Facebook's Peter Wilson, GeekWire's Jonathan Sposato and others networking at the GeekWire Gala

First, a big thanks to Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman for stepping up and delivering a thoughtful and illuminating presentation at the recent Startup Conference in Seattle.  I was enlightened, inspired and entertained… and I’m sure the audience of nascent entrepreneurs was as well.

For the record, I don’t know Glenn personally but I’ve bumped into him a couple of times at awards ceremonies and the TechStars offices.  And while I share 17 LinkedIn connections with Glenn, I’m quite certain he’d squint, look at you funny and say “who” if you ever mentioned my name in his presence.

[Editor's note: This post has been updated to better reflect the comments made at the Startup Conference. An earlier version of the story incorrectly attributed comments to Neil Patel about networking. For more on what Patel said see the comment thread below].

I don’t have a bone to pick with him and I admire their accomplishments.  I’m also not trying to pick a fight… really.

It’s just that Glenn is flat wrong when he told an audience of 300 budding entrepreneurs that networking is “a waste of time.” I honestly couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  To be fair, he qualified his remarks a bit… but only a tiny bit.  I considered calling him out during the Q&A, but balked.  Time to rectify.

Networking is critical for early-stage entrepreneurs.  If you have the resume, reputation, personal connections and resources that Glenn has, then there are probably more advantageous ways to spend your time.  But if you don’t (and most of you don’t) then listen up — a great deal of the very best things that are going to happen for you and your startup are going to come from the people you know.  So you be better be busy getting to know the right people.

Glenn already knows a ton of the right people… which puts him one phone call away from two tons more.  That’s so awesome for him, and he’s earned every bit of it.  But if you can’t pick up the phone and get a relevant and meaningful introduction into anyone you need to… then head his advice at your peril.

Here’s what I wish Glenn would have said:

“I don’t network much but I don’t need to.  You do.  Here’s a few tips to help you make the most of it, i.e., to keep from wasting your time.”

1) Have a mission:  If you’re out there networking without an idea of who it makes sense for you to meet then that’s not really networking… it’s partying.  Know the kind of people you want to meet and why.  But don’t be a jerk and turn your nose up at anyone who doesn’t fit your profile. Some time the best connections are not obvious at first and serendipity is a powerful force in the startup world (just ask Dan Shapiro.)

In my experience, the best folks for nascent entrepreneurs to meet are other entrepreneurs, thought leaders in their industry and skilled professionals that have an appetite for startups, e.g., engineers and designers.  Investors are good to meet at events too but usually just to get to know them… not to pitch them.  If you don’t have your shit together or your just not very confident about engaging investors then be careful — start with entrepreneurs who are good at engaging investors and learn from them first.

Photo: Zach Taylor

2) Stick your damn hand out:  I was really bad at networking early in my entrepreneurial career.  I very rarely did it and when I did I sucked at it.  If I didn’t know anyone at the event, then I was the guy who’d stand in the corner with a beer in his hand waiting for someone to come up and ask me what I do.  If I knew folks at the event, then I would spend all of my time in comfortable conversation with them.  So stupid!

I had no clue about how to engage folks and I didn’t accomplish much.  Yep, it was just like Glenn: Just about every minute I spent “networking” was indeed a waste of time.  But it’s not because networking per se is a waste of time… it’s because I wasted the opportunity.

What I should have been doing is walking up to folks I didn’t know, introducing myself with a handshake and asking them what they do!  Lesson learned.

3) Be sincere and add value to the conversation: Don’t go on and on about yourself and your startup.  Ask them questions and listen to their answers.  Then try to think of some way to help them.  An article you read… a similar company you just heard about… your perspective as a potential customer… your thoughts about their business model… is there someone you can offer to introduce them to?  If you do this well, they’ll return the favor.  If listening and helping don’t feel like natural behaviors for you then you may have some things to work on besides writing code and tweaking your SEO.

Bob Crimmins

4) Learn how to disengage gracefully:  Everyone you start a conversation with may not be someone you want to continue a conversation with.  If it’s not a good fit, then it’s better for everyone if you figure out a way to politely and respectfully break away and go find the next person to chat with. One tactic that is very useful (and actually good for the person you want to break away from) is to suggest to them that there’s someone else there that it would be good for them to meet.  Keep this in mind while you’re meeting folks… you may just want to connect them with someone later.

