Networking isn’t as mysterious as it is made out to be. It is simply talking intentionally to someone who could potentially help you in business.
It means being conscious of our interactions with others. You should seek to understand people/relationships better so you don’t miss out on a good relationship, a chance to help someone, or a chance to get help yourself. It’s about being aware of how you come off to others. It’s about building community.
Asking “Why is networking important in business?” is like asking “Why are relationships important in business?” Networking is simply the initial stage in your relationship with others.
Networking has the capability to build walls, but it can also open doors and help those with less privilege. You should always be aware that networking at its best is still a closed network, and doing your best to open it up as much as possible and lift others up changes lives.
I co-founded Binomial, a company that makes a GPU-friendly image compressor called Basis that improves download sizes and performance in apps. I started my business a few years ago. When I started, I had two months of savings until I had to get a job, no experience, and no good plans.
Networking was the key. I had hundreds and hundreds of conversations with potential customers, other entrepreneurs, experienced businesspeople, experienced programmers, and more.
I believe that was one of the single biggest factors in getting me to where I am now—running a successful company that serves some of the biggest names in games, virtual reality, mapping applications, interactive web apps, and more.
What are different ways to network?
“What are all the ways to meet humans?” is a similar question! Sometimes we have a goal in mind when we interact with people. For instance, if you want to make friends you can play video games with you might frequent an arcade or video game conference. If you want to date, you might go to a bar or a singles mixer. If you want to organize a volunteer effort, you might try being vocal about that effort while you volunteer. You could just go to a public park for each of these efforts and start talking to strangers, but you might be more effective (and bother others less!) with a more thoughtful approach.
In our case we want to build a tech business, one that is a positive force in our communities with happy customers that allows us to make a good living.
It’s helpful to zoom out for an overview, and I’ll go in more depth later:
Events: either online or in person
Local professional events
Social events people in the industry frequent
Social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr…): both posting to and interacting with people one-on-one
Online communities: Slack channels, open source projects, mailing lists…
Mentoring people in the industry
Volunteering related to the industry
Organizing your own events and communities: big or small, public or private
… and more!
A note on mentoring & giving back
I am passionate about making sure there’s a healthy balance between “giving” and “getting” in networking. The exact balance may differ between someone first starting out and someone who is very established, but should always be kept in mind.
You should care about others and help others selflessly. I believe you should do this without an explanation needed. You should do this even if it didn’t help your business—but it will.
You shouldn’t start all your networking conversations with “Hello, I need these things, can you do them for me?” There are lots of layers to why that’s a wrong blanket approach, which I’ll dive into later, but hopefully you have an intuition for why it’s not optimal. Since you wouldn’t converse selfishly, you similarly shouldn’t seek out conversations selfishly, based on how much you think people could help you.
If you seek to create value for others, others will create value for you. Nothing is more powerful than seeing reciprocity in action.
During the first year of running my business, I ran several fairly large charitable initiatives to help others. I mentored people one-on-one, organized a mentoring program, and taught free classes in the community.
I thought these were purely charitable initiatives that wouldn’t affect the business. I was very, very wrong. In fact, helping others is one of the single biggest drivers for new business I’ve ever had.
Even having done it, it is difficult to fully measure the effect of it. People talk, word gets around, you build a reputation.
But for me, it goes deeper than that: Balancing my time between helping others and being helped—and helping others without expecting anything in return—feels good for the soul, and makes you a better human being in your interactions with the people who can help you.
If all you do is take, others will notice. You’ll do worse in business and be a less happy human being.
Considerations for different industries and cultures
Expectations are different across industries and cultures.
Some industries will be more active on certain social media platforms. Some conferences and events may be more or less popular. Some industries have more prominent open source projects than others. Some industries are more used to networking with small business owners than others. Some may have more private events you need to search out, others may have many public events.
Industries vary not only in their tangible reality but also in their intangible cultures. In video games, for instance, the culture is usually very casual—people often show up in t-shirts and jeans, go out to drink beer, and socialize a lot outside of work. If you show up in a suit and speak with a formal tone, you’ll be seen as strange—but in other industries that won’t be out of place.
