I’m going to start by sharing something that might get me black balled from some startup circles.
I got an MBA back in 2012.
And I won’t stop there. Don’t cancel me for saying this, but… I enjoyed it AND think it was really valuable.
Crazy, I know.
When I first got accepted, people told me not to go to HBS. They'd say “Why go? It's only 20% about learning and 80% just meeting people.”
After going to HBS, I realize they were so wrong.
It's not 80 / 20. It's 99 / 1.
99% who you meet and only 1% what you learn… but that IS why you go.
My time in business school helped me internalize 3 very important but simple lessons. If you haven’t learned them yet, learn them now:
But unfortunately, that lesson along with other pieces of advice around networking fall into a particular category - the type of advice that is both obvious and incredibly frustrating at the same time. Yes of course you know a network is powerful but telling me doesn’t help me actually build one. This category of advice is doubly annoying in that it is usually hardest to follow for those who need it most. In other words, building a network is much harder to do for those that don’t already come to the table with some network. It cuts deepest for the underrepresented founders I work with so I hope this essay bridges the gap somewhat.
Yes, it can.
There are two keys to networking at any stage that are essential when starting from zero.
Key #1 - to network well you need to show up as someone that people want to network with aka “a great hang.”
In other words, are you someone who people want to spend time with…someone people want to introduce to others? And what does that even mean?
What it means, like my tongue in cheek tweet says, is you want to be a good hang. You want to be someone that people enjoy meeting, which can be derived from a variety of things. It can be how pleasant you are, the energy you bring to a situation, or the people you know. It can also be the value you bring when you meet someone. Are you someone that tries to give or take first? Do you come with a unique value that only benefits specific people? Or do you have a way to help most anyone you meet? Figure out what it is that you are and how you show up as someone people want to meet with and double down on that.
Whatever it is, the mindset of wanting to be someone that people value meeting is the framework you should use to approach networking.
This could very well mean you’re not ready to start actively networking because figuring out how to be a great hang comes first. Whatever your source of value is, you need to figure that out before you become a great networker.
Key #2 - The next key is the ladder approach to networking. The ladder approach encourages you to begin with people one or two rungs higher than you. Someone who you can connect with who is further along than you but still approachable. If you're able to connect with that person and establish a good connection by being a “great hang” (key #1), you should be able to parlay that connection into credibility that helps you connect with more people at rungs higher and higher up. Continue to do that over and over again and you can see how your path to growing a powerful network can start from zero and eventually become a powerful and influential network.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is showing up thinking people should connect and help just because they’re asked to. This frustration builds quickly when you see other people getting meetings quickly and easily. Whether it's their built-in advantages or built-in networks, there are reasons other people are able to land meetings and connections with (seemingly) little effort.
Instead of getting frustrated, go out and create your own reasons for people meeting with you. Be a great hang. Find your own way of helping. No one wants to connect with a leech. No one wants to connect with unpleasant people.
Build social capital for the future instead of trying to extract value right away.
Begin by developing ways to help and then start helping. Once you start pushing positivity and support to the community, good things will flow from there. This process takes time and deserves it. Nothing in this world worth building, including a great network, happens overnight.
Ending this essay, I’m reminded of one of the most humble but also compelling things Sam Corcos, the CEO of Levels, said in an interview with me. Coming from one of the most impressive, execution-oriented, and deep-thinking entrepreneurs I’ve ever met, it made an impression on me.
He said, “98% of [the good things that have happened in my life] were all because of somebody that I knew and really not because of something that I did.”