If you think networking is a drag, pity Rob May. He's the founder of Backupify, a company that provides data back-up for cloud-based services such as Google Apps. About a decade ago, May says, he was eager to learn about business, but he was an engineer who only knew other engineers.
He wanted to network with business people but found it challenging. "I wasn't good at networking and I found it exhausting," he says. "I was also young, and the prospect of talking with people in their mid-40s who were professional successes was very intimidating."
Fortunately for May, his sister worked with autistic children. "They're not very good socially," he says. "One of the things she told me she was working on was to help them get better by making it like a game."
It was an "aha!" moment. May realized that same strategy could work for him too. By approaching networking as a game, he could get over his reluctance, and become a more effective networker at the same time.
Here's a rough outline of the rules May created for his networking game. Feel free to adapt them to your own networking challenges:
1. Prepare for each quest.
Before heading out to a networking event, May would prepare three conversation topics to try out. At the time, he was living in Florida, not far from the Kennedy Space Center, so goings-on at NASA were often a good bet. So were the Marlins.
2. A quest can be completed after three conversations.
May would sometimes find himself standing ham-handed at networking events where he didn't know anyone. To combat that uncomfortable feeling he set himself a rule: He had to have three different conversations. "So I would go up to three random people," he says. "If there was nothing interesting after three conversations, I would leave--even if I'd only been there 10 minutes."
3. Review each quest.
After each event, May would go over the results and make some notes. He'd review which conversation topics had worked well, and which events led to the most promising conversations.
4. Complete five quests and repeat the most successful.
May would commit to a series of five events, then select which had worked best and plan to return to that one. "Instead of going to one and getting frustrated, I had a list of them," he says. "I had to think about it as a long-term strategy."
5. Level up.
In time, May mastered the basic level of his game. He learned by observation how to keep a conversation afloat, and as he continued attending events, he got to know other regulars and to feel much more comfortable. It was time to set some new objectives for his game.
"All my initial goals were quantitative," he says. "Go to this many events, try this many topics of conversation." At the next level, he became a lot more selective. For instance, he had learned in the first stage that events with a panel of speakers, and with time for networking after the panel worked best for him, so he began to focus on those.
These days, he says, he's quite comfortable networking, and he's gotten good at connecting with the people who can most help his business. "Now it isn't about talking to three people, it's navigating my way to the right person, such as a potential investor," he says.
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