5) Quality matters… a lot:  Lots of traditional networking events have a very low signal-to-noise ratio, i.e., there will be a lot of people there whom you’ll want to politely break away from.  This is especially a challenge where events draw a lot of service providers who consider you fresh meat.  Remember, that free beer and food was paid for by someone and they consider it a marketing expense… so be prepared to be marketed to.  When you run into one that you don’t want to spend time with, tell them you like their shoes and move on. They know how the game is played and they won’t hold it against you.  Again… just don’t be a jerk about it.

6) Go do something!  Networking doesn’t just happen at “events.” In fact, the very best networking happens away from networking events.  It happens on the golf course, along a hiking trail, around a poker table, at a ball game, over a cup of coffee.

7) Networking is a worthwhile investment:  Building meaningful relationships with relevant people takes time and effort.  As I said at the outset, a lot (I’d say most) of the really good things that happen for you and your startup are going to come from people you know.  You can’t force it and you can’t rush it but you can get started on it.  Be selective and deliberate and know what you want.  And remember too that a lot of benefits of a strong network will be invisible to you.  When people talk about you when you’re not around, what do they say?  Are they inclined to vouch for you when asked?  Are they likely to refer you to the strongest parts of their network?  Are they going to spot the opportunities to bring you up in conversations that might be relevant to your startup?  Is it hard to imagine that having a strong network is worthwhile?

8) Pay it forward:  If you’re always taking and never giving back, then your network is not as strong as you think.  If you’re seriously hoping to build a terrific company, entice an amazing team, engage high-caliber advisors or raise funding… guess what… they all know each other and before they sign on to you.com they’re likely to ask around.  If you’re just a taker, then I guarantee you that your network is much less likely to pass you on to their network.  So, be a good startup citizen and look for opportunities to help others.  I think you should do this because it’s the right thing to do.  But if you don’t buy all that fuzzy-helpy stuff, then just know that you have a reputation whether you like it or not.

Bob Crimmins is a serial entrepreneur and master networker whose latest startup is MoonTango. He’s also the organizer of Startup Poker 2.0 and Geeks on a Trail. You can follow him on Twitter, or read his blog here.

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Comments

  • Alden DoRosario

    I agree with Neil 100% – while networking is important, 98% of your time should go towards building your product.

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

      Thanks for commenting, Alden. I don’t know if it’s useful to think about networking in terms of a percentage of effort.  But alright… let’s explore.  As I measure it, 2% of an entrepreneur’s week is about 2 hours per week (unless perhaps you’re not spending enough time on your startup ;).  If you’re doing 8 hours of quality networking each month then you’re doing pretty damn well… as they say, “killing it”. 

      One other thought about how much effort you should spend meeting the people who will later make make a huge difference in your startup.  If you’re the CTO and the value you bring to the startup is as an engineer then you may not need to spend as much time networking as your CEO counter part.  So, yeah, go ahead and keep your head down and code.  But if your CEO is doing that too then I would say your startup is at a disadvantage.  When it comes to building meaningful business relationships, the CEO is on the hot seat. 

      That said, Chief Technology Officers don’t just code… they lead.  Sure, you gotta do a lot of coding early on and you may always do a lot of coding… but if that continues to be your major contribution to your startup then you’re a dev… not a CTO.  Lot’s of first-time tech entrepreneurs with engineering backgrounds take the title of CTO because…well… that’s just what you do.  But in many cases, there’s nothing in their history to prepare them for the role of CTO once the company begins to get traction.  Some struggle… some thrive.  Regardless of which you are, I would propose that it would be valuable for you to get to know other successful CTOs. The way you do that is through networking.

      Also, as the CTO you’re the guy/gal who’s gonna be in the hot seat to build
      the product team, probably including engineering and design.  If you think it’s easy to find and attract top-notch engineering and design talent then you have an real wake up call coming.  If you stay heads down coding in a cave then you’re missing an opportunity to build relationships with the people (or the people who know the people) who might be your first hires.  If you wait too long to begin meeting those people you’ll be struggling to catch up with the other, more-connected CTOs that know what coming. 

      If you came to me today and said, “hey Bob, I’m looking for a world-class dev to join my startup”, I’d say, “you and everyone else.”  But if you’re someone I’ve met, gotten to know and that I trust, then I’d say, “let me noodle on that… I’ll put out some feelers.”  Who in your network knows you and trusts you enough to make referrals of rare resources to you.  Perhaps you already have a robust network of the top engineering, design, entrepreneurial and investment minds in Boston and they all are clamoring to work with you.  If so, that’s awesome… don’t worry about networking right now.  But just realize that there are finite resources and the best of them are well connected and have choices.

