— Vala Afshar (@ValaAfshar) June 7, 2017
Let’s talk about the Power of Networking
If you’ve spent the last several years becoming an amazing software developer, first let me just say that you’re awesome. There are very few people on the planet (by percentage) that can make a computer do what they want it to do. And while you may not consider yourself an expert, simply because you know others in front of you know more, the reality is that there are far more people behind you than in front of you.
But today, I want to give you a single piece of advice.
Great programming doesn’t equal great sales
What you know by now is that being great at writing code won’t necessarily result in fantastic sales of your product. It’s a sad truth and one we often learn the hard way.
I remember creating an outline for a course and talking to a friend who asked me what kind of sales I thought I’d make. My numbers were pretty high. And I got that look, you know the one that tells you that maybe they think you’re crazy, and it immediately put fear into my soul.
What if I could create something but couldn’t really sell it? Would it be a waste of time? Maybe I shouldn’t do it.
But his point wasn’t that I couldn’t create the content or the product. He was prepping me for the next question.
Great sales aren’t a result of asking all your friends to buy your product
His next question was what kind of prep I’d done to develop an audience for my product.
Oh yeah, that.
My answer was “nothing.”
And his smile was filled with knowing empathy. And I accepted the challenge. I needed to prep the audience better.
I needed to find the audience. And a consistent way to bring them to me.
There are often two routes we take
When you realize that you need to build an audience for your products, there are often a couple ways we think about doing the work.
One response is the delusional workaholic. One version is that we work non-stop. We just work harder. Some of us (and I’ve done both of these things) just keep adding more features and more bonuses with the hope that it will materialize in sales. Others start talking to anyone and everyone to start pitching them on our upcoming product. It’s a shotgun approach where we target anything that moves. Again, I’ve done both.
The other response is the strategic networker. The other approach that we can take, which takes more work, is to find the influencers and get to know them. Legitimately – not in a crazy “please share all my stuff with your audience” kind of way. And this work is work because a) you have to find them and then b) you have to build relationships and rapport with them.
While there are two approaches, I recommend the second. But there’s another reason why this is hard.
What got you here won’t get you there….
Most of us were taught, at an early age, to not talk to strangers. This was one of the points I made when I recently spoke in Seattle. In my keynote speech there I looked at a lot of the truths that no longer apply anymore. (You might like the talk.)
But back to my point here – learning to talk to strangers, to strategically network – isn’t easy because it feels so uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, we have to do it. Because like the Reid Hoffman quote above, there are tons of smart people outside of our own circles of influence. And they can help us, in all sorts of different ways. If only we learn the power of networking.
Ten ways to leverage the power of networking
1. Develop your capacity for curiosity
The most important thing I had to learn about networking was that I needed a greater capacity for being curious. When people tell me they work for a company that pharmaceuticals outsource their critical trials to, I used to have nothing to ask about that. I just looked at them with a blank and dumb look.
These days I think I can sit next to anyone in a cafe or plane and if they tell me what they do, I can develop a question or two about it. But the trick isn’t having a set of questions ready to go. The trick is to be genuinely interested in the answers I’m about to hear. And that took some work.
2. Become generous
People will tell you that the first rule of networking is to give before you ask. I agree, except it’s my second rule. Be someone who gives. Be faster at giving. Not because you plan to make a big ask, but simply because you want to develop your “brand” around being someone who is generous and can be called on for help.
I’m not saying you have to pay for everything. Be generous with what you have. If you know a lot about a topic, be generous with it.
I’ll be honest, I have some friends who excel at something. I have other people I’ve known (who aren’t really friends) who also excelled at that topic. But I’m friends with the first set because they were always willing to share their expertise. The others were stingy with their knowledge.
Now I’m not saying you have to give away all your services. I pay my friends when I hire them for work. But being known as someone who is generous will help you far more than being known as a stingy expert.
3. Be fantastic at follow-ups
One of the things I see all the time is people who reach out to me with an ask. They’re part of my network and they want something from me. But hey, I get 200 emails a day (at least) and that can mean that by evening I may have forgotten the good intentions I had that morning.
The best folks at networking get that. They understand I’m busy. As I understand it about others I’m networking with. So what we all need to get good at is not taking the silence as a statement and instead just follow up.
Become a wizard at knowing when, and how much, to follow up. Too much and you’ll become annoying. But too little and opportunities will be missed.
Sometimes the simplest thing is simply to ask, “When would be a better time, if this isn’t a good one, to follow up?” I always answer it honestly.
