We’re a couple of days away from VMWare’s Futurenet. Our whole team will be attending. On the one hand, this will be really nice: I’ll get the chance to visit Las Vegas (Sin City is on my bucket list) and we’ll have our awesome advisor Rodrigo Fonseca along as well.
On the other hand, I’ll have to do networking.
Let me clarify (since I mention Futurenet above): I don’t mean networking as in the computer science discipline that’s discussed here on reddit. Rather, I mean business networking.
It sounds like quite a few other people share my uncomfortable feelings for the practice. Just recently, Adam Grant published a NYT piece on the topic, and one of my favorite VCs Brad Feld chimed in as well. The gist of their argument is that doing something interesting will draw people to you. Networking for networking’s sake seems to be less effective in creating the types of lasting connections people find valuable. Grant notes:
It’s true that networking can help you accomplish great things. But this obscures the opposite truth: Accomplishing great things helps you develop a network. […]
If you make great connections, they might advance your career. If you do great work, those connections will be easier to make. Let your insights and your outputs — not your business cards — do the talking.
In a follow up post, Grant explains that this helps the introverts who would rather be working on something, without the pressure to be out there. Feld also admits to being an introvert.
I can see why introverts would not like networking, but that doesn’t apply to me. I consider myself an extrovert and I thrive on meeting and interacting with people. I’ve also gotten progressively better at talking and listening to people talk for long periods of time — it might as well be a prerequisite for MBAs (especially the talking bit). Those aspects of networking I don’t mind at all, in fact we could even say I enjoy them. Rather, I hate networking for a different reason, one that both Grant and Feld touch on.
Traditional networking feels icky in the same way cold emailing feels icky. I hate hitting up people with a request of their time /money / social capital and not feeling like I am offering something in return.
This gets us back to Give and Take, a book by Adam Grant that’s also mentioned in Feld’s post. I read this book in June and absolutely loved it. Grant offers up interesting arguments about how people tend to be either givers, takers or “matchers” when it comes to their interpersonal dealing. Most people are matchers, meaning that they’ll give something to people who they think will give back or they’ll match a good deed. Takers take more than they give and are sometimes perceived as selfish, which penalizes them in their relationships. Givers give more than they take (surprise, surprise…) which either makes them extremely successful in certain conditions or leads to burnout.
I wish I could tell you that I am one of Grant’s successful givers. We all like to think of ourselves as good and successful people. But if I’m honest, I’d say I lean towards matching.
I think this is the reason why networking in the traditional sense makes me so uncomfortable. I realize I’ve had some personal success so far, but statistically speaking I am still at the beginning of my professional career. I could also have done better — I’m no Zuckerberg or Larry & Sergey (by a long shot LOL). There are some things I can give, but it’s not enough yet in my view. So naturally, if I feel there isn’t a lot to give yet, I also feel strange about taking — which is how I perceive a lot of the networking that goes on around me: “Let’s meet superficially so I can ask for a favor down the line.” In all though, this is definitely something that’s made me miss some opportunities.
When I moved back to the States to get my MBA, it took me more than six months to get comfortable with cold emailing people such as alums of our school. This just doesn’t really happen in Europe (or at least I hadn’t done it before), and the matcher in me felt it was wrong. To this day it feels relatively strange, although I’ve gotten over the sheer panic I experienced before. Some of my classmates were more successful in their internship searches because of more aggressive networking. I wonder what could have been had I had the courage to cold email earlier in the year.
It gets much easier to network or cold email when I feel I am doing it for others though. That’s why in the past year, pretty much everyone I’ve reached out to in the venture capital world first gets this ask from me: would you be available to host a lunch/talk at the student club I run? This way, I hope the balance is tipped away from taking: high caliber people generally enjoy teaching students. Many times getting themselves in front of others helps build their brand for later too.
I’m using a similar reframing for the networking I’ll try to do at Futurenet. Yes, I do want to meet people in the industry, but not just because I want to ask them for free money. I want to help solve a genuine problem for them.
Hopefully that works. If not, there’s always some gambling in Vegas to help wipe away the aftertaste of selfishness.