Make sure you assess the culture of the industry you want to target.
Making a good first impression
Set yourself up for success in a relationship by nailing the first impression, online or offline.
Communicating via dress and appearance
We don’t talk about fashion nearly enough in the tech industry. It is a well-studied form of communication in itself. Many pretend to be indifferent to it, but because we are human there are still norms, and those who are indifferent are either conforming to the norms unconsciously or at a disadvantage without realizing it.
I was a stylist at a clothing store for years. I would dress my clients for job interviews, work, promotion conversations, and launch events. I’d form long term relationships with them and watch just how big of an impact their clothes & appearance had on their career.
Clients often started from a place of believing “Clothes are so superficial. I don’t like this, I don’t want to care about such superficial things! People should like me for me!”
No one can know your whole life story. Even your closest confidants only know it in a rough outline compared to its actual detail. Your performance of you is a compression of everything you are and have experienced.
Your physical presentation is a compression about the compression. It helps other people understand how you expect to be related to. Your project has a README irrespective whether you want to be read or not.
Taking control of your first impression is not bowing down to the expectations of others and losing sight of your identity—it’s accepting this reality of the world, being knowledgeable about it, and being deliberate in how you want to come off to others. (And sometimes, it means refusing to conform, with intentionality.)
The key is simply being educated—we should never be opposed to learning about our world. I’ll also include practical, easy-to-follow tips for people who don’t want to study this in-depth.
Dress a notch or two more professionally than the average person in the group you’re talking to. Generally, be cautious about getting more casual than “business casual.” Remember that a business owner is not held to the same standard as an employee, and dressing a bit more professionally sets you apart and commands respect while still fitting in. (This advice also works for employees looking to get promoted: look the part you’re trying out for.)
Maintain your clothes appropriately. They are a professional tool.
Hair matters. Again, get a professional to help if possible—a hair stylist or barber will know what to do, and can adjust the look to how much effort you want to put into maintaining it while still keeping it good looking. You can help your stylist pick appropriate looks for you by showing them photos of any styles you like, and by telling them what your industry is or what the occasion you’re preparing for is.
Skincare also matters. Study skincare routines, and even if you’re going for a no-makeup look you might consider makeup. Skincare and proper makeup can make a big impact on clearing up blemishes, smoothing out skin, and highlighting good features so people focus on you and you look good & polished—not distracted by that red spot on your face. Once again, professionals know this area best. For makeup, Sephora and MAC are both examples of stores with stylists walking around, happy to give advice—you can watch YouTube and read extensively, or you can just take an hour to get higher quality advice.
Fit is hands-down the most important thing for clothing. If you take one thing away from this section, remember that. If you have an unusual body shape or height, consider getting a tailor. Try on lots of clothes until you find ones that fit. Fit is everything.
Whenever possible, get styled by a professional. This does not need to be expensive. Department stores like Nordstrom have experienced professionals who are happy to give you help. (This is generally free with the expectation that you’ll buy some of the clothes.) Stitchfix is an example of a styling service that is purely online. You will not outperform a professional at styling yourself, for the same reason that a fashion stylist is unlikely to run your tech business better than you would. Professional stylists are students of subtlety in presentation and have honed that ability for years.
Know the norms; break them judiciously
What about breaking the rules and going against social norms in appearances? As a woman in a heavily male-dominated industry, I know all about going against norms in this sense. Staying within norms helps insulate you from discrimination, but selectively transgressing can make you memorable in a good way.
The general advice is to stick mostly with the norm, but go against it in one way or slowly over time. The advanced advice is to get educated about fashion and how you present so that you can go against lots of norms in deliberate, intentional ways.
Consider this pervasive example from the tech industry:
The norm: Male-dominated, t-shirt and jeans
Good outfits which slightly tweak the norm:
Dark good quality t-shirt that fits well, dark jeans that fit well, and leather dress shoes that can work with a casual look
Neutral blazer that’s not too formal, t-shirt, dark jeans, and nice non-athletic sneakers that go with the color scheme
Dress shirt under a dark sweater, well fitted jeans, leather dress shoes on the casual side
Blazer that’s not too formal, nice t-shirt, dark jeans, flats
Shirt dress that isn’t too formal, leather belt, tights, leather boots
Not-too-formal blouse, simple jewelry, jeans, flats
Presenting as a professional online
In person, someone only has so many things to go off of to judge you before they talk with you. Your dress, your appearance, body language.