4. Meet people way outside your circle
One of the challenges we face is that all our friends know all our friends. We create these networks of friends who know each other – because we like our friends. We like them to know each other. But as a result, if you need something and your friends can’t find it, their networks (matching yours) may not do better.
So get good at meeting people from way outside your smaller circles of influence. That will significantly raise the potential of a more powerful network.
5. Get good at introductions
When I meet people, and I can’t recall who I stole this from, my goal for our first encounter is to learn enough about them to brag on them as I introduce them to someone else. This can sometimes take a few minutes of me asking questions. But man, when I get the right info, I can introduce them like no other.
Be generous with your introductions. Be a connector.
I may not be the smartest guy in the room (and that happens a lot), but being someone who knows someone that can answer your question is a really nice skill to have. Develop it.
6. Develop your transparency
Now I’m not suggesting that you open up your first conversation with someone with a story about your bladder or back problems. But one of the things we often forget is that we’re human beings, not human doings. What you do for a living is only part of who you are. And the same is true for who you’re meeting.
Get to know other people beyond their job title, and make sure you’re sharing the other parts of your life that are interesting to you. People know I like books, hats, cigars, and vacations. Oh and other nice things (watches, pens, fine meals, etc). We connect on those things more often than we do on work sometimes and it helps us with “chit chat.”
So share about your life as you meet people. But don’t overshare.
7. Ask for advice but not a meal
It’s fantastic to ask for advice. It puts the other person in a position of authority which is a compliment (even when it’s true) and also acknowledges that you value their insights and opinions. And just because you ask for it doesn’t mean you need to follow it. But you should understand it.
If you don’t understand it, conversations get even better when you probe further. It says you’re actually interested, not just using some networking trick. And please, don’t ask a question you already know the answer to, just so you can talk more. It’s the fastest way to get me to move on.
But, unless you know them very, very, super very well, don’t ask to meet for a meal. Those meals take time. Not just meal time. Driving time. Disengaging from work time. And the honest truth is that if the engagement is all going to be one-sided, there’s not a lot of incentive to burn that much time.
So instead of creating an awkward situation where someone has to spell out that they don’t want to carve off that much time for you, instead ask them for a quick chat (time-boxed), or for coffee.
When people ask me to join them for a meal (when I don’t know them), so they can, “pick my brain,” I’m always more than happy to send them to my Clarity account. It highlights that there’s value in talking, and scopes my generosity.
But I prefer to simply suggest you ask people for lots of other things beyond meeting for a meal.
8. Use social networks for networking
I’ll admit it – I love LinkedIn. I also use Facebook groups more than Facebook. And my favorite network is twitter – for short and quick conversations. That 140 characters is awesome because people have to get to the point.
But my core recommendation here is to use these networks as places for networking. Not just publishing photos or links. Use them for research, relationship building, and making introductions or connections. They’re powerful solutions for that, and can really help make networking easier.
9. Leverage technology without automation
If you’re going to a conference, use their website to find the attendees and see if you can determine who you want to meet. You might even be able to use their site to reach out to folks.
If you’re coming back from a conference, use your own CRM to remind you for follow ups.
These tips are fantastic ways to leverage technology without turning networking into a simple automation solution. Trust me, “It was great meeting you at (conference name), and I think many of the things we’re doing here at (company name) would be really interesting to you and (company name)” doesn’t sound authentic.
So even though it doesn’t scale, write personal notes, personal emails. It doesn’t mean you can’t use technology. Some of those personal notes don’t have to go thru snail mail – you can send them via FB messenger or Slack.
But resist the urge to automate all your networking.
10. Create events to connect people
And the last piece of advice I would give you about networking is to create your own events where you can connect people. I speak at multiple conferences each year. In whatever city I’m in, I call around to find a good restaurant, find how many people we can seat (anywhere from 8-25), and then invite people (both old and new friends) from the event to join me one evening for dinner.
This approach allows me to see friends and enjoy a meal, but it also allows me to introduce some folks to each other who may not know each other. And if the introductions are done well, they can pay off down the road (simply because people are thankful for your help in making the right connections).
Wait, didn’t you say a single piece of advice?
Yes. Yes I did. Here it is – develop your networking chops like you’ve developed your product development chops. Because if you do, you’ll find that you:
- Create a network of folks that can evangelize your product faster
- Create the network you need to find the help you need faster
- Create new opportunities for sales from your network
So start learning to talk to strangers and making connections.