Don't Network, Build a Relationship

startup grind 2014
Tony's on the left, I'm on the right, thanks to @caldercho for the photo

I’ve been thinking a bit about networking this week since I had the opportunity to interview Tony Conrad at Startup Grind 2014. It was a great experience and a lot of fun. However, I was shocked at the number of people who approached me after the interview to ask for an introduction to Tony. While I admire the bravery it takes to walk up to a complete stranger and ask for something, I’m also boggled that people think this approach would ever actually work.

A few years back, while Plancast was still going strong, the entire team attended SXSW. I don’t drink but I spent a lot of time that week in bars yelling at other people over too loud music. I was networking in the classic sense, and it was completely useless to me, I haven’t seen or thought about most of those people since.

Sure, a lot of people gave me business cards; I’m sure some of them even connected with me on LinkedIn. But most of them never contacted me again and I didn't contact most of them either. Just like me, they were getting out there and networking, and also just like me, they were mainly just spinning their wheels, without making any forward progress on gaining a valuable relationship.

However, I didn't completely blow my SXSW networking experience, and looking back, I can tell you the people I met at SXSW that I still have a relationship with were the ones I met up with multiple times over the course of the conference. I went to parties with them; I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with them. Basically, we became friends over the entire length of SXSW, and after the conference, I stayed in contact with them (we traded emails; we followed each other on Twitter). That was relationship building, not just networking. And it took more work than just having one awkward conversation for 5-10 minutes in a bar.

You want an introduction to an investor? Follow this blueprint from an experience my cofounder, McKay, had with an entrepreneur. This entrepreneur reached out to McKay to meet up. Then, afterwards, he kept in contact, sending McKay updates on the progress of his startup. He also occasionally sent relevant industry news (the great, “Thought you’d be interested in this” email). Their relationship kept progressing over a longer period of time, what Mark Suster refers to as lines, not dots. Then, only after the friendship had been established, did the entrepreneur mention he was looking for funding and asked if McKay knew anyone he should meet. McKay made an intro to a prominent VC in the valley. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you build a valuable relationship and ask for an intro to an investor.

Networking events like Startup Grind are great as a starting dot to a relationship, but they should never be the whole relationship. It takes a tremendous amount of guts to walk up to someone at a conference and start talking to them, don’t waste it! Rally your bravery after the conference also, and reach out again. If you get a response, continue to build up a friendship. But whatever you do, don’t ask a complete stranger to introduce you to one of their investors the first time you meet them, because that’s never going to work.