Networking is just like actual work. There is a significant social component to networking, which also means that some people don’t like to do it. Talking to people in a larger social setting is not for everyone. I have good news though…
…Networking doesn’t mean you have to socialize at every event or conference. Networking is building sustainable connections with people, based on mutual respect and added value. The value of a network is having relationships in your network who can rely on you when needed, and you can rely on the network. That will be difficult if there is no mutual respect and real added value.
As a founder you're juggling between growing the business, scaling your team, building partnerships and balancing finances. Expanding and maintaining a network can be very useful in a fast-changing environment. Especially when your startup is growing, you will likely need to hire more talented people, build partnerships in new markets, and work with investors if you’re fundraising. All of this will be easier if you have a network that can provide you with the necessary access to resources.
Where to start
Any network consists of nodes (definition: a point in a network or diagram at which lines or pathways intersect or branch). You are likely a node in someone’s network as others are in your network.
The moment you start consciously building a network it’s helpful to first understand your added value to others (who’s node are you?). This could be around your knowledge of an industry, an experience you have acquired while traveling, or a social group you’re a part of. As we mature, we build skills we are not always aware of. A good exercise is to draw your lifeline (extensive overview of past experiences), and highlight what could be of value to others. Although this exercise might sound unnecessary, you’ll be surprised how valuable your past experiences are to others.
Once you have identified which networks you want or should be a part of, you should start canvassing your existing social trusted network for introductions. This is where the work starts because the connection you’re looking for could be 2 or 3 connections away. Here is where the trusted part of the network is crucial. You want others to vouch for you and be your ambassador when they make introductions. If you’re able to get a connection through your existing network the second hard part starts. My advice is to not ask for anything at first. Founders ask me how I have been able to build and sustain an international network. One of the most important things I had to learn was:
- Don’t ask for anything, and
- Learn to listen
Why is this so important? The short of it is, you don’t want to waste anyone’s time especially if you get connected to them for the first time. The most common reaction is to ask a new valuable connection for a favor: "can you help me with x" or "can I pick your brain over coffee". Without having any context or knowing if they have time for you, the best thing you can do is not ask for anything but listen. Be genuinely interested. If the first thing you do is ask for a favor, the other party will immediately sense the relationship is only transactional without knowing what the benefit is for them. Listening first and understanding how the relationship can be beneficial for both parties will help you get stronger connections over time. You will be able to help others once you get a grasp of their background, goals, and needs. You might want to introduce them to someone in your network or show your expertise of a market which is valuable in their research. It doesn’t take much effort to listen, and more importantly, the multiplier is huge if you do it right. Not only can you ask this connection to be of value to you, but you can also rely on them to make more introductions and expand your network.
How to get a trusted social network
Building a network is easier said than done. I mentioned earlier that networking is actual work. To help you on your way, here are a few practical tips I used to grow my network.
- Sharing your expertise: Your network needs to understand the value you can bring to the table. The best way to do that is to showcase your knowledge and experiences. You don’t have to put a TedX keynote together and speak at big conferences (although that would be helpful). Prepare a 30–60 minute workshop and ask relevant conferences to add you to the program. You can always share this content on online media to maximize impact. Another great way to showcase your expertise is to write guest blogs. Content is king. Short articles around your experiences are always useful to startup-communities. Lastly, being active on boards, advisory groups or social communities is an effective way to share your expertise and grow your network.
- Selectively attend events (but come prepared): Attending events are always a good way to expand your network but don’t overdo it. They also take up a lot of your time. You’ll get the most out of an event if you come prepared. Hitting up all the speakers is difficult because their schedules are usually packed going into the event. The good thing is they usually have more representatives from their company at the event. Look them up and try to meet them. It gives you access to the organization (noted, that it requires some work to source the names/attendees of conferences). If you’re a starting founder and aren’t able to pay for a conference ticket….be innovative! Conferences are usually held at or close to a hotel. Networking in the lobby of that hotel can be valuable for meeting new people. Also, think out of the box. As a founder, you want to attend the big tech events, but don’t underestimate industry events. For instance, if you run an e-commerce fashion startup you also want to network at retail, fashion and real estate conferences (if you’re doing pop up stores).
- Host small events: Perhaps one of the best things that worked for me throughout the years is hosting small events. Small events are as small as hosting a five-person dinner around a topic or common interest. I have always appreciated the value of intimate conversations with people from different backgrounds. Organize small events the way you see fit. If you’re a fan of running, try and organize something around a breakfast run. My golden rule for small events is that you leave it open for people you have never met. You can ask your invitees to bring a plus one who is not in your network. The importance of small events is that you don’t make them transactional. Networking is a long game and the essence of these events is to build trust and real connections.
Networking is about bringing something to the table as supposed taking something off the table.