Networking Will Make/Break Your Startup

Don’t do this.

Over the last two years, I have built an incredibly strong network across all industries. People often ask me how I did it, therefore, I decided to write about it. I want to present to you three scenarios I have experienced, then discuss some tips for you to successfully network when in similar situations.

Scenario 1: MIT Pitch2Match

Pitching @ MIT Pitch2Match

At MIT’s annual event you can pitch in front of a crowd of startup enthusiasts, where you spend one minute describing your startup or your skill set. The goal is to connect people and build startups. Most of the students were from Harvard and MIT, but a few other schools around Boston were there. I was from Babson, but I knew I could pitch and had no fear in regard to presenting to a room full of people.

You might ask, “How is pitching your startup networking?” To me, this is the greatest type of networking. When you are sitting in the audience you often only speak to those around you. When you are in front of the room you exhibit a level of confidence and have a chance to make the audience interested. Most people will go out of their way to speak to a presenter.

Tips from Scenario 1:

  1. Find a way to get in front of the room. It allows you to network efficiently and gives you a platform to meet everyone in the room. Even if audience members do not approach you directly after presenting, people know who you are, which makes starting a conversation incredibly easy. It also makes it easy to contact you, as long as you post your email, website, etc.
  2. If you are a startup, wear a branded jacket or t-shirt. For example, when people see my jacket they often ask, “Tell me more about Shelfie.” This allows me to showcase my passion for my startup and gain new members for my network. Always read the person. If their interest in what you are working on declines, shift the conversation towards learning more about them.
  3. Networking as an introvert can be interesting. I am incredibly introverted (INFJ) but most people never find that out at these types of events. It is rare for us introverts to start a conversation, but once you give us a chance, it can be hard to get us to stop talking. Smile, join a group that is having fun and is clearly extroverted and then let them bring you into the conversation. That has been my strategy and I have certainly found success

Scenario 2: Cold Contacting

I will show two example emails that I actually wrote. One will be if you are a student entrepreneur. The other will be if you are out of school. Both were successful.

The left is an email I sent as a student, while the right was sent post-graduation.

Tips from Scenario 2:

  1. If you are a student, leverage the fact that you have a .edu email. People LOVE helping students. If you are not a student, all hope is not lost. In both cases, make sure to show the person you know about their work and want to hear more. Showing your interests and pursuit of knowledge is important for learning. The email on the right is to show you more about a warm introduction — the best type. Cold emailing is a whole different art once out of school.
  2. Do not ask for anything other than to learn. Do not sell them on anything but you and why the relationship is beneficial.
  3. If they have posted articles, talks, etc. online, make sure to reference them. Let the person know how you found them and why a conversation is mutually beneficial. In this case, I wanted to talk to some people in the nonprofits space since this is where my startup exists.

Scenario 3: HBS Spark Conference

A few friends and I at HBS Spark

HBS Spark is a traditional conference. Sit in a large auditorium or classroom full of people and listen to someone present. This can make networking a challenge. In between sessions, there is always time to chat with other people. The easiest thing to do is ask the people around you how they are enjoying the conference, what session they went to and what they learned, and what they are studying or working on. People are at a conference to learn and meet people. It is often stranger if you do not start a conversation.

Tips from Scenario 3:

  1. Frame a problem you are going through to ask for help. If you are afraid to start a conversation, ask a question. “Hey, I am working on this product that helps nonprofits. Do you ever work with nonprofits and do you think a tool such as a social impact report would make you want to donate again?” A question allows them to speak, give input, and you can learn from them. This is an interesting tactic to gain a friend and help your business.
  2. Network with a buddy. Having a third person in the group puts less pressure on you. With two people you are either attentive or speaking. With three or more people you have flexibility. Plus, when with a friend you feel more comfortable.
  3. High energy is key. If you seem uninteresting from a distance why would someone want to speak with you? If everyone is laughing and smiling in your group, naturally people will want to join and see what all the fuss is about. Even as an introvert it is important to at least smile and be a strong listener.

Overall Tips & Tricks:

Networking with Ryan before we spoke together on a panel
  1. Always have a business card. It is professional and makes it easy to exchange contact info.
  2. Always follow-up within 24 hours. People will forget who you are if you do not.
  3. Be vulnerable. Friendships are formed around trust. Make yourself trustworthy.
  4. The best way to receive help is not by directly asking for it, but by framing it as a question you need help with. This allows them to give insights and they will lobby for you.
  5. Do not ask for immediate introductions, money, or anything that may seem desperate or rude.
  6. Everyone is there to network. Talk to them. It actually might make you seem strange if you do not.
  7. Be memorable. Your time with people is limited.
  8. People care about how you make them feel, and less about what you say.
  9. Be yourself. Do not inflate your ego or name drop. People will think you are arrogant or ask for an introduction to someone famous you claim to know, but emailed once and received a short response.
  10. Inability to be empathetic and understand people on a human level will make it incredibly difficult for you to receive help.

In Closing

Building your network will make your life and building your startup much easier. You cannot answer everything and when you are able to tap into your network, you will receive an answer or they will direct you to someone who can help.

Next month my startup is beginning to formally fundraise venture capital and when we do, I already have a list of people in my network I am ready to hire. Game on.

Brendan is a Co-Founder and CEO of Shelfie Challenge, which creates fundraising multimedia campaigns for nonprofits. For any questions or suggestions on the blog or Shelfie, please contact him: brendan@shelfiechallenge.com.

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