But online there’s so much more! You can fully expect someone to at least glance at your avatar or profile before responding to you, and many people will do a Google search as well. Let’s touch on making a good first impression—before you even get to talk to someone!— online.
You should have a website for your company, and one for yourself as well! Even if your company hasn’t gotten any customers or hasn’t made any money, even if it’s an early idea, that website can really help you land those initial deals.
This is another opportunity for you to improve your results by consulting with a professional. A designer can help you create (or select) a site appropriate to your industry, business model, stage in company development, marketing strategy, and so on.
Some high-level website tips:
The general design of your website should communicate professionalism. Design also communicates the type of industry you’re in or even how established you are. Early in my business, I was told that my company’s website looked a lot like a personal blog as opposed to a professional, established company—that couldn’t have been good for business! Just like you should be intentional about the extent to which you don’t conform with fashion, you should be selective about how your website would stand out from peers in your industry.
Make it obvious and explicit how a first-time visitor engages with you. What is your process? Can they do a free evaluation of your product? How can they contact you? What happens after they contact you? What are the steps from contacting you to purchasing? Who do you respond to (are you open to working with both small and big companies)? Following this advice can completely transform your business—you may be surprised at how many people don’t want to reach out if they’re not sure what’ll happen next or when they can expect to hear back.
Remove barriers to getting to talk to you. Especially in the early stages of a company, when you are optimizing for learning about customers, you should facilitate conversations in as many ways as possible.
Logos logos logos! Put company logos of customers you’ve worked with on your website if you have them, front and center, easy to see. If you don’t have permission to do this but have customers, describe them in as much detail as you can.
Highlight and amplify your the credentials of your team. Have you spoken at conferences (especially about your business)? Have you worked at well-known companies in the past? Have you done some impressive work? Citing these will help you build trust with your customers, and provides an icebreaker for initial conversations.
Crafting a good social media presence
There are lots of social media platforms: Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, LinkedIn, and more. Each network has a different userbase, encourages different user behavior, and attracts different kinds of people and industries.
Being active on a social media account can be a significant time investment. Be intentional about how you spend this time; you probably do not want to be open an account literally everywhere. I sell a B2B engineering product in the game industry. Twitter works very well in my space since a lot of technology professionals use it.
You should be mindful of the first impression a user will have when encountering you on a social network: your profile, description, and the content you post.
A corporate presence on a social media account is very different than a personal account. You almost certainly want a personal account that keeps in mind your company’s audience is watching; whether you should also have a corporate presence is a separate question. Some people have more success with this, some people have less—I think it depends again on your industry and customer base. Do your customers feel a need to trust and like you, or do they just want company updates? There’s no harm in getting a company account to test how well that does.
You can choose to not follow the below advice and still be successful— just like with clothing choices outside norms, the key to success is acting with intentionality. You should be educated about online dynamics, social norms, and the first impression different behaviors give off. These tips are meant to be easy-to-follow, safe guidelines.
Social media first impression tips:
Ensure your recent posts generally include something about your industry or business. For instance, my pinned tweet is always about my business. When I first started, I’d make sure at least 50% of my posts were about my product, work, or industry. It’s still at about that ratio these days, though I’m not so deliberate about that anymore. Keep in mind that this ratio varies depending on industry and social media platform—for instance, on LinkedIn you might want to keep that ratio closer to 100%. A high signal-to-noise ratio tends to help converting interested users into followers when your content happens to end up in front of them, for example via social amplification like retweets. It says “Yes, you are in the right place; following me will get you more of what you are interested in.”
Just like in fashion, you can go against the norms thoughtfully if you understand the reasons they exist and what your actions communicate.
Pause and think before posting. Some social media platforms (ahem, Twitter, ahem) are known for negativity and ranting. Your professional presence on social media is equivalent to you speaking to others in-person at a tech meetup. Would a stranger feel comfortable walking up and opening a conversation with you based on what they overheard?
