Wednesday, September 4, 2013

10 Basic Principles of Effective Networking

[This post is an excerpt from my presentation entitled Silicon Valley Fundraising Trip: Tips for the Non-U.S. Based Startup Founder.]

Networking events are a lot of work. But if you are building up your network, networking at startup events can be a great way to get exposure to a lot of people fast.

Because networking is hard work, if you are going to do it, you might as well make the most of it. My suggestions are based solely on my own personal experience and reflect either what has worked for me or my observations of the behavior of others. There may be other effective networking tactics, so if you are feeling anxious about this, read a few more articles (or books) for a deeper dive.

1. Set the Right Goals. Make sure you set the right goals and expectations for yourself when you go out to network. Chances are that you will not meet and win over an investor at a networking event (unless the event is a pitch competition than you win, and frequently not even then).

What you should really be hoping to do is to ingratiate yourself with three to five well-connected individuals, who will make introductions for you to people in their network. Note that the people that you get introduced to may not be your investors either.

The goal of networking is to grow your network because you never know where your investors, customers, or even future employees may come from. Approach networking with an open mind, and good things will come!

2. Dress to Impress. When you go to events, you want to be memorable, stand out in the crowd. That way, when someone you spoke to for a few minutes wants to introduce you to someone else at the event, he can find you again in the crowd. As with anything, you have to be careful not to overdo this, because if you are too outlandish in your wardrobe, you might be memorable, but it won’t score you any points. The trick is to stand out in a positive way.

At the very least, if you have a T-shirt with your company’s logo, wear that. It may not be very original, but it will be a good conversation starter, and people with a visual memory are more likely to remember the name of your company if it’s written across your chest.

3. Don’t Forget Your Business Cards. Business cards are cheap, so stock up and bring enough. Sure, if you run out, you can add the person you are speaking with on LinkedIn during the conversation or take his card and write your name on the back of it. But coming unprepared does not characterize you well, and if there is at least a small chance someone will keep your pretty business card around and will remember about you some time in the future when it could be advantageous to you, you can be sure they'll toss your info scribbled on the back of their card. LinkedIn is pretty good, but unless you have a stellar memory for names, it can be hard to find the contact that you need among your 500+ contact list. So, personally, I prefer cards.

But don't mistake the exercise of handing out cards for networking. If you hand out your cards like they are on fire, but don't cement it with at least 3-5 minutes of solid conversation with the folks you gave the card to, you may as well have thrown them in the trash.

4. Forget Your Comfort Zone. Networking is not comfortable. It would be easy if relevant contacts would line up to meet with us in an orderly fashion when we show up at an event. In fact, that’s not what happens at all. You are lucky if you are approached by another networker looking to strike up conversation. More frequently, you find yourself in a room surrounded by small groups deeply immersed in their own private conversations. Those small groups look intimidating.

But if you stay within your comfort zone and hover in the corner, waiting to be approached, which might be your natural inclination, you will be wasting precious time. So try to make eye-contact with someone in a group, to see if they’ll welcome you to join them, or just shamelessly insert yourself into a group and when there is a pause in conversation, extend your hand and introduce yourself. At a networking event, no one will think worse of you for doing so. Sometimes, the topic of discussion will be so narrow that after a few uncomfortable minutes you will decide to leave to look for another place to park, but the more polite networkers will attempt to integrate the newcomer into their conversation.

5. Stay Positive. If you want to leave a positive impression, you have to radiate positive energy. If you complain about your suppliers and customers, or put down your partners, employees or investors, it leaves a bad taste with the person you are speaking to. So focus on the positives. Be that person that everyone will enjoy talking to!

6. Keep Conversation Light. If you want to make more than a single connection at an event, you will need to move fairly quickly from one conversation to the next. Keep in mind that no matter how passionately you feel about public policy or politics, a tech networking event is not the place to get entangled in a heated debate, whether about the conflict in the Middle East, the shortcomings of the Obama administration, a woman's right to abortion, the right to bear arms, or U.S. world domination. In general stay away from religion and politics, unless it is to say that you are hoping that the Startup Visa initiative passes, which is a pretty safe bet. Finally, remember to smile! There is nothing as disarming as a genuine smile, so it is going to be your best networking weapon!

7. Listen First. When you engage in a one-on-one conversation with someone at a networking event, even if you are burning to proselytize anyone who will listen to the cause of your amazing company, recognize that everyone there has a story.

If you practice active listening – paying close attention to what the other person is saying, reading their body language, asking follow up questions, sharing information that they may consider valuable, and looking for ways you could help – you will find people more interested in your story, and willing to help, whether with advice, introductions, or empathy.

8. Don’t Be a Salesman. Think about how you feel when you are approached by a salesman. What’s your first reaction? I know mine is, “No, thank you!” The last thing you want to do at a networking event is to be perceived as a salesman. Instead, you want to be seen initially as someone who is easy and interesting to talk to and eventually, as a good long-term contact.

9. Follow Up. You have to follow up, if you don’t want all that networking to have been in vain.

If you promised to send your executive summary, do so within a few hours of the meeting, if you can, and within 24 hours at most. If the person you talked to promised to send you something, follow up with them after the meeting and remind them. They have busy lives, so take the initiative!

When you are networking, you are building up your social capital, so don’t just be dependable when it can stand to benefit you. If you promised a networking contact to send the name of an app that slipped your mind during the conversation or to make an intro to a good web designer, do it.

The greatest value of networking is in the long-term connections that you form. For this reason, strong follow up is essential. Invite contacts that you make at a networking event that you would like to make a more permanent part of your network to meet with you for coffee sometime that week. Almost no one will turn down a coffee offer, unless (a) it’s a VC, or (b) you are perceived as a salesman.

10. Have Patience! Have patience with the process and try to enjoy it! Networking does not produce immediate rewards, but it does pay off in the long-run!

Happy company making!

Inna


White Summers  Inna Efimchik, a Partner at White Summers Caffee & James LLP, specializes in assisting emerging technology companies in Silicon Valley and beyond, providing incorporation, financing, and licensing services as well as general corporate counseling.
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