Networking isn’t a task. It’s a skill that must be learned and honed — an art that many haven’t mastered as well as they think.
Networking isn’t a task. It’s a skill that must be learned and honed. Tweet This Quote
The dictionary defines it as “To interact or engage in informal communication with other for mutual assistance or support.” One of the keys to being a successful entrepreneur is learning the art of networking. Seeking advice from those that have tread a path before you, making connections for your business that will advance your company, and widening your sphere of influence. Meeting other people is at the core of most businesses. Below are my thoughts on how to be an effective networker: Who do you really want to meet with?
1. Make your list
Good networking starts with knowing whom 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 investors coming to demo day who have invested in your area) or more general (your peers at other local businesses; CEOs of businesses in a certain industry; all of the patent attorneys 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. Who do you already know who might be able to connect you to those people?
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 online. 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 and plenty of background on why you are asking for help and what you are trying to accomplish).
Good networking starts with knowing whom you want to meet—or at least what type of people you want to get in touch with. Tweet This Quote
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 methodical 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. Once you get the meeting, what exactly do you want out of it?
3. Be specific and 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 suggest 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 Foundry make,” or my personal favorite, “I’d like to do something more entrepreneurial.” Not helpful. At all.
Always track information. Networking is not the time to rely on your memory. Tweet This Quote
Do your homework on whom 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 or advice on something open-ended, make sure that is part of the context of setting up the meeting.
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. What is the best way to capture good ideas that come from the meeting?
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 it’s 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). How can the meeting be continually valuable even after it’s ended?
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 resume, 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.
You need to make a plan for how you want to follow up with people and then do so. Tweet This Quote
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). How can you stay connected after the meeting without being a burden?
7. If you’d like to maintain contact, make sure your follow-up is relevant
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, and send a note congratulating them on their recent success. Notice that a VC you’ve talked with has just made a new investment, and send a note. Find an article that you think would be relevant to that CEO you met with a few months ago, and 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…).
Remember that networking is a two-way street. Good networking is about staying in touch in a relevant way. Tweet This Quote
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 some meaningless follow-up note)—even if there were specific follow-up items discussed. People fall down on follow-up and 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.
I encourage you right now to start with Step 1. You don’t have to create a list of 100 or 1000 people that you’d like to meet. Start right now with 10 people that have been on your mind as people you’d like to get in touch with. Write their names down somewhere where you’ll see them every day. Share that list with a friend or co-worker, and put a date in your calendar when you’ll check in with them to discuss who you’ve met with. Set a small goal to start networking regularly. For example, reach out to one person per week and schedule weekly calendar events reminding you to send out that email.
A version of this post originally published in April 2014. It was updated and reposted to inspire further conversation.