Present your business as overall stable and doing well, at all stages. If your business looks like it is struggling or you look needy and desperate, potential customers will back away.
What if you’re not stable or doing well? There is a temptation to bluster or shade the truth in business. You should never compromise your ethics and you should be open about failures, but decide when and how to do this. You can talk about failures without dwelling on them. Do so in a way that makes you appear strong and positive, or feel free to address them only once you’re in a better place.
Be authentic, particularly on personal accounts. Part of social media is about building trust, showing that you’re a likable person who is nice to work with. You should feel free to have your personality and voice shine on your account.
If you need a private outlet that you would not feel comfortable with customers seeing, make an intentionally discrete account for use with close confidants, and check privacy settings carefully.
Don’t forget about helping others. Social media is a powerful tool for helping others and giving back, and doing this benefits us all.
Other online first impressions
Online communities: Slack groups, open source communities, etc. People are watching you interact in online communities and watching what you contribute to them.
GitHub/code repositories: If open source is important to your company, your code repository may be someone’s first impression of your business. Have excellent documentation. Strongly consider having a designed website for the project; Github’s branding makes people associate your code with Github and their brand impressions of Github, not with you. Make sure the person can get a good sense of what it does from a 6-second skim of the description. Have an easy to build/pre-built demo or sample code. If you accept contributions, make it clear how others can submit toward it. Treat all web presences of your company with the same seriousness that you would treat your website’s home page.
Creating helpful and meaningful content
Creating content is an amazing way to get people to come to you!
Speaking at local events: Events relevant to your industry may be plentiful locally, depending on where you live. They’ve been really helpful for me! Resources like meetup.com can help you find events. You can also browse social media and ask people you know in the industry for recommendations. Speaking at an intimate local events can be nicer than speaking at a conference because there’s much less pressure—the groups are typically pretty small and if you want to speak you can just message the organizer and ask! We’ll talk a little bit about how to make “asks” in the coming sections.
Speaking at conferences: I started getting invitations to conferences once I built up enough of a social media presence and had speaking at local events under my belt, but you can also submit at an application to speak at these. Conferences are excellent for building credibility and are especially useful for building credibility with developers if you sell to engineers.
Blogging: You can have a company blog or a personal blog. A lot of the advice on social media first impressions applies here. Blogs can be very good for PR, depending on your industry—for instance, getting blog posts featured in prominent publications or on aggregation sites like Hacker News has driven a lot of business to my company, and is something not possible with a social media post. I recommend sharing all blog posts through your social media accounts.
Mailing list: A mailing list delivers exclusive content, which isn’t available to the world at large, and is therefore can be a closer relationship than just interacting publicly over social media. You can send updates or newsletters via a mailing list; offering people the option of signing up for it is an excellent way to see who is interested and build a closer-knit community.
Podcasts, online conferences, and online events: Either being a guest or hosting your own podcast can be great for PR. Online conferences are very similar but usually include video and chat (think: webinars). These all have a lot in common with local events—being included either means just building up your social media presence and getting an invite or reaching out directly to the organizers. Interview podcasts in particular structurally need to have new guests to continue running the show, so don’t be shy about pitching yourself to them; you’re helping them out!
Online communities: There are so many! From public forums to private slack groups, you can also contribute here and post content.
Hosting your own events and communities: We’ll touch on this later!
Making direct asks
No matter your charm, success, social media following size, or amount of brilliant content posted—you will sometimes need to make the first move. In sales, this is called an “ask”—you’re straightforwardly requesting that someone do a specific something on your behalf.
The power of the informational interview
You may have your own preferred way to network, but this is one of my favorite ways to break the ice.
An informational interview has a simple theme and intent: Person 1 asks Person 2 to coffee or a video chat, and Person 1 spends that time asking questions and learning from Person 2. It is not a direct sales call. Neither party expects immediate business as a result of the meeting; it is just about learning.
I have participated in hundreds of informational interviews, on both sides of the table. They are fun to do, easy to line up, and extremely helpful.
