The Ultimate Prep Guide to Business Networking

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

This phrase has been repeated so often it has become a cliché, but it's repeated because it rings true for so many people. Have you ever lost a business deal because your competitor happened to be a buddy of the decision maker? People do business with people they like and trust, and people like and trust their friends. We can complain all we want, but it doesn’t change this reality. And I’ve noticed people don’t complain about this fact of life when it works in their favor. You can turn it to your favor in more situations if you network with others and give value. But effective networking requires preparation.

Why do you need to prepare?

As has been said, if you fail to plan you plan to fail. If you merely show up to an event and start talking to anyone you can find (in a manner that you want to collect as many business cards as possible), or send out masses of LinkedIn invitations to anyone who looks interesting, you may "connect with" a lot of people but it will be quantity rather than quality.

One of the bad examples...

A while back I attended a startup networking event in Beijing, and I remember one guy walking up to me handing me his business card and asking, "Are you a VC?" When I told him, "No, I am not." He almost didn't even say goodbye and immediately started looking around the room for his next "victim". He didn't win the first impression game, not at all. I guess he still doesn't realize had he talked to me like a friend I could have introduced him to some of the VCs I know.

Quality connections are those where you can both provide and receive value so that both parties are richer because of the connection. They're more likely to happen when you prepare and have a plan. 

. . .

People we wish to connect with so badly are usually busy running a company, executing tons of side projects, and they also want to spend more quality time with their families.

Can you help them with any of these goals?

They don't know, which means from their perspective you're just an obstacle in their way because they also don't want to waste precious minutes of their time to figure out if you’re someone they need to talk to rather than talking to someone else.

Don’t blame them. You can change your approach by focusing on preparation. You can create situations where people are happy to see you, want to talk to you, are lining up to talk to you, and your conversations with them are focused and mutually beneficial.

. . .

Always be humble and realistic and ask yourself what's the value you can bring to the table and how it compares to the value you'll get just by knowing the other person.

Having said that, I DON’T suggest you to connect with other people only in case you want something from them. On the contrary - and I have said it many times - I’m against that, and I believe this “strategy” won’t help you in building the long-lasting relationships.

I’m a giver, I love to connect with people all around the world, help if I can, build the relationship and who knows, it might grow into something bigger in the future. What about you?

. . .

Connecting with busy people I described above is hard. However, it’s possible, and anybody can do it. It just requires a little bit of hustle and, most importantly, patience as it won’t work every single time, but…

“No today doesn’t mean no tomorrow.”

Keep hustling and it’s going to happen sooner or later.

 

The Preparation Process

You can get in touch with people online. However, the ultimate goal should be to meet people in person so that you start building the true relationship with them.

Even though the tips mentioned below are useful and applicable in many networking and business situations, I’d like to focus on networking events as events are one of the most common ways how to get together in the world of networking.

1. Define Your Goals

You cannot prepare well if you don't know what you’re aiming for. I create goals and plans by asking myself these questions:

  • How can I contribute the most value?

It’s not that I’m 100% altruistic, but I believe in the maxim that what you get in life depends in large part on what you give. The more I give, the more I will get, even if most of the time in the process of giving I can’t see how it will come back to benefit me. This is why I analyze potential events to see where I can contribute something.

  • What do I need help with right now?

Perhaps you need funding for your startup, access to the right talent to hire, or you’re looking for a job. Knowing what you want will help you decide which events are the best use of your time.

  • What are the events you want to go to?

Due to limited time, you can’t attend every single event in your city. Choose the ones that are most relevant to you.

The “golden events” are those where you can contribute the most value as well as receive the greatest return.

  • Who do I want to meet at this event?

The people you want to meet are those whom you can give value to, or receive value from. Of course, you should be happy to network with anyone, but you'll be most efficient if you know who you’re looking for, you know their names and faces, and can introduce yourself with some familiarity.

Note 1: It may be hard because not all the event/conference organizers share the complete list of attendees in advance. More about that later.

Note 2: Sometimes I even choose events solely because the people I want to meet/catch up with attend or speak at those conferences/events.

  • Why do I want to meet these people?

This will help you to navigate the direction of the conversation.

  • Business - even then focus on the value you and your company can bring to them.
  • You want to pitch them your business/product - because they can get you PR coverage/introduction to a VC.

Note: Check out my interview with Josh Steimle to learn more about how to pitch a journalist.

  • Mutual interests - such as startups, podcasting, etc.
  • You want to invite them to speak at your event - i.e. Startup Grind.

Tip: No matter what the purpose is, you always want to engage in the conversation with these people - not only at the events but also on social media (even prior the event) - and prioritize the long-term relationship as Josh Steimle pointed out in our conversation.

  • Set priorities, but…

It’s important to have focus, but at the same time, don’t stress too much about it. As I mentioned before, sometimes it’s hard to get hold of people (especially if they're among the speakers at a given conference). Do your best, but don’t be too pushy and don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work out at first. Just make sure people know you’re always around, that you're part of the community. Sometimes you’ll have to show up few times. Hustle and persistence, that’s all it takes.

Pro tip: Don’t underestimate the power of serendipity – you don’t have to plan everything to meet incredible people, they're everywhere – just attend every event with this mindset, and you already won.

“Be patient and genuinely interested in other people.”

For more about serendipity, check out this conversation I had last week with the world-class corporate coach Pepper de Callier during my visit in Prague.

 

2. How and Where to Get the Information I Need?

Now when you know what you want to accomplish, it's time to execute.

As I already pointed out, either you know what people you want to meet and choose the events accordingly, or you pick the event first and then figure out who's going be there and so whom you can meet.

Let’s suppose you know what event you’re going to, what’s next?

You know that you should create a list of people you want to meet. Yeah, but where do I get that information? You might ask. Fortunately, usually this isn't that challenging task.

  • Event’s Website

Organizers of top events often provide the list of attendees few weeks/days in advance to facilitate a better experience for all participants.

If that’s the case, go to the website and find people with whom you'd like to connect based on your goals and preferences.

Note 1: In case this information isn’t available online, feel free to contact the organizer(s) and kindly ask for the list. Explain why you’d like to see that list. Sometimes you might get lucky and get the list (probability just names, without contact information – that’s OK, appreciate it and don't get greedy).

If you cannot get your hands on the attendee list, you’ll at least be able to see the agenda and the list of speakers. Such a list isn’t as good as the complete attendee list, but it can still help you a lot.

Note 2: Speakers are usually very busy at the big conferences (everybody wants to talk to them). However, speakers aren’t usually the only people coming from a particular company. You can be pretty sure there is going to be much more representatives of the company (VIP tickets, the benefit for younger employees, etc.). If getting in touch with that particular firm is crucial for you and your business, focus on those people who are less busy. Believe me, they’re going to appreciate the attention much more.

Pro tip: At Whoolala we once prepared the list of people with essential information about them, their interests and personal photos. You can have this information printed or saved in your smartphone. It may seem a little crazy (stalking 2.0), but no... it’s just very practical (especially when you’re fundraising and meeting a lot of people at the event) and help you not to miss out on any opportunity to connect.

  • Social media

Hashtags: #RiseConf16, #TCDisrupt, #SGSoCal, etc.

Every single conference (and now even event) has its hashtag (you can use them on Twitter and Facebook). It’s one of the ways to find out who else is interested in or attending the same conference.

Apart from hashtags, you can also check other social media or Facebook groups. Facebook groups – if managed well – can turn into a very powerful preparation tool. The same holds true for Facebook events themselves, however, dedicated groups are still much better (from my experience).

For instance, RISE conference - one of the best conferences I’ve been to - had accompanying Facebook and Wechat (Chinese social network) groups where you could connect with people in advance. The groups are quite active even months after the conference took place.

This makes networking so much easier and substantially improves the attendees’ experience.

  • Friends & Community Builders

Last but not least, you can always ask your friends (who happen to be organizers, co-organizers, volunteers, etc.) to learn who’s going to be at the conference and who you should meet.

 

3. Tools, resources, and how to use them

I’m going to focus on (some) tools and resources that are widely available (for free), and so everybody can use them.

Note: There are some premium and more advanced tools as well, but that’s a topic for another time. If you have any question, feel free to shoot me a message or comment below.

You’d be surprised how much information you can find about people on the internet. Make a good use of it.

  • Twitter

Twitter is a useful tool for learning about people's interests and activities. The huge advantage is that you can follow almost anybody (if they have an account) and see everything they post (if they are active).

I consume a lot of information from Twitter. It’s a good reflection of what’s going on in the world “right now” as well as what people you follow find interesting.

Another great thing about Twitter is that people can get really creative when it comes to their BIOs and reveal information you can use to break the ice at the beginning of the conversation.

Here is an excellent example:

Every time I want to connect with somebody, I start my research on Twitter. It’s open to everyone, and the information you can sometimes find is priceless.

