When new entrepreneurs ask me for advice, I sometimes tell them to NYFO — Network Your Face Off. Nearly everything I've accomplished in the past two years, from speaking on CNN to watching my company cross 1.7 million users in less than a year, can be directly traced back to connections I've made and help I've received from a network that is vast, diverse, and active.
The best networking suggestion I can offer? Always say yes to invitations, even if it's not clear what you'll get out of the meeting. I'm not arguing for long, pointless, unstructured conversations with everyone you meet. But many of my most fruitful relationships have resulted from a meeting or call in which I was not entirely sure what would or would not come of the conversation.
You could call it making your own luck, by increasing the odds of making the right connection. Because you can't assume that you know much about someone you don't know very well. You may know their occupation, industry, and job title — but you don't know what they may be an expert in, and you certainly don't know who they know.
Of course you can't possibly take every meeting. But regularly connecting without a reason or purpose — with people who seem to be doing interesting things — can have unexpected benefits. Two of the people who were instrumental in recommending me for Forbes 30-under-30 were serendipitous connections. Some of the best partnerships we've secured for The Muse (the company I founded) came through casual acquaintances who saw me and made a mental connection — even when I didn't.
Hand in hand with this philosophy comes another, highly complementary strategy: When you want something, broadcast that to everyone you meet. When talking about your desires for your business, be honest. A little candor, a little vulnerability, goes a long way in turning a conversation from trite to meaningful. For a period in January, I desperately wanted to land a partnership with Yahoo. For an entire month, I answered every "How are things going?" question with some variation of: "Great! I just started YCombinator, which has been an adventure. Now I'm trying to put together a partnership with Yahoo. How are things with you?"
Ninety-seven times out of a hundred, the conversation continued as normal, with a reciprocal introduction or update and additional exchanging of information and small talk. But three people I spoke to were different: They immediately responded by suggesting they had a former colleague, relative, mailman, or friend at Yahoo, and would I like an introduction? In thirty days, I went from no relationships at Yahoo to three warm introductions to power players who could make my desired content syndication partnership happen. Six weeks later, Daily Muse content went live on Yahoo! Shine.
I didn't know any of those three people had a Yahoo connection; in fact, they were hardly the ones I would have deemed most likely. And quite frankly, if I had sent out an email asking one hundred people in my network if they knew anyone at Yahoo, it would certainly have felt like an imposition. But the strategy of taking a broad range of meetings and letting everyone know the problem I was tackling — that strategy worked, and it has worked again and again in the months since. When doing this, be sure to deliberately pick problems that can be solved by introductions (fundraising, talking to certain companies) rather than those that require the sustained thoughts of individuals (product decisions, specifics of growth strategies).
You may be asking, how can I make these connections in the first place? Show up, and often. This should be obvious, but as a busy entrepreneur it's amazing how unappealing it is to socialize with people you don't know when you're working 16-hour days. But everything starts with showing up.
Commit to going to one industry-related event per week, then three, then eight. Sign up for events newsletters in your industry (The Fetch and Charlie O'Donnell's This Is Going to Be BIG are good examples for the New York City area). People also tend to offer opportunities to those who are most recently in their memory. I can't tell you the number of times I've gone to an event and exchanged a few warm sentences with someone I haven't connected with in a while — only to hear from them a few days later: "This opportunity to speak / present / fundraise / partner / win an award crossed my desk, and I thought of you." Why did they think of me? Because I'm a good fit for the opportunity, and they saw me yesterday. Be the person they saw yesterday as often as possible.
Networks are powerful, and when done right leave you surrounded by a core of individuals who are all rooting for your success and happy to help you. The building blocks of a great network aren't purpose-driven meetings — they're casual encounters, agenda-less coffee catch-ups, and even favors for people who don't seem to be in any position to help you right now. Build your network that way, and when you present your acquaintances with a problem they realize they can solve for you — they'll be right there with an offer to help.
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