People starting a business or looking for a job are often told to “network.” They dutifully follow that advice, attending countless networking events and drinking many coffees — and yet accomplish nothing.
Sadly, the advice is flawed, because it doesn’t distinguish between networking and building a network.
I am a member of FounderCorps, a regional organization of serial entrepreneurs — and they know a thing or two about networking.
Unquestionably, these entrepreneurs differentiate between going to an event simply to meet people and working to build a network. Member Pat Sheridan, co-founder and chief executive of the product studio Modus Create puts it this way: “Networking is helping people, not meeting people. It’s building trust through a demonstration of your value as a helpful resource.”
Giving to get is a consistent theme. “It’s engaging with people on a meaningful level, where you seek first to help and provide value for the other person,” says Tien Wong, chairman of tech services companies Tech 2000 and Lore Systems.
People who are overtly transactional when they are with others are probably not going to be good at building networks. Eric Koefoot, founder of the media monitoring firm PublicRelay, points out that he avoids those who are “too self-serving and/or have an agenda.”
“Just taking is not networking,” says Alex Murphy, founder of the business consultancy Epic59.
By the same token, networking should have an outcome. Daniel Gonzalez, a principal at the real estate firm Avison Young, has a colorful analogy. “When networking, I always figure out as soon as possible whether this is only a ‘Barney Relationship’ or whether there is more to it. You remember that purple dinosaur? His song was ‘I love you, you love me…’ Networking should be about action, so assess quickly whether you can help each other. If not, and you still like each other, call it what it is: friendship — a Barney Relationship — and don’t force what’s not there, business-wise.”
Understanding that networking should have an outcome doesn’t mean that the first time you meet someone you should expect to achieve anything. Building a relationship takes time. “As the Chinese say, ‘once a stranger, twice an acquaintance and maybe three times a friend’,” says Terry Hsaio, founder of the communications firm Hook Mobile.
If done well, networking is worth the effort. Stefan Midford, CEO of the workforce management firm Natural Insight, says the technique provides value to an entrepreneur in three ways. To succeed, you must network “up” to mentors or leaders you want to follow, network “with” peers who have similar challenges and network “down” with start-up entrepreneurs to share and contribute back.
These FounderCorps members agree that the most important lesson is that you must be an effective networker to be a successful entrepreneur. “It is a core ingredient, on par with persistence,” Murphy says. “All business is relationship-based,” Sheridan added.
Here in the greater Washington region, where there is always another networking event to attend, and another coffee to have, smart people understand the importance of building relationships. Sincerity and authenticity applies in business and networking is living proof.
To benefit from the experience and insight of others, the lesson is simple: networking requires a high level of commitment to be valuable. It’s not the time you spend with a contacts, it is the way you act.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.