By David Norris
There are those who build and maintain professional networks expertly … then there are those so full of B.S., every time you run into them, you feel the urge to wipe your shoes.
Unfortunately, the world is filled with terrible networkers, people who equate “networking” with spamming a near-anonymous email list every time they need a job. I get pinged every day by strangers who want to “connect” with me on LinkedIn, AngelList or other social media sites. They’ll send an invitation without a note explaining who they are or why I should bother to care.
That’s not building a network, that’s being a nuisance. I delete almost all of these requests.
On the other hand, when people send an invite with something personal (“I love that you’re a cyclist. Let’s ride sometime.”), it makes me take notice. The barrage of good, bad and ugly requests hitting my phone serve as daily reminders that effective networking follows a few simple rules:
Networking is about building relationships. This means recognizing that the “contact” on the other end of a LinkedIn request is actually a human. Just as you wouldn’t walk across a room and kiss a stranger, you shouldn’t bombard someone you don’t know with a five-page missive about your accomplishments. You need an introduction, a point of human connection.
Find a relevant reason to be chatting (“Hey, your profile picture looks as though it was taken in Nepal. I was there two years ago – it was transformative.”). This begins a dialogue, some reason to start a relationship.
As useful as social media is, nothing beats face-to-face meetings. While I am not a big fan of “networking events” (small rooms thick with anxiety and business cards), I do advise researching key industry conferences that you can attend to elevate your company’s profile.
Also, as an entrepreneur you likely meet with many potential investors. Most of those people will not end up investing, but if you take the time to build and nurture these relationships, every one who turns you down today could become a valuable part of your network into the future. Maybe they’ll invest in your next company. Or connect you to your future CFO. That 15-minute in-person “failure” could turn into a lifelong relationship of trading insights and game-changing ideas.
Once you’ve made a contact, maintain it. I will often jot down notes after speaking with someone (“Remodeling house. Wife had knee surgery.”), and I’ll send myself reminders to get back in touch with them. This keeps the person top of mind and the relationship alive.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. To build a strong network, you have to put some muscle into it. Spamming strangers won’t cut it.
If you have a passion, find another CEO or an investor who shares that passion, and go nuts. My personal kryptonite is cycling. My fiber-deep love of the sport has allowed me to invite CEOs I never met to cycling events. If they’re as enthusiastic as I am (and cyclists tend to be an enthusiastic crew) they often accept.
In fact, cycling has proven such a powerful connector, that several years ago I began putting together cycling events for companies and tradeshows around the country.
But again, be genuine. I don’t cold-call marathoners because I don’t run marathons. If your hobbies don’t lend themselves to big group activities, host a “curated party” instead.
Ask your guests to each bring one senior executive that they know who is really interesting. You will end up with the most entertaining party you’ve ever had, and a great incubator for real and lasting connections.
My friend Keith Ferrazzi, former Chief Marketing Officer at Starwood Hotels, synthesized his networking experience into a bestselling book, “Never Eat Lunch Alone.” In it he talks about how every meal is an opportunity to reinforce a relationship.
I like to take that a step further and have lunch with key contacts not only to see how they’re doing, but what I can do for them. Everybody knows someone who only calls when he needs a favor. That’s annoying.
Relationships take nurturing, and some of that nurturing requires you to be completely and altruistically useful. Try offering some help.
“Hey, I know somebody who just had that same problem in her company – want me to connect you two?”
“I just met with an investor that is looking for companies like yours – want an introduction?”
Be genuine and proactive in building and maintaining your relationships, and you will find that when you do need to send out a plaintive email (“Hey, anyone out there know a good CTO candidate?”) it will be answered by a supportive network. Not deleted by irritated strangers.
So, who are you having lunch with today?