  • Alden DoRosario

    I agree with Neil 100% – while networking is important, 98% of your time should go towards building your product.

  • http://twitter.com/toddhooper Todd Hooper

     Great post Bob. Except Mike Arrington taught me to fist bump instead of shaking hands. :)

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

      No way, Todd!  Not on a first meeting.  Obsessive fist bumping is a lame coverup for germaphobes, xenophobes and wanna-be frat boys.  I’m not sure which Arrington is.  Reach out an offer your hand.  And when you shake someones hand, please actually grasp their hand… the limp noodle shake is universally considered a sign of weakness.

  • Guest

    Belly to belly with your clients and potential clients.  Face to face whenever possible.

  • http://www.heinzmarketing.com Matt Heinz

    Technology, in many cases, makes us lazy. It can automate previously manual, repetitive or time-consuming processes that certainly make our lives and jobs easier. But it can also let us slip into lazy practices that compromise the integrity and quality of our work.

    So let’s apply that to networking. Building a quality professional network is still really hard work. It takes significant investment and time. The work required to initiate, develop and foster an active, quality network is completely different and separate from the tools & processes we now have at our disposal to manage that network.

    These are two very different things. A large list of connections on LinkedIn is not a network. A huge list of Outlook Contacts is not a network, any more than the phone book is your network. A list of contacts means nothing, not matter how neatly they’re organized or how much information you can sort through about them.

    A quality network is what’s behind that data and behind that technology. Who do you know, how do you know them, what’s the context and depth and value of the relationship you have. Some relationships will be far deeper than others, granted. But building that depth (no matter how narrow or wide you choose to pursue it) takes a lot of hard work. Every day.

    LinkedIn and Outlook and Gist and any number of really fantastic contact management tools make the operations of networking easy. They speed up the organization and management functions. But the networking itself is still hard work. And that’s where your time is still very well spent.

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

       I agree, Matt… networking is a non-trivial investment of time and effort.  But it’s not painful effort.  If you’re spending time meeting the right folks it’s actually quite enjoyable and often exhilarating and inspiring — remember, your mission is to find folks that are a good fit for both of you… a win/win… and that’s actually fun!

    • Anonymous

      Hey Matt!   If I’m reading your comment correctly, you’re suggesting that online tools are an *enabler* to substantive, in-person networking (not a substitute for it), and I couldn’t agree more. You wrote a great post on the value of face-to-face interactions here: 
      http://www.geekwire.com/2011/dying-art-offline-relationship-building-playing-golf-today    
      And as such…I know I’ll see you again soon!  :)

      • http://www.heinzmarketing.com Matt Heinz

        That’s right.  The tools are just a means to an ends.  With networking, social media and other things today, we too often forget that. 

        Social media, if done correctly, is far more about the social than the media.  Networking is the same thing.

  • http://robiganguly.com/blog Robi Ganguly

    I’m sorry, what? Bob, I’m not sure you were at the same conference that I was at. Neil CLEARLY said you need to be networking and that you should be devoting a meaningful amount of time to it. He even related the story about how much time he spends on the phone and how it results in him losing the “first phone that rings” bet he has with friends at dinner.
      Glenn, following him, took issue with that stance and was focused on building a kickass product and selling the shit out of it. 

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

      If I mis-paraphrased Neil then my bad.  I reckon the video will be available at some point and then you can all lambast me.  In any case, my comments about the importance of networking stand and if it turns out that Neil agrees then we’re all good.

      • http://twitter.com/jennita Jennifer Sable Lopez

         You didn’t mis-paraphrase Neil, you’re downright wrong. It’s also not “all good” when you have his name all over this post saying he said something he didn’t. Not cool.

        • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

           I apologized to Neil and have already published his response below.  Neil was very gracious and I’m appreciative of that.  I also have already asked GeekWire to retract/correct the piece as it relates to Neil.  Thanks for being a defender of truth. 

  • http://twitter.com/jennita Jennifer Sable Lopez

    Hmm I’m a bit confused. I was at the Startup Conference and Neil was quite clear that Networking was VERY important. Glenn specifically said that he disagreed with Neil since Neil thought it was important and he didn’t. It was a part of Neil’s presentation that you should network as a new entrepreneur.

    • http://twitter.com/joehall Joe Hall

       I was not at the Startup Conference but I believe everything Jennifer Sable Lopez has to say.

