Let me be clear--there is absolutely no virtue in being obscure. Which is why networking is so often cited as a core skill for entrepreneurs (for example, here, here, and here). What does it have to do with building a business? If it is so important, how do you actually do it?
Networking is not rocket science. It is navigating, cultivating and leveraging relationships to secure needed expertise, advice and other relationships. For some, networking has connotations of phoniness or schmooziness, but that's not networking. True networking is about authenticity, presence, generosity, empathy for others' perspective, listening, remembering, caring--it is based on real relationships. Not necessarily deep ones, but real. Great networking requires paying at least as much forward as you take out. It's not easy, but entrepreneurs urgently need to get good at it.
Entrepreneurs are parts of small teams taking on big challenges. It is impossible for a small team to embody all of the knowledge required. Mastering a broad set of skills quickly is required to grow. There is no faster way to learn something new than to talk to someone with some expertise.
So how to network well? It starts and ends with basic people skills, but there are a few tactics that can make an entrepreneur a more effective networker. Both style and substance matter. On the style front, basic good manners and grace in social settings, energy and enthusiasm, listening skills and the authenticity and desire to offer help matter a great deal. Work on your basic people skills. Watch others, read up, practice, and try to see things from your target's perspective. Before attending an event, do research and learn about the attendees, but make sure to stop short of seeming like a stalker.
After making a connection with the person and being alert to ways you can help them, the substance of your networking strategy becomes the focus. There are all kinds of advice about how entrepreneurs should interact with would-be advice givers. The worst of them remind me of the guides to great pickup lines for use in bars. Starting the conversation is really not that complicated--mostly it comes down to what I consider to be the three golden networking questions.
Golden Networking Question One
This is your opener that comes after the preliminaries and after your target has either expressly implied or indicated some interest in learning more. The first question doesn't have a magic form--it requires finding the right segue. It is an open-ended question to engage your target intellectually with your problem space. What you are trying to do is state your challenge, and request their thoughts on it. Try to convey something like: here's where I am currently stuck; what are your thoughts on that? For example, if you are a startup entrepreneur you might say "my startup is focused on this problem, for this kind of customer, and we are at the stage where we are trying to really figure out product market fit. How do you generally think about that?" Or "We are like Uber for dog-walking. We are trying to figure out how to scale our sales effort. What have you seen people do in that situation?"
This is an easy question for someone to engage with and most people will have something useful to say. If done well, this kind of open-ended question will tell you a lot about the target's willingness and ability to help.
Golden Networking Question Two
If you get any engagement on question one, follow up quickly with Question Two. This one is best asked in a consistent way each time. As a follow up to question one say, "That's really helpful. Hmmm. Can you think of anybody who it would be good for me to talk to about this? Who do you know who knows about this area?"
What is beautiful about this question is that most targets simply cannot resist answering it. The question poses an interesting thought: "who DO I know in this space?" and it engages them in trying to help you brainstorm a solution. Plus, it hits pretty high up on Maslow's hierarchy of needs--everybody wants to feel like they belong and to earn the esteem of others; demonstrating connectedness feels good. So they are almost always going to start dropping names. In some cases simply to impress, in others out of a genuine desire to help or connect people. Either way, you've hit pay dirt. And you want to consolidate your gains quickly.
Golden Networking Question Three
Once your target has provided some names, they have the hook in their mouth, and it is time to reel them in. Follow up question two by innocently saying: "That is an awesome idea! They would be so helpful! Would you be willing to introduce me?" Now you've got them. They either have to say yes, or they have to renege on the offer.
Reneging is not going to be something anyone wants to do. Who wants to say, "Um, maybe I don't actually know the person that well, or maybe they wouldn't take my call or maybe they are not actually that helpful?" Because these are not things someone is going to relish having to say, they quickly conclude that the only way out is forward, and this almost always leads to the introduction. Before parting ways, thank them profusely for the excellent advice and the great suggestions of people you really should talk to. Wrap up your discussion by saying, "I will take care of the follow-up on this and get back to you by email." Then request their business card or email address and do exactly that. Email will be your saving grace if they conveniently forget as soon as you are out of sight.
Eventually you'll meet up with their recommended people face to face, and you'll know exactly what to do--repeat the three golden questions with newfound conviction and respect for their awesome power.