This is basically how I learned business—I’d ask experienced business people out to coffee. They’re an excellent way to learn: business, design, coding, any topic! The internet has lots of resources to learn from, but having someone with experience give you customized advice and curated learning resources is invaluable.
It is also how I learned what not to do and what I didn’t want, to my surprise. I’d sometimes ask someone I really admired out for coffee, and realize that a path they went down or a decision they made was not as ideal as it seemed. One-on-one conversations are much more candid and authentic than the more polished, selective view you get from reading interviews. (Remember, the successful people you admire also struggle with the tension between being authentic and making a good professional impression. You’ve likely only seen their highlight reel.)
Let’s not forget about customer interviews too! Doing informational interviews with potential customers is an excellent idea—they’re much easier to get than a sales call in the early stages of business, they help shape your product to be better, and they can turn into real sales down the road.
Lastly, pay it forward and return the favor—be open to questions and let people take you out for an informational interview!
How do you ask someone to an informational interview? Here are some examples for asking over social media where your profile clearly introduces yourself—if writing over e-mail or you’re not sure your profile does the best job as an intro, add more context in the message text.
Student asking for chat
I’m a student at Imaginary University and I’m really interested in computer graphics. I really admire your work—I found your blog post on particle systems so interesting! I would love to get a chance to ask you some questions on getting a career in computer graphics and what you do—would you have time for a 30-minute Skype chat sometime?
[link to some kind of proof of work here—demos you’ve done, website, github, etc]
I’m looking to transition into a career in web development (I’m currently a photographer!) and I have learned so much from following you on Twitter—your blog post with advice on [technology topic] was really helpful! Would you be open to a Skype chat sometime? I’d love to ask about career advice and what technologies you recommend learning.
Informational interview about new company
I’m an aspiring entrepreneur and I’ve loved reading your tweets, they’ve given me a lot of hope and ideas. I’m currently working on building out [brief description of company]. If you have time, I’d love to ask questions around bootstrapping a small business (that’s been one of my biggest challenges) and how to scale/grow in a smart way. Would you be free for a 30 minute Skype call?*
[Stephanie’s website if she has one]
Asking about a new field
Writing cause I really liked what you were saying on Twitter about [technology topic they’re experienced with]. This is something I’d really like to learn more about actually—I work as an engineer at Imaginary Company now but I never get to touch stuff like that— would you mind if I asked you some questions over Skype sometime?
Offering unsolicited help to someone with less experience
Saw your blog post on Technology Topic—really enjoyed it! I’ve been working with that Technology Topic for several years now and just wanted to say if you ever need help feel free to ping me!
Meeting people at conferences & events
Conferences and events can feel like a hard thing to tackle when you’re not used to networking. (There are so many people, scary!)
But the beautiful thing about them is it is expected to network professionally there. If you go up to a random person in a park and start talking about your business idea, they are probably going to be confused. But if you go up to a person at a tech event or conference and start talking about your business idea, they’re going to get excited (and probably relieved that you broke the ice first!)
A conference is typically a large event, planned in advance, that requires travel and days blocked out of schedules. It’s extremely normal to plan networking meetings and events in advance for conferences. I usually start a month before the event; occasionally several months in advance.
How long should the meeting be? A 30-minute meeting does not leave much room for relationship building, but you can still get a lot done and is ideal for meeting with busy people or for when you’re in the early stage of business and not many people know of you. An hour is good for giving buffer between events and building up a relationship. A meeting over a meal is typically longer than that.
Figuring out where to meet can be a challenge itself for large events. A tip on that: coffee shops close to the conference can get quite congested—hotel lobbies have much more room and often have more open seats. If it’s in a warm climate, it’s also completely fine to meet at a park. If you need more privacy or even more professionalism, you can reserve a conference room, office, or professional space nearby for meetings. If the person you’re meeting with is busier than you are, feel free to suggest a spot but always offer to meet where is most convenient for them.
Since it’s often the longest open timeslot, try to always grab a meal with a group—remember, people are there to network, so feel free to gather one or two people you’d like to grab a meal with and tell them to feel free to invite more of their friends/contacts.
