Building a real network

3 ways to build a network that will actually help you when you need it

We’ve all been to networking events. Maybe we even feel like we need to attend those things. Like we’ll miss out on making a key connection even though while we’re there it feels like speed dating combined with bad elevator pitches. Events are filled with the same people, most of them want to sell you something, and very little real business gets done. Have we forgotten what networking really is?

To be intentionally cheesy: ‘There has go to be a better way.’ Yeah.

This article started when I began to write down some ‘networking rules of conduct’ for some folks at Anthroware that are beginning to put themselves out there. They were frustrated with how bad networking events are most of the time. I agree with them, and hardly ever attend ’networking events’. Thinking broadly, the more people that read this and are inspired to network to build real relationships, the better that is for the world— let's get to it.

Events are filled with the same people, most of them want to sell you something, and very little real business gets done. Have we forgotten what networking really is?

In this article, I suggest 3 key aspects of real networking so you build real relationships; these are people that will give you support, advice, and introductions when you need it the most. We’re going to:

  1. Talk about how innately valuable a deep network is,
  2. how it’s a mix of intentional planning and recognizing serendipitous encounters, and
  3. why it’s so important to serve your relationships.

1. Value: Develop real relationships with people you want to see succeed.

My friend and technologist Chris Buehler stated: “You don’t have to ask a lot of your network to get a lot out of it.” He’s right. We’re not asking for a lot, but the benefits are huge.

For most people, time and reputation are more precious than money, our networks have value because our relationships have value. Makes sense. As humans, we value things that are scarce: our time, finances, true love, trust, letting your child loose on a bike without training wheels for the first time… Compare that to the classic ‘networking event’ and my point is clear. Shaking hands with 30 people and exchanging contact information isn’t scarce, and we don’t value it. You wouldn’t look for a meaningful personal relationship by handing out your contact to 30 people at a concert or pub, so why do we think this is of any value at a networking event?

Great business relationships look way more like friendships than cold business transactions. Having common interests has been an effective tool in business networking since the dawn of time (ever heard of golf?). Think of your “connections” like “relationships”. Your network is precious, it has value, and anything that has value is worth putting some time toward.

“Don’t take yourself so seriously.” My friend Melody Isis Herman says, “Building a network is based in the fact that you need to grow the business. It’s easy to get too focused on saying your ‘pitch’ correctly or the need to make a sale and we forget to just be ourselves and help people with what they’re working on if we can. Be genuinely yourself.” Melody cares for her network. She treats people she meets like they are worthy of her time and attention. If she can, she will get you plugged in. When you hear about someone who needs expert guidance with a benefits plan for their business she comes to mind. We want to do business with people we like.

Network with people you want to be friends with. People you want to see be successful. People you want to help. Work is more fun when you like the people you surround yourself with.

2. Networking is both systematic and serendipitous

Back to Chris for a moment. When he moved to town, he used LinkedIn in a very effective way. He asked his network to provide some warm introductions for him as he was transitioning to a new town. Because Chris has been so supportive and helpful to his colleagues, they used their connections to get him started with plugging into the tech community here in Asheville. What I personally appreciated about how Chris reached out to me was that it wasn’t an empty connection request online… he wanted to set up time face-to-face to talk about tech and startups. Time is valuable. Connections take energy, they take time— we place value on things we’ve put time and energy into. He quickly got plugged in because his method focused on depth and face-to-face meetings. He formed relationship-level connections with a fantastic group. Now he’s mentoring startups, working on several projects with myself and others at Hatch Foundation, and really enjoying living in beautiful Western NC.

Connections take energy, they take time— we place value on things we’ve put time and energy into.

On the other hand, there is a very real “in the right place at the right time” phenomena that is part of most success stories. If it’s so rare, why is it part of most success stories?! I think it’s because when people are being real— being ‘genuinely yourself’ you connect with others in a way like no other. We certainly aren’t ‘salesy’ at Anthroware… everyone who develops relationships and clients in our company values being real and honest. But we all LOVE ideas, stories, opportunities, challenges, and come together around lots of hobbies. There are so many ways to develop deep relationships with people, just be real and keep yourself open to opportunity wherever you are. I met a dear friend and mentor at 1 Million Cups(link) here in Asheville and connected by talking about the best places to hike in the Linville Gorge.

Whatever the way you end up meeting someone you want in your network, expect to put some time in. Buy a lot of lunches (coffee works just as well if you’re starting out, seriously). "It’s the age old handwritten note.” States Jeff Pieper, retired principal in charge of marketing at the successful Pieper, O'Brien, Herr Architects firm in Atlanta, GA. "If you took note of someone’s birthday and sent them a handwritten note, they feel so special. Flabbergasted, that you took the time.” The small things really matter. When Jeff thinks about his business connections he’s telling stories of friendships. "Your business network, the ones that will be there for you, are the people you consider to be friends.” he continues "There are no shortcuts."

3. The golden rule; be a servant to your network.

When you get approached by someone being salesy, it’s apparent that they want something from you. You are valuable if you buy something, but otherwise not really. We’ve all had this happen. My default reaction is to find someone else to talk to as quickly as possible. Similarly, when someone just wants to exploit you for a connection you have, or something you can do for them. Makes you squirm a little, right?

serve your network first.

If there is one takeaway from this, let it be that you remember to serve your network first. So many life lessons are solved by servanthood. Be a servant leader. Be a servant to your spouse. Serve your children by providing and sacrificing for them (and disciplining them). Serve your employees by not only being the leader they need, but also keeping perspective with their history and daily life. Serve your network by making connections that you have that they need, learning about their business, brainstorming their problems… When you connect the dots for the folks in your network, two things happen:

  1. Your network also gets bigger faster — You get seen as a connector and a gravitational field comes along with it. It gives you reasons to reach out intentionally to folks you don’t interact with often to keep in contact in a way that is helpful to them.
  2. Eventually, you and your services are the thing that ‘fits’ the equation and you come to mind first.

If you are networking with people you would be friends with, ask first how you can help them. Then, when the time comes when you need a referral, or an introduction… when someone puts their reputation out there for you, it’s because they know you’d do the same for them.

Conclusion

Putting yourself out there is exposing. The rewards are worth it. Relationships are expensive and cost time and energy, but the long term impact on your career or business is incalculable. Building a real network takes time, and it starts with one person you don’t know. The old adage that the best way to get rich quick is to not get rich quick applies… You gotta start somewhere.

Our business is built off of reputation and referrals. We would not be where we are today without our network. Just recently we got an amazing introduction to the top-tier position of a company we’re pursuing to do custom work for as a vendor. Incredible. Introductions like that are priceless. The person that did it used their reputation and influence to to help me personally. It’s humbling.

Be intentional as your grow your network, and put energy behind building deep relationships. The more value you associate with your network, the more you are willing to serve it. And when you’re the one needing that connection, advice, or help your network will be there to support you.

Hope this helps you out.

Further Reading

The Bull is Dead. Can You Outrun the Bear?

Far too many digital products fail. There is a better way.

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