Networking Strategies

Flying on the way to Boston for a two and a half week networking sprint has me thinking about networking strategies.

I don’t live in Boston. I live a thousand miles south in a small artsy town called Asheville. But I focus my networking on Boston because, on the East Coast, it dominates the software industry. Silicon Valley takes longer to get to, requires a lot more driving once there and involves jet lag. Plus, I just love Boston as a city.

Networking in a city far from where you live has it’s own set of challenges. So I’m constantly experimenting, trying out different techniques to see what works. Meanwhile, my networking goals and styles change as my needs change and I learn more about what’s important to me.

Today I want to explore my goals, the types of networking I do and experiments I’m trying or considering.

Shifting Styles

My focus networking used to be on short-term initiatives: acquiring customers, developing partnerships or raising money for my current company. I targeted people who furthered these aims, and worked on quickly building relationships. I wanted to have a large network of valuable people.

With the luxury a stable company brings, I’ve shifted toward building deeper, long-term relationships with fewer people. I want to build relationships with smart people I enjoy hanging out with, regardless of any direct business benefit. I want to spend time with people, not just saying hi at events, and get to know them.

I want to be a seed planter, not a harvester of low hanging fruit. And I want to plant seeds that may grow into beautiful trees that may never bear fruit, but which I’ll enjoy nonetheless.

Not that I won’t continue developing casual relationships. These remain important. You never know who might grow into a deeper relationship or what value you can exchange even at a casual level. But I want to shift the amount of time I spend networking toward deeper relationships.

My Goals

With no current short-term initiatives that my networking aims to support, my goals have shifted.

Short-term, my focus is on:

  • Building deeper relationships
  • Having fun doing so
  • Discussing ideas with others
  • Building a reputation in Boston
  • Understanding the reputation of others in Boston

Long-term I’d like my network to support:

  • Building partnerships
  • Selling my company
  • Finding a co-founder for my next company
  • Finding employees
  • Acquiring new customers
  • Getting a job or contract work
  • Being a brain trust I can ask questions of

I’ve always believe in investing in relationships, but now my understanding of “investment” goes much deeper than before.

Types of Networking

Types of networking I engage in include:

  • Conferences
    I love learning, so I try to attend as many sessions as possible. But I’ve also learned the value of hallway conversations during conferences. I’m still working on using lunch effectively. I tend to be shy when sitting at tables, though I warm up quickly.
  • Events
    Events have a shorter duration than conferences, which changes the dynamics. I’m still working on that balance between catching up with people I know and meeting new people.
  • One-on-Ones
    My newest focus. I want to get to know people better and spend focused time catching up with people. Since food plays a bonding role (and I’ve become a bit of a foodie), I aim for lunches or dinners when I can.
  • Group Dinners / Drinks
    In Asheville, a group of 8-10 tech-related professionals meet every Friday after work for a drink. The relationships we’ve built with each other are phenomenal. I’m not sure how to find a similar group in Boston, but definitely advocate to others for regular get togethers with a small group of tight-knit people.
  • Online
    Online continues to be a challenge for me, which is ironic considering I’ve been online for almost 25 years now. I use Twitter, LinkedIn, e-mail and even this blog to connect with others. But I’m sporadic. I go through periods when I consistently reach out to others and connect, and others when I disappear into work and life.

Phone calls should be on that list, but I’m phone adverse. Phone calls with specific purposes do well, but I rarely do “catch up” calls even though I enjoy them when I have them. This is another growth area for me.

Experiments

I’m a tinkerer. I like to play with ideas and run experiments. Things I’m playing with right now include:

  • Networking as a Portfolio
    Looking at my networking like a portfolio, with diversification and investment strategies. Lately this has meant increasing the number of younger people I network with and those from radically other perspectives that challenge my thinking. I also want to diversify outside of the tech industry, since some of the best ideas come from applying ideas from one industry to another.
  • Scheduling Networking Hours
    Allocate a block of time to be at a cafe somewhere and then open it up for others to come network with you. Maybe use Tungle to allow people to schedule themselves into a time slot, or just make it freeform. I’ve seen venture capitalists do this, and obviously professors do this for their students. But it seems like it could be an effective way to have lots of one-on-one meetings with people you’re currently loosely or not-at-all connected with.
  • Side Projects / Mini Projects
    Networking tends to be about talk, not action. But to really get to know someone, it helps to work with them. Especially if you might want to hire them or be a co-founder with them in the future. So I’ve gotten interested in ways I can work with people under short-term scenarios so I can build a deeper relationships and see if our working styles align. So far I’m working on one side project in Asheville with two people and this weekend I’m going to Startup Weekend Boston to test working with strangers.
  • Different Business Cards
    I’m toying with the idea of having separate business cards for my professional versus my corporate life. Right now I have two sets of business cards: plain Lab Escape cards and Lab Escape cards with my FastFedora information on the back. I’m thinking of possibly creating cards to represent myself as an individual instead of myself in my role at Lab Escape. Because sometimes my company is irrelevant to who I’m meeting and I want to avoid the “tell me about Lab Escape” dance. On the flip side, when I meet people with several different business cards, I always think maybe this person can’t focus. So I’m still figuring this out.
  • Metric Tracking
    Last year I was tracking my networking metrics weekly on a spreadsheet. This included how many people I was connected to on LinkedIn and Twitter, my Klout score, my Twitter and blog Grader.com scores. It became too much overhead, but was interesting as a measure of progress in my networking. I might do it again if I could figure out how to streamline the process.

What strategies do you use when networking? Have you tried any experiments and have they been successful?

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