By David Smith
When I moved to Silicon Valley with Enterprise Ireland in 2006, I did not really know anyone there. I was not a natural networker, but as my role was helping Irish companies expand and do deals in the US, I needed to build my network and embed myself in the ecosystem. I definitely did not enjoy it at first, but I invested time into going to events, getting to know what events to go to again and how to find the people I needed to meet. After 11 years there I built up a substantial and effective network, to the extent that I was known as “the best connected Irishman in Silicon Valley”.
Many people don’t like networking and find it hard, so I thought I would share a few of my recommendations for professional networking:
Choose the events you go to carefully
In the Valley (and elsewhere) there are hundreds of events every week, so I have found that it is important to be selective. Don’t only go to events just because the content interests you. Find out who is speaking and think about who is likely to want to hear what they have to say. Are they the kind of people you’d like to connect with? If you can get hold of the invite list, work out who you want to meet. Reach out to them in advance and try to schedule a meeting over coffee, or if that’s not possible, contact them afterwards to follow up.
Put yourself forward to speak at events
Push your comfort zone. Speaking at events will raise your profile. Organisers are often short of quality speakers, especially those that bring a cross-Atlantic view. Building a public ‘brand’ for yourself and becoming known as a thought leader will raise your profile with your peer group and help you stand out. If you have something interesting to say, people will reach out to you.
Be interested in other people and ask questions
Asking people open-ended questions is a great entry to starting conversations at networking events. Don’t assume people who are talking to one another knew each other before the event. Be brave and ask to join a group of people or strike up a conversation with the person next to you in the coffee queue. Don’t stand in a corner checking your phone because you don’t have anyone to talk to. Also work on some more generic ice-breakers like “what do you see happening in the marketplace over the next six months?” or “tell me about what you do”. It’s not rude to have a short conversation, and then to say, “lovely to meet you, hope you don’t mind but I am going to do some more networking” and then move on and strike up a conversation with someone else. People go to events to network, so they’ll be just as keen as you to meet others.
Have a great elevator pitch
Join conversations with the conviction that you are a worthwhile person to talk to. Have a short 30 second introduction on yourself and your company. People will ask you, so have it prepared and practised. Likewise, be able to list a few short soundbites on what makes your product unique and interesting. Keep it short, this is a conversation not a monologue. Ask them about themselves too.
Don’t give up on networking
Even if you hate it (as many do), persistence is the key. You don’t need to be a natural-born networker to reap the rewards. Making new contacts is always a good thing: you never know the serendipitous connections you might make along the way and where these may lead in future.
As Jim Pulcrano, Executive Director IMD, says: “The difficulty or ease with which you ask for advice, follow up leads, or talk about your startup, will neither hinder or help your venture. What is important is that you do network, whether or not it comes easily.”