corporate formalities. With the help of a supportive business network, their achievements can be publicised for them, as word of their talents spreads organically through the group.

Thou shalt admit thy weaknesses
On the flip side to this, by admitting our failings to our peers we are effectively asking them for help. There is a real sense of community spirit amongst entrepreneurs today and many will volunteer their time and services to help you, in the hope you’d do the same for them.

Thou shalt not have a masterplan
Business networks are a great place to start if you are looking for inspiration for a new business, particularly for those who lost their job during the recession and are feeling unsure of their options. This can lead to dramatic and exciting career changes. They also offer an accessible talent pool to find your ideal business partner – for instance, one of my meetings brought together a nutritionist and a personal trainer, who have now formed a healthy lifestyle company.

Thou shalt get out of the office
Don’t feel guilty for abandoning your office duties and attending a networking event. The knowledge and contacts you gain through getting out and about are worth the time away. Having access to a smartphone means you won’t feel too guilty. I was late to join the BlackBerry party but, having just completed a week’s challenge to work out of the office with T-Mobile, I’m now an addict.

Thou shalt get on the net
Business leaders should see social networking as a cornerstone of the new business networking; a way to help them build a far wider array of contacts and gain more knowledge than was ever previously possible. However, they should not rely on it as their only means of networking. Face to face meetings will always be important.

Thou shalt make thy own rules
The great thing about today’s business networks is their diversity. A small amount of research will help you identify the type of network that is right for you and meet like-minded business people. The new business networking is all about breaking away from convention but don’t take my word for it – try it for yourself and make up your own rules!