In a GeekWire guest post last week, Bob Crimmins said I was “flat wrong” when I advised a group of would-be entrepreneurs to focus on their product and their customers, not conferences, parties, lunches, coffees or other networking events.
Bob offered a delightful guide on how to network but still I question whether networking is more important than all the other things an entrepreneur tries to find time to do.
Yes, for example, recruiting is very important, and a big network helps with that, though I think this mostly depends on your reputation among colleagues, not among contacts.
Where we actually disagree is on Bob’s main point: that networking is more important to a 25-year-old entrepreneur than it is to me. If you’re 25, you’re exactly the one who has to focus on a product the most.
What establishes your credibility is not a firm handshake but a good product. You want every product you’ve ever designed or built, starting from your first college internship, to make money.
The reason that Zillow’s launch was anticipated like the Second Coming was not because its founders went to the right parties; it was because the Zillow team had first holed up in some quiet corner of the Microsoft campus and built an amazing product, Expedia.com.
A mind-blowing product gives you credibility with any audience, not just the press. Meeting new investors, for example, is not hard. It’s the investor’s job to meet any entrepreneur with a faintly plausible idea.
What’s hard is showing investors a product worth a multi-million investment. The same is true of partners and customers. No one will like you so much that she’ll buy or promote your product if it doesn’t work. And odds are, if you’re an entrepreneur, it doesn’t work, at least not as well as you’d like.
Most great ideas and great products emerge from quiet, lonely places, not crowded rooms. Only when far removed from interruptions can we achieve what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described as “flow,” a state of effortless concentration so deep that you lose your sense of time, of yourself, of your problems.
In his original research, creative people’s description of this state was so compelling that Csikszentmihalyi defined it as an “optimal experience.” Often the only time I have for flow is in the evenings and on airplanes, which is exactly when many people spend their time networking.
So while networking is undoubtedly beneficial, there are many beneficial things to do that we just can’t get to; I also need, for example, to do more pull-ups. The most important decisions I make are what I decide not to do, and I mostly decide not to network so I can focus on what really matters: products and customers.
This is especially true at a startup, where I’ve always felt that I’m on the bridge of the Titanic and we’re all about to drown – or, on a good day, that we’re one idea, one quarter, one customer away from hitting it big.
What I love – what I need — is the sense of urgency and focus this gives you, which becomes even more ferocious when you finally have children, but still have to keep up with the 25 year-olds who don’t. If I’m lucky enough to get invited to a talk, a conference or a party, I want to come, but end up thinking about everything I didn’t get done today and regretfully decline.
Consider the people who get invited to all the events. You don’t meet Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos or Larry Page at many conferences – it’s hard even to imagine them at parties — because they prefer to spend most of their time working on products. The point is not just that they don’t do much networking now, it’s that they never really did. To build a great social network, you have to be anti-social.
This doesn’t mean you have to be a hermit. I, for one, meet another Seattle entrepreneur every few months. Bob would fairly describe this as networking, but neither I nor the other entrepreneur is trying to build a relationship that we can later use to generate a sale. I emailed this entrepreneur out of the blue, and now I genuinely like him.
The result isn’t a network of many people yelling at one another in a crowded room. It’s just me slumped in a chair in his office, comparing notes about the best time of day to send email to our customers, or how much he pays per square foot of office space.
The irony of course is that one of the first things I did when I came to Seattle was to throw a big party, “The Naked Truth.” It seemed like there were so few parties back then, and I was just overcome at how the summer nights here swelled and glistened like over-ripe fruit.
We never thought The Naked Truth would help us make a better website or sell more houses. We hoped it would help with recruiting, and it did. We hoped it would be fun and it was. It was a reward for a year of work, not itself more work. Redfin’s first employee burned out the engine on his mom’s truck trying to haul 8 elephant kegs to the event; we gave him $500.
These days, if you’re looking for a crowded room, you can easily find it. There’s a party almost every night. The technology industry has become a lifestyle as much as a calling; I am very, very glad it has become less lonely. It’s just that when I go to these conferences and meet people just starting out, the only advice I can offer them is: “Just get lucky, then work hard.”
And anyone can get lucky, anyone can work hard. What I love about the technology industry is that the winners aren’t in the club-house or the steakhouse. They’re in the garage.
Glenn Kelman is the CEO of Redfin, a technology-powered real estate broker. You can follow him on Twitter @glennkelman.