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Networking is Not Working

Elena Mazhuha Hacker Noon profile picture

@elena-mazhuhaElena Mazhuha

Investment Manager @ Genesis Investments | Advisor @ Elomia | Mentor @ Startup Wise Guys

Let’s face it, networking is hyper-popular. Just open Eventbrite and you will see thousands of business events until the end of 2020. Even now, in the time of pandemic, nobody stopped attending NETWORKING events. Instead, we gladly filled our calendars with online events, webinars, business breakfasts via Zoom not to miss the precious chance to meet a (yet another) new person. Networking promises to bring endless opportunities, partnerships, and a lot of fun, but in fact it often results in nothing except for the senseless waste of time.  

Networking feels stupid and unnatural

Who didn’t feel dumb starting a conversation with a completely unknown person and trying to be nice? I bet, almost everyone did at least once in a lifetime. And networking is all about starting conversations and pretending to be nice. Business coaches, opinion leaders, and other influencers may say that networking’s essential attributes are confidence, and smile, and positive body language. But the real attributes of each networking event are uncomfortable pauses, forced smiles, and nervous laughter. And it is OK, because networking is not natural at all. 

…especially weird networking feels, when people don’t find a good way to start a conversation and start like the CEO of an anonymous startup I met in Lithuania.  

The CEO: Hi! My name is Jack, I am the CEO of XYZ. Me: Hi! I am Elena from Genesis Investments, I look for startups to invest in". The CEO: Whoa! Marry me! Needless to say that we never talked after that again.

Networking is ineffective

Networking takes a lot of time and brings no predictable outcomes. One conversation may end up in an investment, another – in a friendship, but most of them end up with empty promises and unanswered emails. On networking events, people feel compelled by the urge to look nice and very often alcohol to promise something. But the actual delivery rarely happens. 

Networking is random

At networking events, the chances to meet a relevant person are tiny. Even matchmaking apps don’t solve this problem, because people are too lazy to fill their profiles there and because their algorithms are not precise enough. For this reason, at networking event each person is a closed book. You may start a conversation with hope to meet a great startup to invest in, but eventually discover that a person makes some shady gambling shit on blockchain. And there’s no way you can skip this conversation. One cannot simply ignore the person like an email in her mailbox. 

One of the most unforgettable emails that I have ever received was an email with a 35-page investment memo about a company, which claimed to be building Apple’s competitor and asking for a $3-billion non-equity investment. Luckily, it was only an email and we could simply ignore it. But imagine if you met someone like this at an event! 

Networking events are attended by people who cannot network

People assume that if they learned to talk as kids, they automatically learned to network, too. But in fact, these are two completely different things! To network effectively, one needs to learn to introduce herself, to set precise goals of communication, and get in touch only with the most relevant persons. What one doesn’t need to do is to attend such events to munch on free snacks and beer, to meet with friends, or to “just kinda talk to investors”. Within the last two years in venture capital I have seen every kind of people attending networking events: “ecosystem builders”, attending events, to hit on women, startups “actively fundraising” for 1.5 years and never actually talking to investors, “growth experts” without any actual experience in Tech, but who pretend to be experts, hungry Software Developers choking on snacks and getting drunk as hell, because everything is for free. And this list is endless. Ironically, networking events are mostly attended by people who cannot network at all. 

How to make networking work:

  • Be picky. Focus only on the most relevant events. Assess your goals for the event and ask yourself whether you will achieve your goals there. If no - skip it. In addition, check "interested" and "going" participants on the event page. If there’s no chance to meet new people there, it may be a good idea to skip the event, too. 
  • Be selfless. People perceive other individuals through their personal emotions and feelings. If you want to make a good impression of yourself, make the other person feel good about herself during your conversation. Avoid discomforting pauses, awkward questions, controversial topics, and ensure that a conversation is as smooth as hot chocolate. Be a safe space for that person. Make her want to come back to you after another weird conversation. Make her talk to you for an hour! 
  • Do the research. If you want to get friendly with a particular person at the event, read her social media to learn what she cares about, what is her personal brand, what she does in her free time. It's a fantastic chance to find a common ground and understand how the person thinks.
Once I hosted a webinar with a startup founder. The first half of the interview was cold and awkward. But suddenly I recalled that judging by her Instagram, she was interested in fashion and design. So, I asked her about it. And all of a sudden, talking about her passion, she became more welcoming, open, and sociable. The research did its magic and the rest of our conversation went awesome.
  • Make the first move. If you came to network, be ready to initiate a conversation and to “consummate” your relationships after the first meeting. Prepare 3-5 “starters”, which help to start a dialogue with any person. Starters may range from simple "How are you?" to something more creative or informal. 
Once I was meeting with a friend I have never seen offline before. When I saw him waiting for me, I said: "Hey! Are you waiting for someone here?". It was unexpected, he started to laugh and it set a positive tone for the upcoming conversation.
  •  But don't go too far improvising. Otherwise, you might freak the person out and she will never feel comfortable near you. Then, the next day or when you come home, don’t forget to write a follow-up email or message to your new “business friends” and “confirm” your relationships with an intro, link, or report you promised last night.
One of the startups gave me a small anti-stress unicorn toy as a first-meeting gift. The toy left a heart-warming mental anchor and definitely made me think about their startup in the future. In 5 months, we invested in them:)

Funny or not, but networking events are bad for networking. Online matchmaking events, “cold” messages/emails, invite-only events, closed Slack channels, closed communities are much better options for meeting new people than conferences or summits. So maybe we should stick to them.

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