Sean Murphy and Etienne Garbugli offer tips for entrepreneurs to become effective at strategic networking that moves their business forward.
Strategic Networking: Tips for Building a Business Network
Summary In episode 10 of season one of the Time to Market podcast, Sean Murphy and Étienne Garbugli talk discuss strategic networking:
- whether networking can still be an effective strategy in 2023,
- the types of relationships founders should try to build,
- when networking is the right tool for the job,
- how to make sure you’re getting results from networking,
- why follow-ups matter,
- how to prioritize your networking efforts,
- and the (limited) role tech should play in networking.
Edited Transcript with Hyperlinks and Section Titles Added
Étienne Garbugli: You released your “Working Capital: Assembling Your Team” book a few months ago, and I just finished it. You had a lot of good content on building relationships and how to be very strategic about leveraging these relationships to push your business forward. I mean, that’s a great topic.
Sean K. Murphy: What is weird is that many entrepreneurs’ default assessment is that networking is bullshit. It’s viewed as “cocktail party conversations” or surface-level chatter with a lot of people. People who do networking are these “social butterflies” engaged in a plethora of shallow conversations.
Entrepreneurs lose when they don’t network effectively
Étienne Garbugli: When you look back at business practices over the last two hundred years or so, networking moved things forward. People would get together, meet with people they knew, and be introduced–or introduce themselves–to strangers. These conversations and connections allowed things to get done.
Today, networking may be less important, or at least the nature of it seems to have changed. Let’s dissect what’s changed and what’s still valuable about networking for entrepreneurs.
Sean K. Murphy: I think entrepreneurs hold themselves back when they don’t engage in networking effectively. They miss out on the benefits of building trust, providing value to others they meet to establish business relationships, and working to become members in good standing of communities that will enable them to learn more, access critical expertise, and advance their business.
I think there is too much emphasis today on centrality, becoming famous by building an audience of “followers” you can email or broadcast to. I believe peer-to-peer relationships are more potent than one-up / one-down interactions based on fame or celebrity. I think entrepreneurs are better served to join existing communities than try to create their own.
LinkedIn Algorithm Encourages a Wide Circle of Acquaintances
Étienne Garbugli: I agree; we can look at LinkedIn for an example. Initially, you connected with people you had worked with or had a strong relationship with–friends, mentors, clients, etcetera. Today, it’s evolving into more second and third-degree connections where you have shared interests.
But this loses some of the value of close relationships where both parties help each other in their careers or toward other goals. Those close relationships are diluted by focusing on “building an audience” or “becoming an influencer.” I wonder if this reflected what people wanted or if LinkedIn felt encouraging more extensive but more diffuse networks would be more profitable.
Sean K. Murphy: In some sense it’s become this massive multiplayer online role playing game.
Étienne Garbugli: But to some extent, LinkedId has become synonymous with networking. When I think about my professional network, I think about LinkedIn, but it’s not really the case: I have a sub-circle of close connections I rely on who help me, and I make sure I support them. Beyond that sub-circle is an outer circle of people who are “in my network.”
Sean K. Murphy: There have always been different levels of relationships. You have a handful of people you are close to, perhaps a couple dozen that you see regularly, a hundred or two hundred that you talk to less frequently, and then maybe hundreds to a thousand or two that you would recognize as familiar strangers.
One test for me is my immediate reaction when I see somebody’s name, get an email from them, or they contact me on LinkedIn. I agree that we get fooled by LinkedIn. I have about two thousand people in my network, but I only recognize a few hundred immediately. These are people I would personally reach out to share something or respond quickly if they contacted me for help. I can recall another few hundred if I search my email for a past exchange or study their profile for a minute to determine where and why we connected. I may have met the rest at an event, but then neither of us followed up.
Étienne Garbugli: So, how do you define your network? Is the network everyone you know, or is it the people that would give you some sort of feeling of having a relationship with them?
My Network is the people I look forward to hearing from
In other words, if somebody reached out and said: “Hey, Sean, I need your help on this.” I would respond that day or the next day if they were a part of my network. And I would assume if I reached out to somebody that they would get back to me in a couple days. If it’s someone I have not spoken to in a while, and I email them suggesting we schedule a call or get together for a cup of coffee, I am not bothered if they take a week or two to get back to me. I think it depends on the urgency and severity of my situation as I explain it to them.
Étienne Garbugli: I look at it much the same way. There is a circle of people that, when I get a request from them, it’s definitely something I need to act on. How do you decide who belongs in that circle? I wonder how we end up with these people we feel obligated to.
Sean K. Murphy: Another way to look at it: who are you willing to expose your problems to? There has to be some level of trust. And that’s not usually a stranger unless it’s a situation where you have been hit by a car, and you are lying in the street, so you are calling out for help from anybody.
