Friday Q&A: How to Win at Networking Events
Every Friday, we’re answering your questions about business, startups, customer success and more.
This week’s question comes from Jackson G., who asks:
Earlier this week, I published my take on networking events.
As the post makes clear, I don’t go to them.
But I also wanted to make sure that one particular point got across:
Just because I don’t like networking events and haven’t gotten huge value from them, doesn’t mean that they won’t work for you. They might.
I get a lot of emails asking for networking tips from people who attend startup events and mixers.
I’m not the best person to answer that question. But James McBryan, Founder of Track it Forward, GroupCarpool, and The Breakaway, chimed in in the comments with a fantastic guide for getting the most out of networking events.
We asked him if we could publish the comment as a standalone post to answer the many questions we get about networking events, and James graciously said yes (and even expanded on his comment for this post).
Here, according to James, is how to crush it at networking events.
I have a completely different take on networking events than you Alex. I’m also someone who has been to countless networking events—sometimes up to four per week—so I understand where you’re coming from, and have had those feelings. However, I took a different path, and my outlook now is completely different.
I am an entrepreneur that started with no network. I knew nobody. I didn’t even know who to interact with. And when I did try to talk with somebody, I just got ignored or dismissed. Since I started from nothing, I needed a stepping stone, and networking events were simply the most accessible.
I’ve met a lot of people who quickly burnt out of networking and I never saw them again. To be honest, I burnt out a couple times myself! I just didn’t come home with the epiphany or connections I was looking for, and always blamed myself for not networking well.
Now that many years have passed, and countless times of trial and error, I’ve learned a lot and love networking events more than ever. I still go to them, and now look positively at them. I still even feel sad when I miss a networking event! The turning point for me was when I changed my expectation from trying to take what I wanted from networking, and instead accepted what networking actually had to offer.
Below are 5 things I’ve learned about what networking actually is and can offer, and that change of expectation has made all the difference:
1) Networking is a marathon, not a sprint
I started going to the same networking events regularly, and I met some of the same people over and over again. And when that happened, we would start to approach each other like friends “Heyyyy so good to see you again!” If that happened over 4 to 5 times, the likeliness of us doing stuff outside of the networking event was super high! I’ve gotten rides, helped someone move, and had the opportunity just to hang out. Sounds like friendship, right? Well that’s what they became. That’s when the real, genuine relationships started to form. Now I can easily call these people any time, get advice, get introductions, or just grab lunch whenever is convenient. Basically, my mind was blown when I learned networking was not about quick, short-term exchanges, but rather about long-term relationship building.
2) Networking is therapy
As an entrepreneur, I can easily be head down all the time and beat the progress drum and repeat to myself that “I have a plan and I will make this plan work!” However, there are times where the plan went wrong, the plan sucked, or the plan was a plan for the sake of just having a plan. In those situations, networking was very important to me. I shared my experience with other entrepreneurs and got advice. I listened to the stories of others and became inspired. And best of all, I listened to those entrepreneurs just starting out, which served as a great reminder of how far I have come.
3) Networking is a place to inspire
Back in the day when I started going to networking events, I was shy, intimidated, and disillusioned, hoping to make that dream connection with someone. Once I started “getting” what networking actually was, I got a lot of value from it very quickly—but now, years later, that immediate “value” started getting smaller as the novelty wore off. So one day, I decided to reverse the role by being the mentor for the new kids. Basically, I found someone who was just starting out, asked them questions, showed them that I cared and quite quickly became a mentor for that moment. I became the dream connection, which is hopefully helpful for them, and it always fills me with warm fuzzies, like I’m giving back to the community that helped me get to where I am today.
4) Networking is in the moment
I don’t bring business cards, and I don’t ask for them. I exchange stories, I exchange ideas. I listen, I try to inspire. Hopefully, I leave a mark or someone leaves a mark on me. And if, just if, I meet that rare dream connection, I make sure we take a photo together and connect via email. However, that usually happens every 2-3 networking events—it simply doesn’t happen all the time. I literally make it hard to exchange business cards because it’s just weird expecting anything to come from exchanging a piece of paper. I want to make sure any connection with any expectation is actually genuine.
5) You can graduate from one networking class to the other
General networking events are typically full of people just getting into the industry. If I go to pay-only or invite-only networking events, the quality gets higher and higher. Sometimes hearing about these exclusive events takes time, and word of mouth is the only way to find out about them. I’m now on the list of a VC-only networking event. One of the members then made their own exclusive networking event that I’ve also been invited to. And sometimes a group of graduating members form their own private breakfast clubs as well, which are always fun. The more exclusive they become, the more value I tend to get out of them. But I wouldn’t have gotten there without starting in the general networking events.
Networking events are a beautiful phenomenon, and maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather live in a world with them than without them. The professional ones are a bit more forced, probably a by-product of our geography and lifestyles. And I always tell myself if I can master these professional ones, I can master ones that are less structured that surround us everyday. That’s right, I’m talking about life. It could be at a restaurant, a gathering of friends, a dance event, a school-parent meeting, or just walking in plazas or down the street. I’d argue that if you can make networking work for you, it does percolate down through all those facets of life. Yes, it’s hard, it’s very hard. But it’s one of those things in life that anyone can learn, and if you work hard at it, it will become fulfilling and become a craft that you can’t imagine living your life without.
How do you approach networking events? Let us know in the comments!
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