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.

Glenn Kelman

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.

Tech journalists at The Naked Truth event in Seattle in 2007. Photo: Matt Kowalczyk

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.

Comments

  • http://www.puzzazz.com/ Roy Leban

    You’re both right. On Bob’s post, I wrote “You want to spend 5% of your time networking and 95% of your time working on your company, not vice versa.”

    To extend that, I think even the 25-year-old entrepreneur needs to spend that 5%. If you’re 25, you may not know yet what you don’t know. You need to build a network of people who can help you, advise you, root for you, etc. (and hopefully, you’ll help some of them too). If you’re older, you may well know better what you don’t know and you may already have a great network, but you can always learn more. In either case, if you don’t get your ideas out there and get feedback from random people, not just your echo chamber, you may never learn what is right and wrong about what you’re doing. Networking is healthy. But don’t overdo it — it is not a substitute for actually building something.

  • http://twitter.com/chrisamccoy Chris McCoy

    Product is the organizing principle. Build the right one, and the world organizes around it. Couldn’t agree with this post more from a pure productivity standpoint.

    But. Us entrepreneurs need friends. And inspiration. Networking is really good for that.

    At end of day, what matters the product so it’s a fine balance between the two.

    Both really good points, and I appreciate you writing them. 

  • Savan Kong

    To this day, my mother thinks my greatest accomplishment for my years at Redfin was getting a new engine for the truck. 

    • http://blog.redfin.com/ GlennKelman

      She should take a look at the website Savan…

    • http://www.puzzazz.com/ Roy Leban

      Funny! My mom has used software I wrote for a very long time, but she never thought any of it was a great accomplishment, certainly no bragging about it. It was just what I did. But when I wrote my first book, she put it on her coffee table.

  • Deva Vu

    If you have the right people, mentor and or investors, no need to do the glad hand scene.

    Head down, full speed ahead.

  • Anonymous

    Before becoming an Agent at Redfin, I worked at a large real estate brokerage. Before they taught us anything about contracts or negotiating the best deal for our customers, they taught us how to maximize our “circle of influence”–friends, family, and neighbors. I always felt uncomfortable talking about real estate with others because of this network-to-get-a-customer culture.

    If they want to build a sustainable business, they ought to focus on the product, their agents, by investing in them with powerful tools and deep knowledge of the market, contracts, distressed property sales, and customer service skills.

    There are a lot of really great agents in traditional firms where there exists this networking culture, but I think they’re great not because they joined the most clubs or attended the most parties, but because they kick ass for their customers.

    • CBRN

      Need a tissue? There’s something brown on your nose.

  • Guest

    Very good post, Glenn and very good advice to young entrepreneurs.
    Goes from the heart 

  • CBRN

    You tell people they need to be “in the garage” and not worry so much about networking. Yet every couple weeks we’ll read some 1000 word manifesto from you which is really a not so direct way of networking.

    Heed your own advice. Your company had some massive fee hikes within the last couple weeks, your focus should be there. Please concentrate on Redfin and not these missives you write several times a month.

    • http://blog.redfin.com/ GlennKelman

      It’s a fair criticism.

      Writing is just a more thoughtful process for me than networking, and though I sometimes work on an idea that isn’t directly Redfin-related, I mostly write about Redfin’s customers and products on our own blog. It’s the most efficient way to communicate with Redfin’s users.
      As for the upgrade in our service and the 16% price increase to pay for it, we first began a trial of this upgrade last summer in Boston, then Chicago and San Diego.We’ve spent plenty of time talking to customers since then, face to face, in focus groups, through analyses of online behavior; they all seem to like the product much, much better.

  • http://www.likebright.com/ Richard Luck

    I have to go with Glenn on this one. 

    Being one of those who have “family and children” and is trying to keep up with the growing number of 25 year-olds who don’t, I really don’t have time for most of the networking events in town.  Very simply, I derive little personal, social or business value from them. 

    If there is someone I really want to meet, this town is open enough that I can usually email them directly and they’ll agree to have coffee with me.  Trying to grab their attention and then actually have a conversation with them in a crowded room seems pointless.

    What’s crystallized for me in the past year, and has proven itself repeatedly since my arrival at LikeBright, is that shipping quality product and taking care of customers is really the only thing that matters.  And when done consistently, it opens up more doors than any networking event could ever hope to do.

     

  • Rob Nichols

    I
    like this debate, but I think those who down play the value of networking, are
    making a critical error, with their definition of networking.   I would agree, that time spent on product
    and process is much more valuable than meet and greet events, but blog seems to
    define networking as those type of events. 
    In my mind,  to network, is so much
    more, and thus, a very critical part in both transition and building a business.   So, 
    here are what I would consider valid networking events;

    ·        
    Finding
    a critical contact via Linked in, and arranging a meeting with a specific
    agenda, and defined desired output

    ·        
    By
    chance, running into a connection (i.e. son’s assistance wrestling coach) who
    happens to have insight in the industry you are trying to reach

    ·        
    Industry
    specific round tables, events that would lead to meaningful communications

    ·        
    Volunteering
    for an organization, that might be loosely connected to an industry you are
    interested in

    ·        
    Certifications,
    continuing education

     

    I
    disagree with Glenn’s original premise of lack of value in networking, only to
    the extent that he seems to define as evenings at “official networking events”
    .  The true value of networking is having
    a clear goal in mind, and creating those moments and contacts that could lead
    to a mutually beneficial relationship.  

  • http://www.nosnivelling.com daveschappell

    This is just techochamber startup debate #975, where everybody’s right. I think I smell another area where everyone could find some more time to focus on their products…

  • Guest- S in Seattle

    Wow. Comparing networking to a pull up. I’m honestly a bit surprised at this one. I’ve been admittedly one of the biggest supporters of RedFin in Seattle but this is a bit disappointing for me to read and I will no longer be supporting Redfin. If the only advice you can give an entrepreneur is “go get lucky and work hard,” I find that hard to believe and incredibly sad. 

    • Deva Vu

      Boy,that will teach him for taking the time to share his insights.

  • Wchapman

    Your examples are superstars. What about everyone else? Does networking play a different role for them? Maybe a tad more important if you’re not on the front page of the WSJ? No doubt quality of the product comes first, but is working in the garage enough to build a business?

  • Camerastring

    really, are we really wasting this many brain cells on this subject?

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