Networking is Making Your Own Luck
By Kevin Laws
Last night, I spoke to a young entrepreneur who described a nice evening having drinks with a famous VC. The entrepreneur sent email the next day asking for positions at any of his portfolio companies. Much to his disappointment, the VC didn't respond. My friend wanted to know what he did wrong.
Contrary to my friend's expectations, networking is not about finding somebody who is going to take time and interest to promote your career. That's a friend or a mentor, but you come across those few and far between.
Networking is about serendipity: making your own luck. We've all heard of some guy who just happened to have a friend starting a business and brought them in -- only to make a million dollars later. The reason the story is not uncommon is because that's how most positions are filled. I once saw a statistic that over 92% of positions are filled through extended networks rather than traditional means (classifieds, resume sites, recruiters).
This doesn't happen when you find one person and are persistent with them, however. Networking is more about finding the person who already needs your skills, or your company, or your money. It's about being in the right place at the right time. The more places and times you are meeting people, the more likely it is that you'll find what you're looking for. It's about making your interests and needs widely known (a new job, companies to invest in, people to hire, money to raise) and listening to the interests and needs of others. Because of the FOAF concept ("friend-of-a-friend"), you are likely to run across somebody who needs what somebody else you know is offering. Eventually, that person will be you. My friend should be looking for the right person who is already seeking his skills rather than expecting somebody he met will work to help him.
It is a process, not a goal, and should be done constantly rather than only when you have a specific need. Eventually, you will be surprised at the opportunities that appear when you least expect them.
There are some very practical aspects to networking that some people do by second nature and others (like myself) need to constantly relearn.
Just Do It. With all due respect to Nike, their slogan applies to networking. How often have you been to an event where people are chatting with each other and you feel that you really don't have much to say? I always feel that way, since I'm not really an extrovert. What surprises me is that nearly everybody else at the event seems to feel that way too. Find somebody else who looks a little uncomfortable and talk to them -- they'll feel so grateful you approached them that the conversation becomes easy. "What brings you here?" is often a good icebreaker. Whatever you do, don't waste the opportunity by seeking out the people you already know well or spending your time at the drink counter.
Card anyone over 21 (or under for that matter). Carry your business card with you wherever you go. If you are a student or "between positions", then carry a card that just has your contact info or your school's information on it. When I first started in this business, it seemed crass to always include a card with every introduction. Since then, however, I've learned the value of business cards the hard way. Several weeks after an event, I come across a good connection to make, but don't have enough information to track the contact down. Forgetting cards is a cardinal sin.
Be brief. People at networking events are often there to meet others, plural, not just one person. They want to pay attention to you briefly then move on to meeting somebody else. In venture capital, we often use the term "elevator pitch" to explain how every entrepreneur should describe their company. The saying comes from the idea that you may find yourself in an elevator with a potential investor. You should be able to introduce yourself and what your company does in a memorable, concise way before the end of the elevator ride.
Be specific. When you are in the position of needing something, be very specific about what it is. I often meet people at functions who are between jobs and are looking for a position. "What do you do?" I ask. Most smart people answer with some form of "well, I've done a variety of things and am pretty flexible". Well, good -- next time I hear of a position where somebody says "well, I don't really care what the person I hire does, we'll figure it out when they arrive" I'll put them in touch. Others you meet are looking for something specific, and it is more likely to come up. A young woman I met at one event was finishing a marketing program and really wanted an entry level job in the area. That stuck in my head next time one of our companies needed to fill out its marketing department. She's now working full time there.
Don't ask for anything but advice. There's an old truism in this business: if you want advice, ask for money; if you want money, ask for advice. This applies to job seekers as well. When you ask somebody to help you find funding or find a job, it's very blunt and implies a lot of invested time. Try a much softer method: "I'm looking to move from engineering into product management and would love to get your opinion sometime on how I should approach that". People love to hear themselves talk, and in the course of the discussion, they may think of a few people that need product managers (plus the advice may actually be good, though it'll get repetitive after awhile...). The same applies to financing, and the softer approach changes the nature of the conversation.
Follow up...selectively. You won't be able to follow up with everybody at an event, but there will be a few that you feel a particular connection with (or that may have what you need at the time). You can follow up with an individual "nice to meet you" email to a few contacts. The follow-up can be as simple as the email itself, or perhaps a suggested meeting for coffee. Some people won't respond at all, but that's just the nature of networking -- until you know them better, you will always be their lowest priority. Don't get overly hung up on any particular contact. Remember, networking is about serendipity not persistence.
As with any soft skills, there are exceptions to every rule and the rules change as you get more senior. However, these principles of basic networking will help you make your own luck.