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

      Hi Jennifer, I just noticed your tweet and I apologize if seemed that I wasn’t grateful to you specifically for calling me out on this.  When I saw your comment it was the second and I knew that it was very unlikely that two people were wrong…more likely it was me that was wrong.  You were the tipping point.  So I immediately reached out to Neil and to John Cook.  When I came back to post my apology I wanted to make sure it was a top-level response so that any new folks reading the thread wouldn’t miss it.

      • http://twitter.com/jennita Jennifer Sable Lopez

         Hi Bob! Thanks so much for the response and for clearing up the post. By the way I completely agree your post. :) I’m a huge proponent of networking as it helps in so many ways whether your an entrepreneur or simply on the lookout for a new job. I’m not always the best networker, but I did get my job at SEOmoz by getting my butt out and meeting people :)

        • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

           So glad to hear, Jennifer.  As Jonathan Sposato says, paraphrasing the , “put yourself in play and let the situation develop”.  Sounds like you did!

        • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

           So glad to hear, Jennifer.  As Jonathan Sposato says, paraphrasing the , “put yourself in play and let the situation develop”.  Sounds like you did!

      • http://twitter.com/jennita Jennifer Sable Lopez

         Hi Bob! Thanks so much for the response and for clearing up the post. By the way I completely agree your post. :) I’m a huge proponent of networking as it helps in so many ways whether your an entrepreneur or simply on the lookout for a new job. I’m not always the best networker, but I did get my job at SEOmoz by getting my butt out and meeting people :)

  • http://twitter.com/jennita Jennifer Sable Lopez

    Hmm I’m a bit confused. I was at the Startup Conference and Neil was quite clear that Networking was VERY important. Glenn specifically said that he disagreed with Neil since Neil thought it was important and he didn’t. It was a part of Neil’s presentation that you should network as a new entrepreneur.

  • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

    I sent an email to Neil letting him know about this post and offering to publish a correction if I got him wrong on the subject of networking.  My apologies to Neil and all who love him if I mis-heard him.

    So… what do you think about the importance of networking? ;)

  • Lisa

    Excellent advice on making your focus trying to help the person you meet, not what they can do for you.

    One tip on logistics: Immediately after meeting someone, note a few key words about them either on the back of their card or in your contacts, so you can remember them.

    Another graceful exit – an empty glass that needs refilling. Or simply say it was talking to you, see you at the next one and move on.

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

       Good tips, Lisa.  I’ll have to remember to drink more quickly when the conversation is not a good fit.  ;)

    • Anonymous

      +1, Lisa!  @mattheinz:disqus was good enough to publish my thoughts on the topic on his blog: 

      http://www.heinzmarketing.com/2011/11/seven-tips-for-more-effective-networking/ 

      • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

        Those are great tips, Rebecca!  Everyone… quick… go read this:

        http://www.heinzmarketing.com/2011/11/seven-tips-for-more-effective-networking/

        I REALLY love #5: 

        Be succinct.  In the early stages of a dialogue, try not to speak in
        paragraphs (serial monologuing can be a real snoozer).  If someone asks
        what’s new, or wants to hear about your latest venture/business/idea,
        see if you can describe it in one sentence. It’s a good litmus test for
        the clarity of your thinking.  Good sign: they’re asking questions (see
        tip #4).  Bad sign: eyes glazing over.

  • Thomas R.

    Yeah I was at the conference and very clearly remember Neil’s slide saying that networking is important and you should spend at least 10% of your time doing it. He used an ancedote of when he needed a buyout from Microsoft and got in contact with Steve Ballmer through one of his connections.

    Maybe before you learn to network you need to learn to LISTEN. I believe that’s what Dale Carnegie highlights as the most important thing to do when trying to connect with people.

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

       I deserve that.  Sorry you didn’t see my prior post with Neil’s response.

      • Thomas R.

        Bob, you’re a stand up guy from admitting your mistake and doing what you can to correct it. I respect that. 

        • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

           Thank you, Thomas.  I felt like an idiot.  But I suppose it’s healthy to feel that way occasionally; keeps you grounded.  /-:

  • Forrest

    Recently I was faced with implementing a really messed up system. Everyone apparently thought it was great, except me. I almost quit the project over it.

    Instead, I dug deep and asked myself why it pissed me off so much. I came up with a better system, documented it, detailed its benefits… but never mentioned how screwed up the other system was.

    It looks like my system will now be the one that gets implemented.

