One of the coldest truths about startup is that it’s pretty freaking lonely.
I don’t mean lonely in the sense that we spend long days in front of flickering laptop screens in dark, windowless basements. No, in that sense, startup is actually kind of social.
When I say startup is lonely, I mean there aren’t a lot of places to turn when we feel like we’re going it alone. Even within the ranks of a well-formed company — I don’t do what Scot does, Ryan doesn’t do what I do. We’re all playing off our own experience and making the rest up as we go.
Startup is a career. It’s not a hobby, it’s not a lifestyle, it’s not a job. All careers require a network to help shape a person’s growth. So like everyone else, entrepreneurs and startup people need an outlet for everything from connections to continuous learning to problem solving to letting off steam.
So we network.
In 20 years doing startup, I’ve learned there are all sorts of questions and even arguments as to how much time a startup person should spend networking, where they should network, with whom, and what they should do when they get there.
Well, as it happens, I also spent three years building and growing a startup networking platform that went local to regional to national to acquired.
So I’ve got answers.
How much networking is too much?
I don’t want to debate this argument but I will rehash it.
One side says that if you’re serious about your startup, you should be spending 110% of your time making, selling, and executing. The other side says that if you’re building your startup in a vacuum, you’ll get tunnel vision and fail anyway.
Well, both sides are right. Startup has a lot of paradoxes like that. But experience has always shown me that if an entrepreneur can’t self-impose limits on how much networking is good for their startup journey, they probably don’t have the discipline to be an entrepreneur for very long anyway.
What I’m saying is you’ll figure it out.
Where should you network?
I’m not in your town. Probably. So while I can’t tell you exactly where to go, I can give you an idea of where not to go. Then you can narrow it down by process of elimination.
The most obvious place to start is with events hosted by your local startup support organizations, if you have them. And if you don’t, then make one.
I started ExitEvent back in 2010 — not because my town didn’t have support orgs and events, we did. But having already been an entrepreneur in my town for over 10 years at that point, I got tired of going to startup events and being one of a small number of entrepreneurs in attendance, if not the only one.
I had also spent a bunch of time in places like San Francisco, New York, and Austin — startup ecosystems where the entrepreneurs took the organizational lead. If your town has reached that point, and the startup support events are attended by, or better yet hosted by, other startup people, then go.
The next best places to network are industry or market-related events and conferences. You want to meet customers and competition, so it makes sense to go to where they gather.
As an aside, if you’re raising money or planning to, any event or conference where investors are the lead, that’s obviously a solid ticket.
On the flip side, I’d avoid most startup immersion events and conferences —unless it’s industry targeted or you’ve got a table or a speaking slot. Believe me, you should be immersed in entrepreneurship every day, you don’t need to pay to be extra-immersed at the local convention center.
While I’m at it, please don’t do pitch contests. They go against everything I believe in as a career entrepreneur. There’s just something off about turning a pitch into a sideshow, having to stand up on a stage and make all the same gestures and say all the same bullshit as everyone else. I blame Shark Tank.
Who should you network with?
Of course, your general strategy should be to meet everyone. You don’t have to be BFFs with all of them, but you never know where that next valuable connection will come from. That said, here are the types of folks you want to proactively seek out.
Other Entrepreneurs: Especially locally, the value of having a network of other entrepreneurs can not be overstated. And they don’t have to have exited or be serial or even successful entrepreneurs, as long as they’re working entrepreneurs. These folks are great resources for trading information, solving problems, making connections and introductions, and just generally knowing what you’re going through as you’re going through it.
Investors: Contrary to popular belief, venture capital and angel investors don’t just fly in and drop money into ventures. If you’re raising money or planning to raise, you should be building relationships well in advance.
Even if you’re not raising money and never plan to, investors know more about what it takes to get a startup profitable than most people on the planet. They’re also great at making connections.
Advisors: Every startup should have a formal advisory board and an informal advisor pool. These are people, maybe entrepreneurs maybe not, who have had success in the business or industry or market you’re taking on. If it’s someone you really want to get help from formally, be prepared to pay or offer equity. If it’s informal, make sure they have some incentive to meet with you. They probably get tons of requests.
Local executives: Don’t sleep on the power of the local corporate executive. These are door openers, potentially to customers or advisors or investors or employees.
Friends: A good chunk of my friends have come out of business networking. Just remember to keep your friends and your work separate. You’ll want someone you can complain to.
How should you network?
Honestly, you should do networking in the way you’re most comfortable with. But if you’re going to go out and network, don’t waste your time not meeting people. I’m speaking from experience here because I’ve gotten pretty good at one-on-one but I still hate almost every second of it.
Suck it up, meet everyone, maximize your time. Be nice.
Here’s an insider tip: At any kind of networking happy hour, finish two-thirds of your drink and hang out by the bar like you’re just about to order another one. Then meet people all night.
Keep a list of who you met, what you talked about, and any next steps, even if that next step is do nothing. It’s like your own personal CRM. I know it sounds plastic and awful, but I started doing it a few years ago, and it makes a huge difference in the value of those relationships.
I’m always surprised when entrepreneurs aren’t familiar with the investor email — this is a once-a-month update on the quantitative and qualitative progress of your company, and it should go to current and potential investors, stakeholders, backers, and anyone else who might have a hand in helping you grow the company. I’m not an investor anymore, but I get about 30–40 of these a month. It never hurts to ask someone if you can add them to your investor email.
This is less of a rule and more of a guideline: Any business relationship should be three meetings and out. We do indeed have to be careful of how much time we spend building relationships that aren’t directly related to the bottom line. So by the third meeting with a networking contact, we should be able to categorize what role this person fits into.
Two exceptions to that guideline. One: If they’re a potential customer or investor, they move out of the networking pool and into the business pool, and you should keep the contact going. Two: If they’re a really cool person that you just enjoy talking to, they can always be your friend.
You can never have too many friends.