Be visible about meeting up and open to spur-of-the-moment invites. Announce you’ll be there on social media well in advance and again when you get to the conference. Post updates on social media of talks you see or events you go to. Talk to people and ask where they’ll be going next or what events are happening.
Feel free to message people asking to meet up! Here are some examples for meeting up at conferences, again assuming you’re asking over social media with a well-developed profile. Notice you need less introductory text here, since it’s very expected to network:
Meeting people you otherwise wouldn’t be able to
I’m a student at Imaginary University and I’m really interested in computer graphics, and I saw you were going to be at Technology Conference! If you’re free I’d love to talk with you about getting into the industry and your work in graphics—would you have some time?
Meeting a peer
I saw you’re going to be at Technology Conference—I’ll be there too Monday-Wednesday! I’d love to grab coffee sometime if you have some free time—I work at Imaginary Company doing [technology description].
Starting a prospecting conversation
I’m building a company that does Problem-They-Need-Solved ([link to company website]), and I’d love to ask about your pipeline and see what features are important to you if you have some time at Technology Conference. I can be flexible, just let me know if you have some time that week!
Asking for advice
I’m building a small company right now and learning so much about marketing and pricing. I really admire what you’ve been able to build with your company—would you mind if I asked you some questions over coffee at Technology Conference? Let me know if you have time open!
[link to company website]
Comporting yourself at events
What about for smaller events, or events within a conference? You can always feel free to ask to meet up with someone in advance at an event, but usually it’s best to meet them before or after to give them time to network in the short time of the event.
When you go to event, try to bring a business card, laptop with a demo or video ready to play about your product—any way to try to deepen a conversation or make it easier to keep in touch with someone.
Approaching people you don’t know during an event can feel scary, and is typically what people think of when they think of networking. I still get nervous about it and I do a massive amount of networking—I much prefer meeting with people one-on-one or in small groups. When I do go to events I typically try to find the people standing alone, close my eyes and take a deep breath, and introduce myself. I find that they’re usually relieved that you broke the ice. Another way to approach someone is to stand in a group and attentively listen to the person speaking— don’t worry, you won’t look like you’re intruding, this is quite normal at networking events.
One note on online events: These exist too! You’ll typically see them in the form of webinars and livestreams, originating on social media or in other online communities. Ask people you talk to if they know of any. Approaching people at these depends highly on the medium, but the same general advice applies: feel free to join into conversations, direct message people you don’t know, and remember to keep in touch.
Interacting with people on social media
Obviously doing informational interviews and meeting people at events can originate from a social media interaction—but how do you approach someone on social media in the first place? What’s the general etiquette for social media?
Here are some tips:
The expectation in professional spaces is that after you are following someone or otherwise connected, responding to their posts is both allowed and encouraged. Everyone, at all levels of success, likes knowing that their work is appreciated.
Try to respect peoples’ boundaries, and be especially cautious if engagement isn’t reciprocal and you don’t have a relationship. (Persistence is helpful in business; “ping someone every other day” is spammy.)
Remember a response is a first impression of you—when you interact, stay positive and try to contribute something meaningful, like linking to an article they might find interesting or bringing up a point they might not have thought of.
It is okay to message people you don’t know asking for an informational interview.
It is okay to ask someone you have already established a relationship with to share something you posted on their network, but make more deposits in your karma bank than withdraws.
Host your own events and communities!
Hosting events and communities can be powerful ways to talk to people and generate business. I’ve hosted many—sometimes they’re focused dinners with potential customers, sometimes they’re community events focused around giving back.
At any event, I start by talking to a small group of people, each one-on-one, to confirm their interest and be sure they’ll show up. If it’s an intimate dinner, this is all that’s needed.
If it’s a larger event this confirms that there is some interest and some people committed to coming. Successful events nucleate around a core of early people, much like successful movements.
This is also true of product adoption, which is one reason why networking is so important. You can get your first few users scrappily, when most users won’t want anything to do with you, and then the fact that you have users gives everyone else safety to come.
For public events, feel free to reach out to local organizations or companies to partner with. Companies are usually happy to donate space for events. It’s free PR for them and helps with other business goals like recruiting.
