There was a great question posed to the Quora community, “How do I meet other young entrepreneurs/startup-oriented people?” Met with the usual answers about hackathons, startup events, and even online networking, I took a different tack and whipped up my own experience getting to know entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and Austin. While the trendy tech and startup related events are a sure place to meet entrepreneurs, I wondered whether or not the root of the question wasn’t more fundamental: not just where, but how.
A couple years ago I moved from Silicon Valley to Austin, and the two communities couldn’t be more different. Aside from the high density of entrepreneurs, technology, and startups, these parts of the world are like night and day. Almost sight unseen, with no job (though, granted, I was consulting at the time), and little to no network in Austin, this was an approach that I think worked exceptionally well for me.
Where to spend your time when networking
Networking takes a little more than the right atmosphere, Jameson Irish Whiskey, and ambition. First, tour all of the coworking spaces where you live – My work with Cospace is trying to make it easy for you with an increasingly comprehensive directory of coworking spaces – now defunct. Caught you off guard a bit didn’t I? Not the networking groups, meetups, and events?? No, those are helpful, and people are there to network, but you’re starting raw, naked, and there is no reason to network blind – though I suppose that doing it naked might help. The hosts of collaborative spaces are in the business of connecting people; particularly those who want to collaborate. Find a couple that suit you, in different parts of the city, and join them part time. Spend only a couple days a week at each.
Notice, I didn’t say start coworking or something trendy in that regard. Yes, technically, you are coworking, but I’m not telling you to become a coworking, we’re networking, by spreading you out in environments conducive to that goal.
Second, spend the rest of your time working from the best coffee shops in town. I don’t mean those with the best rating on Yelp or the best coffee, rind those that attract the entrepreneurs; I started profiling some (in Austin). In this case, you want to be fluid – find 5 or 10 and change your locations frequently.
Why have you started this way?
As I suggested, the coworking spaces are hosted by people that network and want to foster networking. You are going to get to know people who want to network and collaborate. Not just work, people aren’t in coworking spaces to get out of the house or as an alternative to an office, they’re all in it together and it’s the easiest entrepreneurs club to join. You need a place from which to work, or find a job, do it with a bunch of other people in the same boat. It just so happens that those spaces are usually where the best networking events take place. So get to know the space host, the founder, or proprietor of the place.
Coffee shops are about recognition. Yes, you’ll meet some people but what most people try to network fail to appreciate is that humans are far better at facial recognition than names. It’s easier to see people you might know than remember people you’ve meet. Your goal here is to become familiar. Become familiar with hundreds, whom we’ll see at those networking events. Suddenly, meeting someone for the first time at a meetup has a ring of deja vu to it… haven’t we met somewhere before?
Networking is about the Culture
Now, consider the culture of the community you’re in – NOT the entrepreneurial community, the part of the world in which you find yourself. Is it more social or professional? Here’s what I mean…
Silicon Valley is professionally oriented. Yes, people go out, party, socialize… don’t misunderstand me, but people there tend to network at bars, happy hour, etc. for the sake of meeting people who can benefit their business. They are constantly looking for relationships that work for them. How do you know? The first question you’ll be asked is, “What do you do?”
Alternatively, Austin is the opposite. Incredibly entrepreneurial (arguably more than Silicon Valley), people are social first. You’ll likely never be asked what you do for a living.
The type of networking events you want attend vary depending on the culture of the community.
If a professional culture, go to the education based events at hot entrepreneurial venues – seminars, workshops, hackathons. People in that culture are there to network (for their own sake) and that professional setting results in the most value.
If in a social culture, you’re going to find that such events aren’t as good for networking. Of course, go to them to learn something, but people aren’t there to network… because they don’t care as much about what you do; networking in this culture is about who you are and a professional event is a poor forum in which to really learn that. Instead, go to the large social events and local (neighborhood) community events.
People in such social cultures favor life, living, and what they can do for you. Network at scale at the large events (where people will now have this suspicion that they’ve met you before…) and at the more local events where neighbors, the community, and local organizations will work to help you (presuming you want to do the same for them) because YOU are part of their community.
Assisting you is not just the familiarity from your time at popular coffee shops but that the time you spent getting to know the coworking spaces has fostered for you a few key connections that know you, what you need, and where you might find meetups and events for you.
Now the hard part… talking
Repeat this mantra again and again, “What can I do for this person?”
In the professional culture, networking is a little easier but frankly, less fulfilling. You’re going to get right to the point and it will feel comfortable, for those not as social, jumping right into your skills, what you’re building, the latest tech, etc. “What do you do?” is simple and yet, narrow.
If you find yourself in this culture, that mantra is even more important. Probe your new relationships with questions until you discover not just the commonality but an introduction to someone ELSE that you can make. Remembers, we’re looking for professional value here and while you’ll scare people off by jumping right into trying to partner or get a job, everyone is comfortable meeting someone else. Introducing another person that you know they should meet is both giving (on your part) and a safe way to build the relationship (for them). You aren’t asking for something, you aren’t expecting anything, and if the other person sees no value in getting to know you, you part no worse for the wear.
The social culture can be a bit more of a challenge but the process is the same. The easiest way to make this environment work for you is to keep in mind that people don’t really want to talk about work. If all you can manage is to talk marketing, or Rails, or the latest Android OS, stop talking and listen.
Your questions in this regard should be about getting to know the person and again, keep going until you find the commonality. What brings you here tonight? Are you from Chicago? How long have you lived here? Oh, you have kids then? Hey, where’s the best place to go out this weekend? You can keep the conversation going, and going, and going by closing your mouth and asking about them.
When the commonality is found, your close to the nascent relationship is the same, to whom can you introduce them? Remember this time, it’s NOT about work but perhaps you know someone who might be of value in that regard. Go for a neighbor, a drinking buddy, someone from church, or a personal friend with whom you have that personal commonality. If there is professional value in the introduction, all the better, but make the introduction because of your shared passion for Jazz.
Networking is work. Make no mistake. But it can be relatively easy, regardless of whether or not you are extroverted or introverted. Because of the differences in personalities, no approach is going to work well for everyone any more than a single process or methodology will work for you in building your startup. This is what works for me, what’s been helpful to you?