    The moral of the story, and how it fits here, is that if you know you’re right about something you’re almost always better off focusing on the positive and leaving out the negative, especially when it comes to pointing fingers. That way you move forward and keep yourself from having to issue retractions.

    Hopefully the positive aspects of what Bob said wont be overshadowed. I still don’t do enough networking, and to some extent I would say that’s a large factor in how much momentum I am able to gain. Plus some of Bob’s tips provide clarity to some of the situations I find myself in.

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

       Thanks, Forrest.  Much appreciated.  Life long learning… life long learning.

      At the time of writing this piece (between midnight and 1:30am last night) it felt important to make the point that advice comes from a perspective and that it’s the entrepreneur’s job to sort out what elements are relevant to them.  It’s also important to recognize which elements aren’t, and how to interpret even the ones that they don’t think are relevant so that they can at least understand the message that the advisor was trying to convey.  Around TechStars, this is called “mento whiplash” and it’s a huge challenge for the teams.  Somewhere around 1:15am that bit got jettisoned because the thing was just getting too long… and I was getting too tired to figure out how to work it in. 

      Even if I would have worked it in, I still would have made the blunder of pegging Neil as an anti-networker… which for the record he is not.  He gets it.

  • http://www.puzzazz.com/ Roy Leban

    Great post and advice that every entrepreneur should follow. Networking is both very important for an entrepreneur and a waste of time for many.

    My biggest mistake early in my career was #2 — it is so much easier to talk to people you already know. I wasted plenty of opportunities. I think there’s one minor thing missing from the post, related to #5 — don’t overdo it. You want to spend 5% of your time networking and 95% of your time working on your company, not vice versa.I’ll take the opportunity to put in a plug for SeattleTechCalendar.com, the free high-tech community calendar I created, which now has more than 50 community partners contributing events. Whatever your interests, there’s an event where there are new people to meet practically every day. GeekWire embeds a SeattleTechCalendar widget in the right-hand column, so it’s always easy to get to.

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

       I know what you mean, Roy.  I used to start every event by making a b-line for folks I knew and then hanging with them the whole time.  Doh!  I still like hanging out with my homies.  But if that’s all I do then I feel like all I did was party… which is a fine thing to do once in a while as well.  ;)

    • Anonymous

      Well said Roy, I completely agree. I think with what Neal was saying at the event, Glen was under-emphasizing a point that Neal really over-emphasized. 

      I appreciate the tips Bob. It’s always nice to gain the perspective of the not-so-nascent guys out there!

  • http://www.joshuamaher.com/ Joshua Maher

    Great post Bob – too often people with the right connections confuse networking with hanging out at an event somewhere. They often forget that when they ask people in their direct network to connect them with people they are networking. There is definitely a difference between having an existing network to rely on and needing to build a network though and as you state a purposefully built network is not hard to build and makes all the difference in the world.

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

       Thanks, Josh.  You’ve done a ton to present networking opportunities to the startup community — hope you’ll keep that up! 

    • Anonymous

      And Josh, you are  walking the talk– a total pro!  I’m reminded of your blog post a couple years back: 
      http://joshmaher.net/2009/11/12/thoughts-on-networking/

  • http://josephsunga.com Joseph Sunga

    Coffees OR lunches with 2 new people each week. That’s what I’ve been doing, and for me it’s done wonders. They’ve been super helpful, and I’ve been able to slowly increase my network in this town. The struggle really is keeping the relationship fresh long after you connect for coffee/lunch — and I’ve been working hard to close those loops with folks.

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

       That’s 104 new connections/year.  Good pace! 

      I hope someone will write a post on tips for effectively keeping relationships “fresh”! 

      • http://josephsunga.com/ Joseph Sunga

        Yeah, when you step back and take a look at that — it’s a lot. That doesn’t even take in consideration the people you get introduced to from that initial coffee/lunch. Slowly, but surely — right?

  • Guest- S in Seattle

    Great post, Bob! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Donovan-Kliegg/100001187341261 Donovan Kliegg

    Great post, but what’s wrong with partying?  I get tired of coding at my kitchen table and have to interact with humanity.  I endeavor to be pleasant and try to help people where I can, but for the most part I’m just there to enjoy meeting people.  Humans, especially the entrepreneurs that get off their butt to meet other entrepreneurs, are great people!

    My thinking is people treat networking TOO seriously.  Your networking investment has to be budgeted into hours and generate ROI.  How lame is that?  A friend for life is way more valuable than a business contact.  Is it really all about money?  Why sell yourself short that way.  

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