If it’s critical that the event be professional and polished and it’s a larger event, hire an event planner. Or, if you have the budget, consult with an event planner. Just trust me on this one. You can plan events without professional help, but it’s always better to have someone who knows what they’re doing helping you.
Feel free to plan events around conferences, but you can also plan events any time of the year and can travel to cities just to network at events you’ve planned. There are all kinds of events you can plan around your business: free classes around your product, public or private customer events, trainings, dinners with high-profile potential customers, etc. There are many events you can plan for the community, too: free classes on technology or business, talk series, interactive workshops, career advice panels, etc.
Making the most of meetings
Congratulations, you’ve got yourself a meeting!
How to approach the ask
Many people you talk to are going to want to help you build your business. When and how should you ask for help?
There are lots of different styles of “asks,” introductions, and conversation styles. Let’s go over some of them and discuss pros/cons.
Introducing yourself with a cold ask
A cold ask is introducing yourself with an immediate request for something. People who aren’t very familiar with business believe sales to be all cold asks, all the time. That isn’t accurate, but there is a place for them.
Most people won’t be able to help you right away. A cold ask will filter away anyone who can’t immediately help you—you won’t form a relationship with them, they probably won’t come back to help you down the road, they probably won’t refer you to someone they do know who can help you.
It can be tricky to craft and get right, especially since you’re unlikely to get good feedback from the people you’re sending it to. If you’re new to this, I recommend getting it reviewed by someone with experience and starting with messaging a small number of people and slowly expanding after judging reaction.
With this ask, it’s common advice to send several polite follow-ups. If you do this poorly, it can be annoying. Done well, it is simply helping another busy professional manage their schedule. Keep the follow-up simple, concise, and polite.
Do you have 30 minutes this week to discuss whether we can improve your asset pipeline?
Making cold asks is hard and awkward, particularly for people who are sensitive to avoiding other people. On the flipside, it is efficient, lets disinterest parties signal that easily, and makes sure that everyone is on the same page.
Consider a job fair. Everyone at the job fair is there with an objective: they want to hire someone or they want to be hired. You don’t need to spend a lot of time building a relationship prior to saying “Actually I’d like a job”—that would be borderline disingenuous. Just ask for the job.
Much more of life than early entrepreneurs is more like a job fair than it is like a dinner party. Businesses exist to buy things and sell things. You will buy things, including from cold asks, and often you will be very happy with those things. Some interactions are very transactional, and that is okay, too.
Introducing yourself with a pitch about what you do
In professional spaces, when you’ve just met someone, you often don’t have a particular goal in mind and don’t know if you can help them. You can break the ice by having both parties introduce yourselves with a quick pitch. Get good at this. Pitching is a skill.
It took me probably six months to be able to describe my company in two compelling sentences—it’s not easy.
I used to start pitches with an explanation of GPU formats to give them a basis of understanding of our algorithm, then moving into the problem we solve. This wasn’t an appropriate amount of detail for most people I spoke too; it went over the heads of some and wasn’t obviously valuable to others. Now, I lead off with “Basis reduces download size and improves performance of apps.” Everyone involved in a software company in any capacity understands that those are both good things. If I know they have some familiarity with the field of compression, I’ll add “Basis reduces images to the size of JPEG, but 6-8 times smaller on the GPU. If you already use GPU-friendly compression, it can cut your image data in half!” That gives elaboration on the engineering case for basis and, while remaining comprehensible to a non-specialists, signals that I am capable of going arbitrarily deep if they want to.
Be brief. I can’t stress this enough. You’re starting a conversation this way, and you have no idea how interested the person is going to be—they don’t need your life story. This is why crafting a short, compelling pitch is key.
After you give your pitch, feel free to answer any questions they have, then usually it’s a good idea to switch to showing interest in them. One of the easiest ways to keep up a conversation is to be genuinely interested in someone and just enjoy getting to know them.
Introducing yourself casually
This is the trickiest one, and usually one you’ll see in social media. It’s also an approach you’ll see in industries who are very allergic to people appearing too “sales-y”—you can try to craft a pitch that doesn’t sound sales-y, or you can just skirt around it and use this approach. Selling software to video game companies can be like this, for instance.
You start by talking about something that is perhaps related to what you do, but you don’t introduce yourself or your company. For instance, you join a conversation talking about a programming topic in social media or at an event, just actively contributing ideas and generating interest in what you do by doing that.
It can also happen in one-on-one conversations. You meet with someone in the industry “just to catch up” or without a clear agenda—perhaps you start by talking about industry news or what’s going on with them, and you may never get around to talking about what you do.
This approach to networking reminds me a little bit of selling a luxury good, which is also why it works well in places that don’t like sales-y approaches. Part of the mystique of luxury goods is that they’re so innately desirable that they don’t need to be sold. This isn’t true, but sellers of them affect a sort of indifference to whether any particular transaction happens, because the product is so good that buyers exist in abundance. People learn to associate this aloofness with success; they learn to associate seeming desperation with failure. You generally don’t want to seem desperate.
There are a couple keys to success with this approach that also can help other approaches. One very important one is keeping it genuine. Don’t act like you’re personal friends with someone if you aren’t. It is okay to keep a relationship 100% professional and be genuine in that sense. Don’t pretend to get excited about something you aren’t excited about—you can share an opinion or article just for the sake of sharing it and contributing to the conversation. Stay yourself, but also be confident and positive.
The other part of being genuine is maintaining long-term relationships even if someone can’t immediately help you, which ties into the next point. Consistently follow up and plan on keeping in touch, even beyond the needs of this business. Care about them as people, even if you don’t check in super often. I realize this can be hard when you’re talking to lots of people—that is one of the downsides of this approach—but even checking in and chatting with someone every few months is extremely powerful.
Hard versus soft asks
Let’s say you didn’t go with the cold ask right at the introduction. How do you bring up what you need?
“What you need” can be all sorts of things—a referral to other customers, a sale from the person you’re talking to, or consulting work.
There are two ways to approach it:
Examples of soft asks:
“We’re putting together our consulting calendar at the moment.”
“We’re looking for customers interested in our product.”
“We’re currently doing free evaluations of the product.”
Examples of hard asks:
“Do you need any consulting work done?”
“Do you know of anyone who could use this product?”
“Would you be interested in a free evaluation?”
After reading the other sections, you can probably guess what the pros/cons of each are. A soft ask lets someone come to you with interest and is good for people who don’t like sales-y approaches, the “luxury good” mentality, and for someone who may not be able to help you. The hard ask can be great when someone is expecting it, it cuts straight to the point, and it isn’t ambiguous about your needs.
A note of caution for all asks—you should respect people and their time. If you genuinely aren’t interested in keeping in touch or hearing about a person’s story or helping them out (which is often understandable—for instance if you have to approach a huge number of people in a limited time), it’s often better to go with the cold hard ask right in the intro. A hard ask later in the conversation requires a degree of respect, trust, and prior relationship building so the person doesn’t feel their time leading up to the ask was a waste.
Courtesies & follow ups
Feel free to hand someone a business card after a conversation or plan a concrete follow-up if the meeting’s going well or you both have more to talk about.
It’s completely okay to follow up with someone frequently and have a 100% professional relationship. In fact, it is a part of staying genuine. With some people you’ll catch up about their kids and home life, with some people you’ll be great friends, and with some people you’ll just talk business. Be aware of people’s boundaries and be aware that this is very normal.
A note on mentoring relationships and power dynamics
When you are mentoring someone, talking with someone more junior, or someone in a position of less power, the power dynamic is going to be very different from networking with someone you’d consider a colleague, at your experience level, or more senior/powerful.
If the power dynamic is unbalanced in your favor, the person won’t feel as comfortable saying no to your questions or resisting your suggestions. Do your best to sense how they’re feeling, make them feel comfortable, and have them suggest things, leaving options open.
Doing networking well, at its core, is about understanding people and treating both them and yourself with respect.
Always consider your particular situation and circumstances. And never forget to pay it forward and use this advice to connect people less experienced & privileged to opportunities.
I would love to hear about any networking tips you’d add or your experiences with networking—find me on Twitter!
Wishing you the best!Return to guides