Networking 101

Networking – To interact or engage in informal communication with other for mutual assistance or support (from Dictionary.com) I talked about networking in my recent post on How to become a venture capitalist. In it I said that I’d put up a separate post with more detailed thoughts on the subject. I don’t pretend to be the final source on the matter, but I do regularly engage in the art of networking – on both the network-ing and network-ed side of the equation. As with all my posts, comments are welcomed (and appreciated). Sorry in advance for the length of this one – I tried cutting it down, but couldn’t get it to work that way . . . Step 1: Make your list. Good networking starts with knowing who you want to meet – or at least what type of people you want to get in touch with. This can be specific (for example all of the VC’s in town when you are trying to land a VC job) or more general (your peers at other local businesses; CEOs of businesses in a certain industry; all of the patent attorney’s in some market; etc). Either way do some research and make yourself a list of people you want to meet. WRITE IT DOWN. This isn’t a mental list – this is a real list of people you want to get in touch with. Step 2: Exercise your existing network. You know people. They all know people. There is an entire industry that is trying to take advantage of this on-line. Here’s where you need a second list – write down all of the people that you know (i.e., who would return an e-mail and could vouch for you to someone else) who you think could put you either directly in touch with, or one step closer to the people on your first list. Now contact them in a personal and relevant way and ask for their help. Be specific about what you are asking for (i.e., give them names if possible andplenty of background on why you are asking for help and what you are trying to accomplish). As you get introductions, track where they came from. Your lists should start to merge and you should develop something that looks like a network map showing linkages between the people you know and the people you are trying to meet (the more linkages the better). TRACK INFORMATION. This isn’t a time to rely on your memory. Be anal about writing down who is introducing you to whom, any contextual information you gather and any background you have on the people you are trying to meet with. Step 3: Be specific & structure your meetings. Most people generally manage some form of Steps 1 and 2 in their networking efforts – even if they are not being as careful as I’d like about documenting their work. Step 3 is where people make what I think is the second most common mistake in networking: when they finally get a meeting with someone they are looking to network with they aren’t specific about what they want. I hate meetings like this. They generally include statements like “I’m not really sure what I’m looking to do,” or “I’ve got a very broad background and could fit in a bunch of different places,” or “What kind of investments does Mobius make,” or my personal favorite: “I’d like to do something more entrepreneurial.” Not helpful. At all. Do your homework on who you are meeting with. Be specific about what you are looking to do. Have a story to tell and make sure it’s relevant to the person you are talking with. If you are asking for help/advice on something open ended make sure that is part of the context of setting up the meeting (its ok to network for the purpose of figuring out what you want to do with your life, but be clear about your intent and be specific about the ways in which the person you are talking with can be helpful). The corollary to being specific is structuring your networking interactions well. Good networkers are adept at guiding networking meetings in a way that drives the results they are looking for. Whether you are talking to someone at a cocktail party or sitting in their office – know how you want the interaction to go and guide the discussion. Step 4: Take good notes. This is pretty obvious, but I’m amazed at how often I meet with people who don’t write anything down in our meetings. When I’m networking with someone I take careful notes – first, because it shows that I’m interested in and respect what the other person is saying and second because I want to keep a record of what we talked about and specific ideas for follow-up. When its awkward to take notes directly (for instance at a social event), I try to write down information after a conversation has ended – preferably on the back of the business card I just received, but at least on a notepad (which you should always carry along with a pen to any networking event). Steps 5 & 6: Plan your follow up . . . and actually follow up. These next two steps are where people really fall down – they would make for a lengthy post by themselves. By follow-up I’m not talking about the e-mail you send out the day after meeting with someone thanking them for the meeting, telling them how much you enjoyed talking with them and appreciate their perspective, attaching your CV (or pointing them to your blog <g>), etc. I’m talking about the ongoing communication you have with people. If you’re driving for a specific outcome this can be very structured (i.e., putting reminders in your calendar with specific things you plan to follow up with) – less so if you are engaging in more general networking. Either way, you need to make a plan for how you want to follow up with people and do so. It starts with Step 4 and the natural follow-up to step 4, which is putting this information in some form that is searchable and usable (perhaps a spreadsheet or database if you are networking for a specific outcome, since you’ll be referencing it often, but also potentially notes in your contacts or somewhere else that you store information, but in a way that you can easily separate out people that you are trying to stay in touch with in this way). Remember that networking is a two way street. Good networking is about staying in touch in a relevant way. Sending an e-mail every month asking if any new positions have come open is a bad example of this. Seeing something in the news or an article of interest that you send along to someone with your thoughts is a good example of this. See a person you know in the news – send a note congratulating them on their recent success. Notice that a VC you’ve talked with has just made a new investment – send a note. Find an article that you think would be relevant to that CEO you met with a few months ago – send it along. The idea is to stay top of mind, but in a way that is relevant to the people you are interacting with. Don’t forget to give context in your e-mail (i.e., “Sally – We met two months ago at the xyz event – John Smith introduced us . . . ). I can’t emphasize these steps enough. I can’t believe the number of meetings I have that end with the end of the meeting or a short follow-up note. Even if there were specific follow-up items. People fall down on follow-up and I think expect that they can pop in and out of someone’s network as the need arises. You just accomplished what may be the hardest part of networking (getting a meeting in the first place; grabbing someone’s attention at a party; etc.) – don’t waste your hard work by just entering their contact info in Outlook.

Good networking is definitely an art – and something I’m always trying to get better at myself. I think these suggestions are relevant no matter what stage of the network game you are playing – I hope you find them helpful. Ultimately it’s all about making personal connections and keeping up with those connections in a way that is both relevant to you and to the people in your network.