Étienne Garbugli: But there must be intentionality. I think you should build these relationships for a purpose. Someone in your circle of trust–or whatever you want to call it–should be trustworthy and be a team member or a joint stakeholder in a common effort. You should be rooting for each other or willing to help one another because of common goals or common needs.
Add people who share your values, objectives, and perspective
Sean K. Murphy: I think there are a couple of elements: some level of shared values, shared objectives, or a shared perspective on the world. Trust is built over time, so you usually need a couple of interactions, or at least one extended interaction, to determine if you can trust this person. If they say they will do something, do they follow through? When they offer advice, are they speaking from experience or repeating something they have heard or read but have no direct knowledge of?
Étienne Garbugli: So, one goal of networking is establishing relationships where you believe you can help the other person, and they can help you. Where there is an exchange of value deeper than “Here, click on this link.” It has to be based on a shared view of how the world works so it can sustain disagreements and you can help each other in your careers or your startups.
Sean K. Murphy: I would distinguish between what you do to help a quote audience member and what you might do for someone in your network. I think that, for the most part, you’re not looking for any kind of payment. I’m not trying to monetize the people in my network.
We all have a direction we are trying to move in or several goals we are trying to achieve. Maybe you are trying to take your startup in a specific direction and lack knowledge, resources, or some necessary information. You can meet people with the right know-how or information and compare notes. You may find you are on a common journey at some level and compare notes more than once as you both progress.
Étienne Garbugli: If we’re talking about strategic networking for founders on a journey to build their startup, would you define success?
Sean K. Murphy: One aspect is that people are willing to introduce you to individuals who can help you move forward. These individuals might be potential prospects, suppliers, partners, advisors, team members, or co-founders. For example, you may not have a suitable co-founder or early team member in your immediate network. You will generally reach out to source potential candidates for these positions that require a high level of trust. You will probably not take out ads or post announcements in forums until you have exhausted who your network can recommend.
So, one aspect of success is that you can ask for introductions. Another is that you can make introductions between people you encounter and people already in your network, where you feel both would benefit. In a very real sense, you are looking out for them, and they are looking out for you.
Not every introduction will go well, but continually weaving newcomers into your network for mutually satisfactory conversations will grow your network and help others who are in it.
When to search by activating your network
Étienne Garbugli: You’re making an interesting distinction. You said that you would ask your network to find a co-founder. In what situations would you choose networking over other methods to build relationships?
Sean K. Murphy: There are many intangibles in the skills and capabilities you are looking for in a co-founder or early employee–and what they are looking for in you as a founder. These work relationships require a certain amount of trust. In an early-stage startup, many, if not most, things you try won’t work. There will be stressful situations where everyone’s shortcomings come to light. You must be able to trust that they won’t abuse your secrets and vulnerability–and vice versa.
I have a friend who is one of the most intelligent people I know. I got to know him when we were students at Stanford and ran into him again in 2003 at the Accelerating Change conference, which was an interesting experience in itself. It’s not often I find myself in a room with 200 people where, after two days of conversations, I realize I am probably the dumbest guy in the room.
So I ran into my brilliant friend, and we talked about all the smart people at the conference. And he said very smart people can be hard to work with. It turned out he had been an early employee at Google when it was six people sharing three desks in a garage. After a few weeks, he could not take it; plans were changing every few hours, and the founders were constantly arguing. At that point, he was well-respected and had worked for over a decade after getting his PhD so he had some context for what technology organizations looked like. So he left.
The lesson for me is that no one warned my friend about what the founders were like, and no one had explained to the founders how to manage highly talented people. The benefit of an introduction is that the person in the middle can vouch for each party to the other and explain what they are like to work with.
Étienne Garbugli: I’ve seen the value of introductions. It’s strange when people say networking is not useful–or even that it’s bullshit. I think it’s often because they were not clear on their goals for their networking. I’ve been guilty of this, where I did not have a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve. It makes it difficult to feel like you’re making progress or getting value from your efforts.
How would you maybe recommend that someone define the goal of their strategic networking efforts?
Sean K. Murphy: My goal is to build enduring business relationships. I see people mistakenly define networking as facilitating transactions: I will tell others what I need and see if they can help me, collect emails and add them to my newsletter list, add them as a connection on LinkedIn so my posts get more reach or more views, or tell others about my product or service and see if can make a sale.
Some ways I keep score: did I meet interesting people and learn something; can I connect folks I met with folks I know and benefit both parties; did I encounter people who volunteered to introduce me to individuals who may be able to help me grow my startup.
It’s not about transactions; it’s about conversations driven by mutual curiosity and creating the potential for long-term relationships.
