[This post was originally published on GeekWire, February 18, 2012. The original version included a misrepresentation of Neil Patel’s views on networking and was corrected soon after it was published. See the comment thread their for Neil’s response. and to see me lambasted for blowing it.]
First, a big thanks to Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman for stepping up and delivering a thoughtful and illuminating presentation at the recent
Startup Conference in Seattle. I was enlightened, inspired and entertained… and I’m sure the audience of nascent entrepreneurs was as well.
For the record, I don’t know Glenn personally but I’ve bumped into him a couple of times at awards ceremonies and the TechStars offices. And while I share 17 LinkedIn connections with Glenn, I’m quite certain he’d squint, look at you funny and say “who” if you ever mentioned my name in his presence.
I don’t have a bone to pick with Glenn and I admire his accomplishments. I’m also not trying to pick a fight… really.
It’s just that Glenn is flat wrong when he told an audience of 300 budding entrepreneurs at The Startup Conference that networking is “a waste of time.” I honestly couldn’t believe what I was hearing. To be fair, he qualified his remarks a bit… but only a tiny bit. I considered calling him out during the Q&A, but balked. Time to rectify.
Networking is critical for early-stage entrepreneurs. If you have the resume, reputation, personal connections and resources that Glenn has, then there are probably more advantageous ways to spend your time. But if you don’t (and most of you don’t) then listen up — a great deal of the very best things that are going to happen for you and your startup are going to come from the people you know. So you be better be busy getting to know the right people.
Glenn already knows a ton of the right people… which puts him one phone call away from two tons more. That’s so awesome for him, and he’s earned every bit of it. But if you can’t pick up the phone and get a relevant and meaningful introduction into anyone you need to… then head his advice at your peril.
Here’s what I wish Glenn would have said:
“I don’t network much but I don’t need to. You do. Here’s a few tips to help you make the most of it, i.e., to keep from wasting your time.”
1) Have a mission: If you’re out there networking without an idea of who it makes sense for you to meet then that’s not really networking… it’s partying. Know the kind of people you want to meet and why. But don’t be a jerk and turn your nose up at anyone who doesn’t fit your profile. Some time the best connections are not obvious at first and serendipity is a powerful force in the startup world (just ask Dan Shapiro.)
In my experience, the best folks for nascent entrepreneurs to meet are other entrepreneurs, thought leaders in their industry and skilled professionals that have an appetite for startups, e.g., engineers and designers. Investors are good to meet at events too but usually just to get to know them… not to pitch them. If you don’t have your shit together or your just not very confident about engaging investors then be careful — start with entrepreneurs who are good at engaging investors and learn from them first.
2) Stick your damn hand out: I was really bad at networking early in my entrepreneurial career. I very rarely did it and when I did I sucked at it. If I didn’t know anyone at the event, then I was the guy who’d stand in the corner with a beer in his hand waiting for someone to come up and ask me what I do. If I knew folks at the event, then I would spend all of my time in comfortable conversation with them. So stupid!
I had no clue about how to engage folks and I didn’t accomplish much. Yep, it was just like Glenn: Just about every minute I spent “networking” was indeed a waste of time. But it’s not because networking per se is a waste of time… it’s because I wasted the opportunity.
What I should have been doing is walking up to folks I didn’t know, introducing myself with a handshake and asking them what they do! Lesson learned.
3) Be sincere and add value to the conversation: Don’t go on and on about yourself and your startup. Ask them questions and listen to their answers. Then try to think of some way to help them. An article you read… a similar company you just heard about… your perspective as a potential customer… your thoughts about their business model… is there someone you can offer to introduce them to? If you do this well, they’ll return the favor. If listening and helping don’t feel like natural behaviors for you then you may have some things to work on besides writing code and tweaking your SEO.
4) Learn how to disengage gracefully: Everyone you start a conversation with may not be someone you want to continue a conversation with. If it’s not a good fit, then it’s better for everyone if you figure out a way to politely and respectfully break away and go find the next person to chat with. One tactic that is very useful (and actually good for the person you want to break away from) is to suggest to them that there’s someone else there that it would be good for them to meet. Keep this in mind while you’re meeting folks… you may just want to connect them with someone later.
5) Quality matters… a lot: Lots of traditional networking events have a very low signal-to-noise ratio, i.e., there will be a lot of people there whom you’ll want to politely break away from. This is especially a challenge where events draw a lot of service providers who consider you fresh meat. Remember, that free beer and food was paid for by someone and they consider it a marketing expense… so be prepared to be marketed to. When you run into one that you don’t want to spend time with, tell them you like their shoes and move on. They know how the game is played and they won’t hold it against you. Again… just don’t be a jerk about it.
6) Go do something! Networking doesn’t just happen at “events.” In fact, the very best networking happens away from networking events. It happens on the golf course, along a hiking trail, around a poker table, at a ball game, over a cup of coffee.
7) Networking is a worthwhile investment: Building meaningful relationships with relevant people takes time and effort. As I said at the outset, a lot (I’d say most) of the really good things that happen for you and your startup are going to come from people you know. You can’t force it and you can’t rush it but you can get started on it. Be selective and deliberate and know what you want. And remember too that a lot of benefits of a strong network will be invisible to you. When people talk about you when you’re not around, what do they say? Are they inclined to vouch for you when asked? Are they likely to refer you to the strongest parts of their network? Are they going to spot the opportunities to bring you up in conversations that might be relevant to your startup? Is it hard to imagine that having a strong network is worthwhile?
8) Pay it forward: If you’re always taking and never giving back, then your network is not as strong as you think. If you’re seriously hoping to build a terrific company, entice an amazing team, engage high-caliber advisors or raise funding… guess what… they all know each other and before they sign on to you.com they’re likely to ask around. If you’re just a taker, then I guarantee you that your network is much less likely to pass you on to their network. So, be a good startup citizen and look for opportunities to help others. I think you should do this because it’s the right thing to do. But if you don’t buy all that fuzzy-helpy stuff, then just know that you have a reputation whether you like it or not.