By Fred Swaniker
Several years ago, I attended a large luncheon in Silicon Valley where some of the most successful entrepreneurs and executives were present. The guest of honor was the wife of one of the highest profile Silicon Valley billionaires, and everyone in the room was lining up to speak with her.
Seeing the long line to meet her, I instead decided to take the first empty seat I could find at a nearby table. I found myself sitting next to a woman who was quietly sitting by herself, dressed very informally. I struck up a conversation as I was curious to learn about her. As it turned out, the woman ran the foundation for an even bigger Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was worth probably twice the woman that everyone else in the room was trying to talk to! I got her contact details and left that lunch with the most powerful contact. Everyone else in the room had ignored the woman at my table, perhaps judging her by what she was wearing or the fact that she wasn’t ‘famous’.
That experience reinforced one of my key beliefs about networking. Networking is not about chatting with the “big shots” at a cocktail or taking selfies with famous people. It’s about trying to make a genuine connection with everyone you meet – whether they can be useful to you or not.
Very often many of the best opportunities you will get in life will come from trusted relationships with people you least expected would be useful to you.
Networking is very important—whether you’re an entrepreneur or employed by a company.
In business, capital is key – but when most people think of capital they think of financial capital. I believe that there are 2 other types of capital that are even more crucial than financial capital. These two forms of capital are actually the pre-conditions to getting and growing financial capital: human capital (the outstanding people on your team), and social/relationship capital (which comes from networks).
I want to share with you the importance of investing in your social capital by networking effectively.
Networks enable you to find investors for your business, great people to hire and potential customers. Networks open doors with government, and provide you with great advice, mentorship, potential business partners, and so much else. If you work for a company, networks can help you tap into opportunities to further your career or to drive revenue for your company. That catchphrase “your network is your networth” is true – personally, I’ve only been able to start and sustain all my ventures because of the people I have in my network.
But how do you build a meaningful network for yourself?
The key thing to remember is that networking is a long-range game.
Don’t expect to meet someone at a cocktail and then immediately ask them to be your mentor, give you a job or provide capital for your business. That is a big turn off for most people. You have to take time to cultivate an authentic relationship before you can ask for anything – people can usually sense when you’re just to move too fast and they’ll shut down.
I usually think of networking not as a once off transaction, but a process that has 4 key stages:
Connection: Think of this as “the spark” – the initial conversation at the networking dinner or your university’s alumni mixer. This is when you meet someone for the first time. Your goal should simply be to get to know them – their background, values, interests—and to establish what you might have in common. This is NOT the time to ask for anything.
Relationship: If, after the initial connection, the spark continues (e.g. you both exchange emails, calls, and genuinely want to meet again), then you move to the next stage of networking: a meaningful relationship.
During this stage, you spend more time together and find out whether your initial gut instinct from the earlier phase (the ‘connection’) is true or not. Do you really share the same values? Is that area of common interest really there, or did you misunderstand each other? There should be no hard feelings at this stage if one of you starts to realize that you’re not on the same page anymore. The relationship should come easy. If one of you feels like you are forcing things, then this is not a relationship that will last beyond the connection. This phase is the most important part and will take a long time to develop. Relationships also wax and wane. That is okay. But once a true relationship is developed, you can now proceed to the next stage: trust
Trust: Trust is the critical ingredient that is needed to take the relationship to the next level, and it develops in very few cases. During the ‘trust’ phase, both parties will realize whether the other party is truly legitimate or fake. Are they a person of integrity? Do they deliver on what they say they will do? Have they been exaggerating or are they telling the truth? If someone is going to invest in your start up or recommend you for a job at their friend’s company, they need to have full faith in your character, because they are putting their reputation on the line in order to give you a leg up. You have to put in some work to earn their trust by being transparent about who you are and what you can really do.
Collaboration: This is the final stage in networking, where trust is so great that a significant business ‘transaction’ can actually occur (small ones may occur without trust, but you will never get a big business deal or investment without major levels of trust). Once you have trust with someone, you can finally ask that person to invest in your company, open doors for you with another major contact, or to risk their reputation in any other way. Anytime someone engages in a collaboration with you, they are taking risk. So only if they have developed trust with you will they take that big risk. The key thing to remember about collaboration is that it’s a two-way street. For example, if the other person is giving up their time to mentor or advise you, think about what you can bring to the table as well. How are you helping the other person to fulfill their own dreams and needs? What are you offering that the other person can benefit from? Are you the best employee they’ve ever had? Are they happy because they invested in your company and your company is giving them good returns? Are you giving them access to your own special networks? There must be something tangible they are also getting from the collaboration. You should also know when enough is enough. No one wants to feel like you are simply draining them by constantly asking for things. Try and widen your network so you’re not always asking the same few people for things. The more expansive and powerful your network is, the more others will want to be part of it because then they also benefit from your relationships.
I hope these 4 steps will help you build your own powerful network in a systematic way.
But remember this: 95% of the people you engage with will never become “useful” to you in anyway. That is absolutely okay.
Don’t feel like you are not succeeding in building your network if you are not doing ‘transactions’ with the vast majority of the people in your network. I truly believe that life is not about how much money you make, but about who you spend that life with – your family, loved ones, colleagues, and your personal and professional network. That, at the end of the day, is your true wealth. So invest genuinely in building relationships with people. It’s the only way you will eventually get to the point of trust and collaboration. And even if you never get to that point with most people, you would have had great fun along the way and you will truly be ‘richer’ as a result of those meaningful relationships.
Are you investing in your relationships? How are you accumulating social capital, in a truly genuine way?