Networking is looking for and finding synergies with others
For example, later today, I’m going for drinks with someone in my network who’s also in B2B marketing. I have a broad sense of the synergies I’m looking for and some joint projects worth discussing because they may create value for both of us. One risk is that I become too focused on what I am trying to accomplish that I become closed to their needs and suggestions. Another is that I focus so much on synergies that I neglect to help them or let them know what I am trying to accomplish. You have to strike a balance.
Sean K. Murphy: Absolutely, you have to balance helping others and making forward progress. And you have to be prepared that you spend time and nothing comes of it–in much the same way that I have started to read books with a great cover and some good reviews but put it down halfway through. Not everything you start ends in success.
I try to maintain a sense of possibility. Many conversations may lead nowhere, but some will provide enormous value. You cannot always tell right away. I know that when I build relationships based on mutual respect and follow-through, I also establish a reputation for integrity.
I find that when I help people move forward, it will often pay off down the line. It’s a long game. And to the extent that I am strengthening groups, communities, and ecosystems that I am a member of, that also has long-term benefits.
Étienne Garbugli: So, let’s talk about a process for entrepreneurs to approach networking. Entrepreneurs who want to build a reputation in their industry, who want more customers and want to hire the right employees for their startup.
Be clear on your objectives and probe for what others need
Sean K. Murphy: Be clear on your objectives and probe for what others need. You have to frame your needs so the other party can easily communicate them. And you should play back what the other person tells you to ensure you understand what they are looking for. You must make the first move; you cannot wait for the other person to act on your needs. Now, there has to be a certain amount of reciprocity. If you have done a couple of favors for the other person and they don’t seem to be following through, you don’t have to keep giving unless the introductions you are making are helping the people you are introducing to them.
Étienne Garbugli: How do you navigate this give-and-take? What should you prioritize in terms of helping others?
Sean K. Murphy: I try to make three introductions a week between people I meet and people I already know, or between people I have met recently. When I meet people who impress me as energetic, smart, competent, honest then I try to help them. I also try to help folks who are in trouble but otherwise seem like they have integrity.
I want to avoid making introductions where one party does not follow through, or they have a conversation, and it does not go well–although you have to accept a certain amount of mismatch. My goal, borrowing your excellent formulation, is to “foster synergy.” I want both parties to benefit. It does not always happen, but that’s my goal. I will typically follow up with both parties to see how the conversation went so that I can calibrate my efforts and learn more about people I don’t know as well.
I read a lot, so I share articles or other information I think is relevant to someone’s objectives or challenges. I will forward a link and a summary of why I think it may be germane to their efforts. I don’t forward it to a list; it’s an individual personal email. They may already be aware of it, or they may not be. Or it may not be relevant. But it’s another way I try to be helpful.
I find that making introductions and sharing relevant information makes me luckier. People understand that I am trying to look out for them and help them prosper, and they return the favor: they introduce strangers I should talk to and share information that I was not aware of that is relevant to my situation. Not immediately, but as they come across people or information they feel could help me.
Étienne Garbugli: Those are good habits. Effective networkers try to understand the other person’s situation and their context: what they are trying to achieve and what they feel is holding them back. They make a habit of keeping track of others in their network and new developments in the environment that may be relevant to the goals or challenges of people they have met.
Follow up is essential to establishing a relationship
Sean K. Murphy: After I have a good conversation with someone, I send them a brief summary of what I heard within a day or two. I will write something like: “I enjoyed our conversation yesterday. I took away these three things. And here’s what I’m looking for.” This follow-up makes a big difference for several reasons. Sometimes the other person writes back and says, “I’m sorry, but you misunderstood me” or “thanks for sending this; I forgot to mention X.” They refine your understanding of what they’re looking for or what they need. This follow-up is essential.
We have talked a lot this season on the podcast about introverts and extroverts, but here is another difference. At a meetup, an extrovert may shake hands with 12 people, while an introvert may talk to only three. But if the introvert follows up with those three with their key takeaways from the conversation, they will often have much more impact than an extrovert who has more conversations but does not follow up.
Étienne Garbugli: I think people worry that following up is annoying or too pushy. But the reality is that everyone gets busy, whether with work or family. John Cutler has a quote I like: “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by calendars being too full.” If you had a good conversation, it’s worth bringing to their attention at least twice.
If you are following up to help them solve a problem they mentioned or make progress against a goal they identified, you are not really bothering them. If you keep bringing up something you need or are trying to get them to change direction, then maybe you should drop it. But it’s a positive and helps build a relationship over time if you genuinely try to help them.
Different but related topic: how do you balance re-activating or reconnecting with your current network, with people you already have a relationship with, versus reaching out to new people you don’t know?
How do you prioritize two different efforts, both related to networking?
