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Alternatives to Spray-and-Pray Networking
Headshot 128 Ben, June 7, 2013
If you asked my wife how I feel about small talk, you'd probably get a raised eyebrow and a chuckle. To say the least, I'm not a fan of forced conversation. That's not to say I hate talking to people, meeting with people, or just people in general. It's quite the contrary. I enjoy people, but like to have purposeful, meaningful interactions that aren't talking for the sake of talking.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I've never particularly cared for going to random events and glad-handing everyone I see. That may work for some people, but isn't my style. Instead, I've found a number of other tactics that better fit my personality.

The Friend of a Friend

Randomly emailing people in hopes of networking with them is a great way to waste a bunch of time. I've had more success with warm introductions (ie. having an existing contact of yours make an introduction). Frequently, my process goes something like:

  1. Figure out the profile of the type of person I want/need to meet (e.g. Someone who went to Notre Dame, lives in Chicago, and is involved in the startup world)

  2. Google/LinkedIn search until I find a couple people who match said profile

  3. Try to find a person who knows both of us

  4. Ask that person to make an intro

Step #3 is often the most difficult, but LinkedIn is a great tool for this. If you look at someone's profile (yes, it will tell them you looked at it - meh), there should be a feature in the right-hand column that shows you common connections. I find these are typically good candidates for an intro. It looks like this:


Once I get an intro, I explain who I am, why they should meet with me (I try to only ask for meetings when I have a reason to meet them, to avoid wasting someone's time), and offer to buy them a coffee or beer. Some people may end up being too busy, but I've found 1 on 1 meetings tend to be much more valuable than going to random meet-ups and dumping business cards on everyone you see. If you have a connection (mutual friend, alma mater, etc.), then most people tend to be willing to help you out.

Your reaction might be "but I don't want to meet with the scrubs who are one degree separated from me, I want to meet with Internet-Famous-Uber-Person-In-My-Space" (that's my space, not MySpace). My response would be: If you're lucky and you demonstrate to the person that you generally have it together, then they might be willing to introduce you to other people they know, and thus your network can start to grow exponentially (and by exponentially, I mean a couple meaningful connections per month).

The Digi-Stalker

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that's the case, the consolation prize goes to digital hero worship, where you excessively stalk the person until you know what bar they went to last weekend, what they ate for dinner last night, and every news article they've read in the past month. That way, they will be really impressed with your passion for their personal life and not, you know, call the cops or anything.

In all seriousness, I find that it helps to do some homework about the person's work and background. You don't want to make an off the cuff joke at the expense of attorneys/recruiters/punching-bag-profession-du-jour, only to find that the person is or was one. It provides some easy talking points and demonstrates that you're someone who puts in the work to be prepared.

The Altruist

Patagonia makes top notch outdoor gear and clothes for yuppies who want to appear outdoorsy. Their stuff is high quality and they make good money selling it. What some people don't know is that Patagonia is also a company that doesn't mess around when it comes to corporate responsibility. They started "1% for the Planet," through which they pledge 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the environment. They are extremely dedicated to fair labor conditions in their supply chain. In 2012, California created a new corporate structure called a "Benefit Corporation," which allows companies to legally prioritize social missions over profits. Patagonia was one of the first companies to sign up.

Some people don't think that profits and social good can co-exist symbiotically within a single entity, but Patagonia shows otherwise. In a similar way, I think volunteering and career-ambition can not only co-exist, but benefit from each other. Many successful people have personal causes that are important to them. I think that volunteering to help out with these causes can have numerous benefits. You get the benefits that most people associate with volunteering. You get to feel like a good person. You get the catharsis that comes with helping others. It's simply a worthwhile cause and activity. But you also get some other bonuses, such as exposure to the successful people leading the charge. It can be a great way to gain the trust and endorsement of these people, which can help in your other endeavors.

P.S. I'd love to hear from you on twitter: @bcroesch
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