Advantages:

+ You can follow people (no need for their approval)

+ Engagement made easy (tweet, like, retweet, reply to a tweet, direct message)

+ Real-time aspect

Disadvantages:

- Still, many people are not on Twitter

  • LinkedIn

Linkedin is a professional social site. It serves as our online CV. Even though you can also follow every single user of LinkedIn, the problem is that not many people are really active. Some people don’t even like LinkedIn for its spam elements such as:

  • Irrelevant messages going viral (and appearing in everybody’s news feed)
  • People adding thousands of connections without even knowing them

However, LinkedIn is still one of the most important social media tools for networking. The fact that you can check somebody’s professional background, mutual connections, posts (on LinkedIn Pulse) and recent activity is invaluable. Moreover, if you’re a user of LinkedIn Premium, you can do much more, such as:

  • Sending direct messages to people with whom you aren’t connected (to expand your network even further and actively look for business opportunities)
  • Advanced search (to find people using numerous useful filters)

Advantages:

+ Online CV directory

+ Learn more about mutual connections (to ask for an introduction)

+ You can use LinkedIn Pulse as a publishing platform

Disadvantages:

- Many people are “passive” users of LinkedIn

- Sometimes there is too much “spam” in the news feed

- Some people tend to add many strangers just for the sake of having as many connections as possible (you might end up in an awkward moment when asking for an introduction)

Pro tip: When reaching out to people you don’t know on LinkedIn always use the short personal note to explain why you want to connect. It takes 1 – 2 minutes and dramatically increases the chance that your invitation will be accepted.

Note: I rarely accept invitations from strangers who don’t even take the time to tell me why they want to connect (to prevent spam). I guess I’m not the only one…

  • Facebook

Facebook has more than 1.65 billion MAU (monthly active users), which makes it the biggest social networking site out there. I log in to Facebook almost every single day and so do you. For most people, Facebook is the number one communication (Messenger) as well as a procrastination tool. However, when used appropriately, it can be a very good networking “buddy” of yours.

Note 1: I have to admit that I'd underestimated Facebook as a networking tool for a long time, and I soon realized it was a mistake. Don’t make the same mistake and take the full advantage of the features Facebook offers to level up your networking game.

I could write the entire series of articles only about Facebook and how to use it in networking (which is probably going to happen in the future). But for now, I just want to send out the message that Facebook isn’t useful just for staying in touch with your close friends, but also with those you recently met and had a great time with (i.e. at a conference). When you think about it, you want them to become your friends too anyway.

Moreover, people usually share more personal stuff on Facebook, and that’s why you can learn more about their lives and create a deeper connection.

Last but not least, you can follow people on Facebook, you can join various groups (there are many of them on Facebook), events (with public lists of attendees), engage with people (like, share, comment, tag, etc.), make introductions, and much more.

Note 2: Some people are stricter when it comes to adding people on Facebook because they view it as a social network reserved only for their close(r) friends. This fact kind of limits Facebook’s full potential (for networking), however, it doesn’t mean you should give up on it.

Advantages:

+ Literally everyone is on Facebook

+ Facebook provides the whole ecosystem for networking (news feed, timeline, list of interests, communication, events, groups, etc.)

Disadvantages:

- It’s much harder to reach out to people you don’t know

- Sometimes it’s impossible to add people with whom you don’t share many mutual friends (especially when they have many friends already)

  • Medium

Medium is an online publishing platform that has gained popularity largely in the last 12 months. With Medium you can start a simple (yet beautiful) blog in a matter of minutes. Moreover, its already quite big community of readers makes it easier to be discovered and so get some additional exposure for your writing, and that’s why so many people like it. You can also use it as a complement to your current blog (as many people do).

But let’s get back to the point. Since many people use Twitter to sign up for the service (Medium was developed by Twitter co-founder), there is high chance that those individuals who blog and are active on Twitter will also use Medium to share compelling content with the world.

In short, Medium is another good place where you can engage with and learn more about people you want to connect with.

  • Personal blogs

Some people also have their websites. You can find the links usually on their social media (mentioned above).

The following is the example from Twitter (again):

If people you’d like to reach out to have personal websites/blogs, I strongly recommend you to check them out. Some folks don’t really like being asked questions they already answered multiple times on their blogs or social media. It gives them a strong and clear signal that you didn’t do your homework and so probably don’t care much about the person/relationships. In that case... Why should they, right?

  • Company websites

Company websites (well, at least some of them) can also be a great source of information, especially when it comes to connecting with people with whom you want to do business.

Take GGV Capital’s website as an example:

They provide comprehensive BIOs of their key people, their social media links and also the list of their latest articles and press appearances. Wow!

I call on all the companies out there... This is how you should make it easier for us networkers/connectors. It may help your business too.

  • Google Search (articles & mention)

The last thing I want to mention is the ubiquitous Google Search. To take your preparation to the next level, you can also run a simple Google Search on people you want to learn more about. Sometimes you’ll be lucky and find press appearances, interviews and YouTube videos featuring them online.

Don’t forget:

“The more you know, the easier it’s for you to figure out how you can provide value.”

This will make the whole process of networking easier for you.

. . .

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Is there any specific topic you’d like me to discuss next time? Let me know in the comments below!