Balance reconnecting with friends and reaching out to strangers
Sean K. Murphy: I try to spend about a third of my effort on growing my network, and about two-thirds keeping in touch or reconnecting. When I make introductions between people I have met and people I know, that acts as a reconnect and helps grow my network. It’s easy to lose touch over time if you are not careful, and you don’t want to be the guy who only reaches out when he needs a favor.
I want to reinforce your early suggestion on follow-up. If I meet someone and form a favorable impression, I will send them a summary of our conversation. If I don’t get a response in a week or so, but my memory of the discussion was of a positive vibe or clear connection, I will do one follow-up. I will write something like, “I wanted to tell you I enjoyed meeting you last week, and I wanted to make sure I understood what you were working on and what you were looking for to move forward.
I agree with your Cutler quote: people get busy, and your email may be lost in their inbox. If they offered to do me a favor I could really use, I will also follow up. But in both cases, it’s driven by my intuition about them and a sense of connection.
Systems help but don’t lose your humanity in an effort to scale
Étienne Garbugli: I think you need a system for follow-up or at least a systematic approach. It doesn’t have to be a CRM, but at least a spreadsheet or a file where you keep track of who you met and what they need or are trying to achieve. Without a system, it’s easy to lose the context or forget to follow through. I think we can learn from the field of sales.
Sean K. Murphy: There is a critical difference between using technology for communication and using it to augment your memory. Substituting technology for communication is often a mistake; boosting your memory is almost always a good idea. I agree with the need for a system, but I don’t have any good recommendations beyond keeping a to-do list and tagging the emails you send so they are easy to find and don’t fall through the cracks. There is a real opportunity for some new tools here.
Étienne Garbugli: I would flip that around. Using technology to augment your memory definitely to augment your ability to contact people and reach out to people is almost always a bad thing. Every time I’ve tried to accelerate, speed up, or make my outreach or follow-up more scalable, it’s never had a good effect. You stop thinking about the specifics of the people and then stop making real connections because it’s not as engaging and does not lead to the same kind of relationship-building.
Trying to scale your efforts with technology makes it hard to maintain a human connection; you need a high-touch approach if you want to build high-quality relationships.
Keep your communication personal and timely
The first is some kind of personalization or evidence of a prior conversation. If you don’t provide any details of where we met or what we talked about, I sense you are a cold caller pretending to be my friend.
In other words, if you send me an email addressed in effect to “occupant,” that’s annoying. If you say, “Thanks for stopping by our booth,” but don’t provide any details, you are better served to make it impersonal. I always try to offer some context and details, especially if it’s not the next day but a few days or a week later.
The second is the timeliness of a response or the cadence of interactions in a conversation. If we meet and I take a week to follow up, I should expect that you may take a few days to respond. Conversely, if I contact you and you respond immediately, I should reply by the next day.
Matching cadence is one area where introverts will sometimes lose an opportunity. Unlike in a face-to-face conversation, where the other party can see they are giving the conversation their attention and working on a thoughtful answer, in an email interaction, this can look like they are ignoring what the other person said.
They need to learn how to send a reply that matches the cadence to acknowledge the last message and sets a deadline for a real answer. Something like, “You asked me a very good question that I need two days to do some research to answer.”
Étienne Garbugli: So what would be one good takeaway for people from this conversation?
Sean K. Murphy: Follow-up after a first conversation is essential. Personalized follow-up that is clearly written by a human–to use your phrase. With subsequent replies that match the cadence of their response.
Étienne Garbugli: Mine is the value in scheduling time and effort to expand your network and reconnect with current members. Consistent efforts are essential for expanding and maintaining your network even when you get busy. You mentioned setting a target for three introductions a week. I try to do five to ten reach outs to a mix of people I know and would like to know.
I also want to reinforce your suggestion for personalizing your emails so that you make it clear you care about the relationship and your earlier observation that you should not wait to reconnect until you need something because that creates a sense of a more transactional relationship.
Related Blog Posts
- Networking in Silicon Valley 2023 (update of Networking in Silicon Valley from 2007)
- Five Insights from Devora Zack’s “Networking For People Who Hate Networking”
- Ford Harding on Rules of Thumb for Networking
- Networking and Referrals
- What is Social Capital?
- A Practical Introduction to Social Capital for Entrepreneurs
- A Serious Conversation Can Change Your Life
- 13 From Zeldin’s 36 Topics for a Serious Conversation
- New Startups Form in Private Conversations
- Ten Mistakes Early Stage Bootstrappers Often Make
We are very interested in feedback or comments.
Additional Time to Market Podcasts
- Coffee Conversation by Yulia Grogoryeva (licensed from 123RF 73064276)
- Two Candles by Tikkun Ger used with attribution under creative commons.
- “Cafe” by Indigo Skies used with attribution under creative commons.
- A Fresh Cup of Tea by Dark Aura (Lesley Wheat) used with attribution under creative commons.