How to Use Networking to Succeed in Business and Life
Our best tips and tricks for connecting with VIP’s.
I’ve made it no secret that learning how to network and build relationships with smart, successful people is one of the most valuable things I’ve done in my career.
But I know that for many, it doesn’t come easily.
It certainly didn’t come easily for me when I first started, either.
It can feel weird, scary and even sleazy. But when done right, networking is genuine, comfortable and extremely valuable for both parties.
Every Friday for the last two years, we’ve been answering reader questions in our Friday Q&A series.
Today, I’m sharing the top questions about building and nurturing a powerful network.
1) How Do You Network Without Feeling Sleazy?
A lot of people think of networking as trading business cards.
It’s not, and the reason why is that your business card has no value.
Relationships are built on adding value to each other’s lives. Building your network is about delivering value to as many of the right people as possible so that when you need something, somebody in your network will be happy to help you get it.
Now, it’s not transactional. You’re not trading favors.
You might do something valuable for someone many, many times before you ask for their help (Gary Vaynerchuk calls this Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook).
But forget the conferences and the business cards, and think about who you want to meet that might be valuable to you.
Then you can do one of two things:
Reach out to them and help them with something, with no expectation of anything in return.
Reach out to someone that they know and trust and help them with something, with no expectation of anything in return. Eventually, you’ll be able to ask for an introduction. Warm introductions are the best—and often only—way to get to the busiest and most successful people.
Here’s the thing: a free sample of your product, or a 15 minute call to learn more about how you can help them, are not valuable to the people you want to network with. They’re busy and they don’t need discounts, so both of these are totally wrong.
Instead, ask yourself:
- Is there something you’re good at (for example, design or conversion optimization) that they might not be experts at, and can you offer them free help on their site or a side project?
- Can you send them ideas for improving their business that they haven’t thought of? James Altucher comes up with 10 ideas a day, and when he was getting started would often send them to companies for free. That’s how he landed many of his paying clients.
- Are there people that you know that the person in question would like to meet? Can you make a warm introduction?
- Are there books or products (not yours) that the person could get a lot of value from? Noah Kagan, a master networker, used to send people Ex-Officio underwear.
Take any of these ideas, implement them, and repeat hundreds of times. Networking is a long-term effort, but it’s the best way to open yourself to incredible opportunities, whether that’s investment, advice or business deals.
2) How to Deliver Value to VIP’s You Want to Connect With
Sabitha’s question is about our influencer outreach strategy, that calls for delivering value to the people you want to connect with (long before you ever ask them for anything).
It’s a common question, and it makes sense.
What could a “rookie” offer someone who’s been in the game forever, and reached the heights of success?
There are two important pieces of advice I always give here:
- Reframe your thinking on this. Instead of thinking “I probably have no value to offer because I’m just starting out,” challenge yourself to think about the value you can offer. If you assume you can’t offer value, then you definitely can’t. But by getting creative, you certainly can.
- Think about what you have that the mentor does not have. It’s not money, and it’s probably not business advice, but that’s not all there is.
- Time. What can you do for this person that they might not have time to do?
- Your own expertise. You may not have gotten far in business yet, but what skills do you have that you can offer? Gary Vaynerchuk’s video editor got a full-time job on Gary’s team by offering to make him a free video. Maybe you have some other skill you can offer.
- Introductions. Successful people have strong networks, but they know the value of powerful connections. Find out if there’s someone that the influencer wants to meet (whether it’s a specific person, or a role (e.g., “front-end developers” or “health tech founders”). Those people will probably be a lot more accessible to you than the successful person, which is fantastic: do everything you can to get to know those people so that you can introduce them to your future mentor.
That last point is exactly how I got our first advisor.
3) How to Win at Networking Events?
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.
4) How to Follow up With Busy People?
Before we get to “how” to follow up, let’s talk about why you need to.
A lot of people are hesitant to follow up because they think they’re being annoying.
But consider this: what if you’re not being annoying? What if you’re actually being helpful?
Here’s the thing: busy people are… well, busy.
If your email is short, clear, well-written and truly valuable for them (more on how to write those kinds of emails here), then the chance that your email slipped through the cracks of their packed schedule is far higher than the chance that they were annoyed by it.
Assume busyness rather than annoyance.
If you do that, then follow-up becomes much easier, as you’re actually doing them a favor.
(Sure, some people may be annoyed by your follow-up. You can’t make everyone happy. Hopefully they’ll respond with a “no” and you can both move on.)
Now, as for how to follow up: you have a lot of room to play here.
Try different things, depending on what you think the person will respond best to.
Some phrases that I use often that seem to work well are:
“Hey [name], I know you’re super busy, so just floating this back to your inbox in case it slipped through.”
“Hey [name], checking back on this. Let me know if you’re interested in [brief 5-7 word summary of my initial ask].”
“Hey [name], what do you think? No worries if this isn’t interesting to you at the moment, just let me know. Thanks!”
When you approach follow-up with the right mindset—that you’re delivering value, rather than “bugging”—you can write much more effective follow-up emails.
5) How Many Mentors Should You Have?
This question appeared on our post about influencer outreach mistakes.
I wish I had a magic number for this, but the real answer is, it depends.
Mentor relationships can vary greatly from one case to the next, and it all comes down to a couple variables:
- How much time do you have? If you’re meeting with a mentor every week and spending an hour with them, you probably won’t have ten mentors. But if your relationship is a more distant one, and you meet every now and then or even just talk on the phone or via email, then you can sustain more. Remember though, that the time commitment isn’t just about how much of your time you need to spend getting help from them; consider how much time it will take you to add value to their lives, too.
- What do you actually need? I’ve had different mentors throughout my life based on the position I was in. After starting Groove, I struck up relationships with others who had started B2B SaaS companies. When we grew past $100K in MRR, I looked for people who were experts in other areas where we were struggling (people management, capital allocation, etc…), with less bias toward industry.
As to the third part of the question:
I’ve never emailed them all the same question. I always direct my questions to those who I feel will have the greatest expertise with that topic, to both respect all of my mentors’ time and to maximize my chances of getting great, targeted feedback while calling in as few favors as possible.
For more, check out the guide I wrote for connecting with awesome mentors.
How to Apply This to Your Business
Networking has been a hugely effective strategy for me in growing Groove. It’s turned into game-changing relationships, partnerships, customers and more.
I hope that these tips help you do the same.
For more reading on connecting with VIP’s, see: