Networking for founders

The art of having good conversations, improving your business, and helping others by focusing on relationships.

Stephanie Hurlburt

Stephanie Hurlburt cofounded Binomial, which makes Basis, an image compression middleware. Prior to that she did low-level graphics engineering in the VR and game industries.

  1. What are different ways to network?
  2. A note on mentoring and giving back
  3. Considerations for different industries and cultures
  4. Making a good first impression
    1. Communicating via dress and appearance
  5. Presenting as a professional online
    1. Website
    2. Crafting a good social media presence
    3. Other online first impressions
    4. Creating helpful and meaningful content
  6. Making direct asks
    1. The power of the informational interview
  7. Meeting people at conferences and events
    1. Comporting yourself at events
  8. Interacting with people on social media
  9. Host your own events and communities
  10. Making the most of meetings
    1. How to approach the ask
  11. Courtesies and follow-ups
  12. A note on mentoring relationships and power dynamics
  13. Conclusion

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.

That’s it.

It means being conscious of our interactions with others. You should seek to understand people and 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; do your best to open it as much as possible and lift up others.

I cofounded 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?

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

    • Conferences
    • Local professional events
    • Social events people in the industry frequent
  • Social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.): both posting to and interacting with people one-on-one

  • Online communities: Slack channels, open-source projects, mailing lists, etc.

  • Informational interviews

  • Mentoring people in the industry

  • Volunteering related to the industry

  • Organizing your own events and communities: big or small, public or private

A note on mentoring and 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 many layers as to why that’s not a good blanket approach, which I’ll dive into later. But hopefully you have some intuition into 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 and 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 of 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. Here are 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.

Fit is hands-down the most important thing for clothing. If you take one thing away from this section, remember that. Try on lots of clothes until you find ones that fit, and consider getting a tailor. 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.) Stitch Fix 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.

Presenting as a professional online

In person, your dress, your appearance, and your body language are all that someone can judge you by before talking with you.

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.

Website

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 as 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. If you have them, put the company logos of customers you’ve worked with on your website 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 credentials and those 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 open an account everywhere. I sell a B2B engineering product in the game industry. Twitter works very well in my space because 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 considers that 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 impressions that different behaviors give. 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, though I’m less deliberate about it. 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 helps convert interested users into followers when your content ends up in front of them 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 and 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 six-second skim of the description. Have an easy-to-build or prebuilt 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 event 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 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 isn’t possible with social media posts. I recommend sharing all blog posts through your social media accounts.

Mailing list: A mailing list delivers exclusive content that isn’t available to the world at large and therefore creates a closer relationship with your following than interacting publicly via social media does. You can send updates or newsletters through 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: Being a guest on 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 regularly need new guests, 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, 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 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 businesspeople out to coffee. They’re an excellent source to learn about 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. Conducting 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 you’re writing an email or you’re not sure your profile does a good job of introducing you, add more context in the message text.

Student asking for a chat:

Hello, 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 ask you some questions on getting a career in computer graphics and what you do—would you have time for a 30-minute video chat sometime? Best, Stephanie [link to some kind of proof of work here—demos you’ve done, website, Github, etc.]

Transitioning careers:

Hello, 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 video chat sometime? I’d love to ask about career advice and what technologies you recommend learning. Best, Stephanie

Informational interview about a new company:

Hello, 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 about bootstrapping a small business (that’s been one of my biggest challenges) and how to scale and grow in a smart way. Would you be free for a 30-minute video chat? Best, Stephanie [link to Stephanie’s website, if she has one]

Asking about a new field:

Hello—I’m writing because I really liked what you were saying on Twitter about [technology topic they’re experienced with]. This is something I’d love to learn more about—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 a video chat sometime? Best, Stephanie

Offering unsolicited help to someone with less experience:

Hello, I saw your blog post on [technology topic] and really enjoyed it! I’ve been working with that [technology topic] for several years now and just wanted to say that if you ever need help, feel free to ping me! Best, Stephanie

Meeting people at conferences and events

Conferences and events can feel hard to tackle when you’re not used to networking.

But the beautiful thing is that professional networking is expected 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. It is an ideal amount of time for meeting with busy people or when you’re in the early stage of business and not many people know of you. An hour is good for giving a 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 it is most convenient for them.

Since it’s often the longest open time slot, always try to 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 have a meal with and tell them to invite more of their friends and 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 attend. Talk to people, and ask where they’ll be going next and 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 networking is expected:

Meeting people you otherwise wouldn’t be able to:

Hello, I’m a student at Imaginary University, and I’m really interested in computer graphics. I saw you are 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? Best, Stephanie

Meeting a peer:

Hey, 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 free time. I work at Imaginary Company doing [technology description]. Best, Stephanie

Starting a prospecting conversation:

Hi, 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 any time that week! Thanks, Stephanie

Asking for advice:

Hi, 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 availability. Best, Stephanie [link to company website]

Comporting yourself at events

When you attend an event, try to bring a business card or a laptop with a product demo or video queued up—anything that will 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 imagine 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 try to find the people standing alone, then I 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 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 people’s 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 withdrawals.

Host your own events and communities

Hosting events and communities can be a powerful way to talk to people and generate business. I’ve hosted many—sometimes they’re focused dinners with potential customers, sometimes they’re community events centered on 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. The fact that you have users will make everyone else feel safe enough to join.

For public events, feel free to reach out to local organizations or companies and partner with them. 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 will 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 the pros and cons.

Introducing yourself with a cold ask

A cold ask is introducing yourself with an immediate request for something. People who aren’t familiar with business believe sales is 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.

A cold ask 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 your cold ask reviewed by someone with experience. Start by messaging a small group of people and slowly increasing that number after judging the initial 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.

Hiya, Steve—Do you have 30 minutes this week to discuss whether we can improve your asset pipeline? Best, Stephanie

Making cold asks is hard and awkward, particularly for people who are sensitive to avoiding other people. On the flip side, it is efficient, lets disinterested 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.

For early entrepreneurs, networking is more like a job fair than 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 introducing yourselves with a quick pitch. Get good at this. Pitching is a skill.

It took me six months 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 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 six to eight times smaller on the GPU. If you already use GPU-friendly compression, it can cut your image data in half!” That elaborates on the engineering case for Basis and, while remaining comprehensible to nonspecialists, signals that I am capable of going more in depth.

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 shift the conversation to talk about 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 approach, and usually one you’ll see in social media. It’s also an approach you’ll find in industries that are 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 tactic. 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 strategies. Part of the mystique of luxury goods is that they’re so innately desirable, they don’t need to be sold. This isn’t true, but sellers 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 can aid other approaches. 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 in to 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 a downside to 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: hard and soft asks.

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 and 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, who have the “luxury good” mentality, or who may not be able to help you. The hard ask can be great when someone is expecting it: it gets 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 with 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 and follow-ups

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 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 know that this is very normal.

A note on mentoring relationships and power dynamics

When you are mentoring or advising someone who is more junior than you, the power dynamic is going to be different from networking with someone you’d consider a colleague who is at your experience level or more senior.

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.

Conclusion

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 who are less experienced and privileged to opportunities.

I’d love to hear any networking tips you’d add or your experiences with networking—find me on Twitter.

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