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Your Network Determines Success More than You Realize

Dave Lu
Dave Lu
Apr 1, 2019 · 13 min read

I am an extrovert. I love meeting new people. As a result, I have been very fortunate to build an extensive network. The older I get, the more I realize how much this network has helped me get to where I am today. People underestimate the value of networking in their success. Most would say absolute success (vs. relative success) is the result of a combination of talent, hard work and luck. If you don’t have any talent, you are unlikely to offer anything of value to others. If you don’t work hard, you can’t hone your talent and build something of value. And even if you have all the talent in the world and you work non-stop, you need luck to get you exposure and opportunity. I would add that building the right network can increase your odds of success. In other words, you can create your own luck when you have a strong network.

I was inspired to write this post after coming across this article Before Social Media Killed Hollywood Nightlife in the Hollywood Reporter. I was fascinated by seeing all of these young actors cavorting in L.A. clubs before they became famous celebrities. I wondered how many were already famous before these photos were taken and most were still unknowns at the time (circa 2001). You can see a photo of a young Jason Momoa ten years prior to his breakout role as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones and now the billion dollar Aquaman. There’s a photo of Scarlett Johansson who wouldn’t have her breakout role in Lost in Translation until 2003. It would make sense if they were already celebrities that they would run in the same social circles, but that was not the case. It seems like too much of a coincidence that so many of the photos show so many young actors and actresses together before they made it. Obviously these are selective photos and there are probably dozens of others with people who didn’t make it big, but the fact remains that these future Oscar-winners and blockbuster movie stars were connected before they were famous. One must wonder to what degree they helped one another get there along the way through introductions and access.

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Punani Thursdays at The Lounge in the early 2000s drew (from left) Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Gwen Stefani, now-cryptocurrency entrepreneur Les Borsai and, crouching, actor Taj Johnson. Source: Pantera Sarah

Just the other day, I was visiting the Gauguin exhibit at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. I noticed that Paul Gauguin was friends with Camille Pissarro and it struck me how many of the masters were socially acquainted. I always thought that it was an odd coincidence that the great Impressionists were all friends (and they were most definitely not already famous at the time). In fact, most of them were rejects of the prestigious Paris Salon and were forced to exhibit their work at the Salon des Refusés (French for exhibition of rejects) in 1863. Paul Cézanne briefly attended the Atelier Suisse with Camille Pissarro and in 1862 became lifelong friends with Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet. In 1894, he visited Monet in Giverny who introduced Cézanne to Auguste Rodin and critic Gustave Geffroy. Once again, it clearly is too much of a coincidence that all of these great artists knew one another before they became famous. A week after I saw the exhibit I came upon this timely article: Artists Become Famous through Their Friends, Not the Originality of Their Work. This interactive network diagram from the MoMa demonstrates the power of connections with Wassily Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso in the center. The study performed by Columbia Business School professor Paul Ingram and his colleague Mitali Banerjee, of HEC Paris, found that “artists with a large and diverse network of contacts were most likely to be famous, regardless of how creative their art was…Specifically, the greatest predictor of fame for an artist was having a network of contacts from various countries.”

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Andy Warhol, Photograph of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bryan Ferry, Julian Schnabel, Jacqueline Beaurang, Paige Powell, and others at a party Julian Schnabel’s Apartment. Hedges Projects

Obviously it’s hard to know whether these groups of friends would go on to succeed the way they did, but they clearly were talented. All of this assumes a minimum base level of talent in order to succeed or even be accepted into the network. I dreamed of being the first Asian-American NBA star as a ten year-old. But it wouldn’t have mattered how many NBA scouts, GMs or owners I knew, because I didn’t have the physical talent or basketball IQ to be Jeremy Lin (although I did have a mean jump shot). The point is that in order to improve your chances of success, you need to invest in your network. Your network can grant you access to opportunities.

I am Not Throwing Away My Shot

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The PayPal Mafia. Credit: Robyn Twomey/Redux

In the world of startups, your network grants you access to capital, talent, partnerships and much more. Access gives you a leg up on your competition and helps you win. Social capital leads to human capital and financial capital. When you know the right people you can recruit the best talent through your network and you can get in front of the best investors. The PayPal Mafia is the prime example of the power of your network. Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim were all at PayPal before starting YouTube which was funded by Sequoia partner Roelof Botha who was also at PayPal. Jeremy Stoppelman started Yelp with Russel Simmons and was funded by Max Levchin, all PayPal alumni. Yes, individually they were all talented and had the potential to succeed, but having those critical relationships improved their odds.

As an early employee at Yahoo!, I was fortunate enough to know many of those who went on to do amazing things. My friend Albert Lee was a fellow product manager who went on to build MyFitnessPal into a $500 million company and raised money from Andrew Braccia, who was in business development with us at Yahoo! long before he became the influential partner at Accel that went on to invest in Slack, Etsy, HotelTonight, 99Designs and Braintree. Albert is now an investor in my company Pared. The next generation of mafias are coming out of the unicorns of Uber and AirBnb as some graduate to the venture world and others become founders that they invest in. Powerful networks such as Y Combinator, a handful of MBA programs and premium portfolios such as First Round Capital are force multipliers for these networks.

Networks grant access. Access increases opportunities. Capitalizing on opportunities leads to success. Timing and talent are important factors, but having the right network to leverage when you need it vastly improves your probability of success. In other words, like in surfing, you have to be in the right position to catch the big wave when it comes. Your network sets you up to take advantage of that wave instead of being behind and desperately paddling to catch up it.

How to Build Your Network

Create Value for Others

Stay Connected

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At least put a little effort into it.

Never Be Afraid to Ask

Don’t Limit Yourself to One Network or Domain

Always Be Supportive

Say Yes and Don’t Expect Anything in Return

Be Proactive and Connect Others

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Hunter Walk knows a lot of good people and is a proactive connector.

I hate “networking” as much as the next person. When I see a someone superficially schmoozing, I roll my eyes too. People can generally tell when someone is trying too hard and clearly just want something. The people with the strongest networks are the ones who build real relationships because those are the ties that you can count on. Friends always ask me how I know so many people. My superpower is that I have a somewhat photographic memory for faces which helps me to remember people, although this has declined with age. I could remember someone I met only briefly over twenty years ago or see a photo of someone and remember the context (this has definitely freaked people out). This has obviously been a powerful gift when building my network, but it’s more important that I remember the things that matter to people I meet because I care enough to remember. Be yourself. Be authentic. If you genuinely care about people, they will sense that. Invest generously in others and you will see returns for a lifetime.

If you enjoyed this post, please check out some of my other Medium articles:

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Dave Lu

Written by

Dave Lu

Co-founder @ Pared. Lead @ Hyphen Capital. Proud Taiwanese-American dad. Passionate about marketplaces and communities.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Dave Lu

Written by

Dave Lu

Co-founder @ Pared. Lead @ Hyphen Capital. Proud Taiwanese-American dad. Passionate about marketplaces and communities.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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