If the thought of networking makes you want to curl into the fetal position and hide in your bed watching Netflix all day, I hear you. Not because networking is actually that bad (I promise, it's not), but because the world has taught us about networking in a way that makes it intimidating.
Go up to some CEO or manager who's just made a great speech, introduce yourself, and start talking with him or her like you're old chums. I've been building my network for a long time, and the thought of that makes my stomach turn. Also, most of the time, it doesn't really work.
Yesterday, I saw a clip of a NewsOne interview with actress, writer, director, and producer Issa Rae, of the HBO hit series Insecure. I know what you're thinking: "Actress, writer, director, and producer? I thought you just said that this stuff wasn't supposed to be intimidating!"
Just follow me for a second. In the clip, Rae says that we shouldn't be aiming to network up -- we should be networking across: "Who's next to you? Who's struggling? Who's in the trenches with you? Who's just as hungry as you are? And those are the people that you need to build with."
This is the difference between effective networking and surface-level networking. Rae has her own unique experience with networking across as a black woman in the entertainment industry. However, I believe this advice is incredibly valuable to anyone who is trying to create something in a highly saturated field.
As easy as walking down the street
Right after I lost my job at Digg, I was walking down the street with some friends, and happened to run into some other mutual friends. I was introduced to Adam D'Augelli of True Ventures.
Although Adam is currently a partner, at the time he was just an associate. An associate at a great company, but an associate nonetheless. Adam asked me what I was working on, and we met up later over coffee to discuss what would eventually become my current company, Kiip.
I could have scoffed internally and thought, "An associate at a five-year-old venture capitalist firm who's practically my age -- a lot of good that'll do me." But I didn't.
And meeting with Adam wound up helping me much more than, say, trying to chase down a partner at the firm would have. True Ventures became my first investor a few weeks later.
It's all about balance
Networking across is underrated, but that doesn't mean you should abandon networking up altogether. If you run into the head honcho of a company in your industry in the bathroom, then, yes, by all means, offer your business card (after you wash your hands).
But we have to see the value in the people who are, as Issa Rae said, in the trenches with us, trying to build something. Think about it: Networking is all about you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours, but how well can you scratch someone's back if he or she is already dominating the industry you're in?
Of course, you want the person to know your name, but chances are, what he or she can offer you vastly outweighs what you can offer in return -- otherwise, the person would be chasing you down, not the other way around. But if you're talking to someone next to you -- who's also trying to build the best home assistance bot, beauty brand, or restaurant -- the back scratches are going to be much more equal.
Serendipity welcomes possibility
Consider the scenario mentioned earlier: You approach the CEO who just gave a lovely speech about her company's latest data science innovations and how other businesses, including yours, can benefit.
She walks off the stage, shaking hands with other CEOs, taking business cards from strangers like you, and probably just wishing to sit down and enjoy her dinner. Not exactly the ideal situation for you to make your move.
But that doesn't matter, because instead of spending the entire evening planning out what to say to her to make her remember you, you chatted up the people in the audience with you. And look, you just so happened to be sitting next to someone around your age, who just moved to your city and works in this industry too.
You chatted about what each of you do, comparing and contrasting your daily duties, your companies' values, and what you studied in school. The entire time, it felt like a conversation, not a business transaction, because that's what it was: a serendipitous meeting of two people with similar goals, who are more than willing to scratch each other's backs.
So the next time you're at an event, keep an eye out for the star of the show -- but don't forget about the other players.