How to Build a Network From Scratch
Exactly one year ago, I moved to San Francisco completely on my own. For years I had romanticized what it would be like to live in San Francisco--my manifest destiny.
I had the vision perfectly crystallized in my head: I would eat fresh kale salad every day. I would spend my weekends hiking mountains overlooking the ocean. I would embrace the spirit of community that I felt every time I had traveled West in the past. And finally, finally, I would be in the very heart of the action in the Silicon Valley tech community.
There was only one major obstacle: I knew no one.
I work for HubSpot, a Boston-based company. My hometown is in the Greater Boston Area, and Penn (my undergrad institution) is in Philly. I'd spent 27 years building a personal and professional network in the Northeast, but was determined to build a career and life for myself in San Francisco.
In a matter of months, how could I replicate a network that took me decades to build? I wasn't exactly sure, but was determined to make it happen.
Here are some things that I have discovered along the way.
1. Start with the People Who Know You Best
Nothing beats an introduction for breaking the ice. Your colleagues, friends, and peers know you better than anyone else and can be selective and thoughtful about introducing you to people with whom you'd hit it off.
When I moved to San Francisco, I emailed executives at my company with the following message:
"Is there anyone in your network who lives in San Francisco and with whom I should meet? If so, would you mind making a few introductions via email?" That was it.
I asked another contact, Cliff Pollan, who is deeply entrenched in sales-related thought leadership circles, which female sales leaders I should be paying attention to. Within minutes, I received a personal email introduction to Anneke Seley (12th employee at Oracle, founder of OracleDirect, and now founder of her own sales consulting firm, Reality Works).
Through just a simple question leading to a short email introduction, I encountered a terrific mentor whom I now meet with regularly.
2. Make Those Introductions Count
If you ask for an introduction, follow through with the meeting you set.
Of course you're busy. Of course she's busy. There will always be excuses to push the meeting back a few weeks. Don't be the one who initiates this excuse. If you agreed to meet up with someone you've just received an introduction to, make it happen.
More times than you expect, you will think back and say, "Thank goodness I didn't flake on that one. I was feeling so swamped but wow, that was a worthwhile conversation." My first meeting with Anneke was less than one hour long. My travel time to get to and from Healdsburg from the city was 3 hours in total. The investment has paid off manyfold.
3. Embrace Agenda-Free Meetings
Inevitably, an initial networking meeting will look something like this: You agree to sit down for a coffee or a beer. You make small talk about the person who introduced the two of you, and you go on to describe your respective professional contexts and responsibilities. If you're the one who is new to the city, you will explain what brought you there and how it compares to your former residence.
Eventually, the person sitting across from you will ask, "So how can I help you?"
My favorite answers are the most earnest ones: "I'm here in this new city building a network from scratch. Will you be part of it?" or even more simply "Do you want to be my friend?"
4. Recognize Every Human As a Potential Friend
Open yourself up to unexpected friendships. No, not every co-worker or networking contact needs to be your friend. In the professional world and particularly in the realm of sales, it's important to differentiate between "respect" and "like." You need to prioritize respect over need for approval.
That said, the two don't have to be mutually exclusive. I have formed some of my closest life friendships with clients whose businesses I've helped to transform. I learn about their children, their hobbies, and their favorite restaurants--and none of it is a sales gimmick.
HubSpot's culture deck challenges the notion of work-life balance. I agree. If you immerse yourself in your industry and allow yourself to have a lot of fun while you're doing so, you won't crave an escape when 6 p.m. rolls around.
Don't be too quick to draw a firm distinction between the two worlds if it can make your networking more fulfilling.
5. For Six Months, Make Your Only Answer "Yes"
In moving to a new city, you get to decide what version of yourself you want to be as you embark on a new chapter of your personal journey. My chapter's mantra was one very short word: "Yes."
I accepted every professional introduction regardless of how tenuous the connection might be. I accepted every "friend of a friend of a friend" introduction because I had nothing to lose. I said yes to every outing or conference that pushed me out of my comfort zone and did not accept my own excuses for bailing when I felt too tired to make small talk.
I never regretted a single yes.
6. Create the Network You Want to Be Part Of
Three months into living in San Francisco, I had a good idea about which Bay Area companies and leaders were really shaking things up. After getting to know various tech executives through coffee meetings, HubSpot sales pursuits, and mutual introductions, I realized how powerfully the conversations could be elevated if I could gather these various folks into the same room.
I was eager to be both a participant and an observer.
There are many trends in the ever-evolving tech realm, but one focus area that is more than just a trend is the world of products that promote and enable collaboration. It took some reflection on what mix of individuals would enjoy one another's company and perspectives. It also took some proactive coordination to find a date that worked for all parties. And it took a little bit of faith that everyone would walk away feeling as though that was time well spent. Those mild efforts were far outweighed by the energizing experience of each dinner.
For my first two networking dinners, I invited Jay Simons, president of Atlassian, Oliver Jay, head of sales at Dropbox, Jon Lunetta, VP of sales at Highfive, and Molly Graham, head of business operations at Quip.
Each company approached collaboration from a different angle and each approached product sales very differently. These recurring dinners are living proof that we have the power to create the conversation we want to have.
When you've moved to a new city and are building your network from scratch, you will not automatically get invited to every interesting conversation of which you want to be part. That means you need to invest the legwork to build your ideal network.
There may be that little voice in your head that will always ask “What if I am wasting their time? What could she possibly get from networking with little old me?”
Try to squelch that self doubt and go for it. I did it, and one year in, San Francisco is looking like a very promising place to spend the next chapter of my life.
If anyone is new to the city, new to the tech industry, new to sales, or passionate about any one of these topics, please reach out to me. It'll be a small step toward building out your personal San Francisco network from scratch.
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