‘It's who you know, not what you know'. People I trust drilled this truth into me, along with an injunction to extend my network. So I go to meet ups, conferences, dinners and other events to meet people who might help me on my journey: investors, other entrepreneurs, media, mentors…. It's a tough road and you need as much help from the best people you can find.
Anyone who looked at Posse from the outside would conclude I have an incredible network, so I must be an expert schmoozer. Our shareholder register includes the founder of Google Maps, high profile Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists, senior executives from eBay, MTV, Macquarie Bank, Wotif, NineMSN and many others. But I'm nothing of the sort, quite the opposite in fact. As an introvert, I've always struggled with networking. Here, I'll share some challenges I've experienced and how I've learned to build a powerful network despite my natural reticence.
This past week I've been at the annual MaiTai conference in Maui, hanging out with 130 of the world's top tech entrepreneurs, investors and pro kite surfers. We started each morning at 8am with inspiring and educational panels featuring some of the most interesting people I've come across. At midday, we all headed to the beach to kite surf. I'm still a beginner so I took lessons from 2 – 5pm, but other than that, we chilled out on the beach drinking beer and forming friendships with people who'd influence and help us in business and life. At night, there was a formal dinner or event followed by after parties that ran until pretty close to the start of next morning sessions.
Some people can walk into any event and charm the room. They're confident, funny and can form close relationships with anyone seemingly without effort. I always wished I was like that but in truth, I'm not. When I look around a room at a party where I don't know many people, I find it daunting to approach just anyone and strike up a conversation. It doesn't come naturally. I'm an introvert, and all these networking events are designed for and work better with extroverts. This past week has been amazing fun – I've met some awesome people with whom I'm sure I'll stay in contact for years to come. But it wasn't all easy.
Am I the only one who feels this way? My guess is, lots of us go to these events and struggle. We stick at it because we know it matters, and as we progress, we learn to hide our discomfort and improve our skills. I'm a perfectionist and hate not to be good at something, but I have to accept that this is just me. I've developed techniques to help me to form important relationships and improve – even enjoy – the process of networking.
Although I find large informal groups like parties a challenge, I know that I perform very well in formal presentation settings or one-on-one conversations. Instead of beating myself up about not being able to charm groups at the dinner table, I focus my efforts in learning how to build on my more natural skills of engaging people one-on-one, and public speaking. An ability to kill it at a one-on-one presentation is all you need to build a great network, because if you leave that person inspired then they'll want to introduce you to their friends. That's how I've built my entire network.
At events have short conversations with lots of people then follow up later.
I find it difficult to form deep connections at informal events, instead I try to have short conversations with as many people as possible, making sure I have everyone's details so I can follow up later. Then I'll reach out after the event, setting up a lunch or coffee. That's an environment where I know I'll be able to win them over.
A network isn't about having lots of shallow relationships. It's about forming a few close relationships.
Some people have hundreds or even thousands in their network. Other than on social networks where I don't know most of the people to whom I'm supposedly connected, I'd say my close business network includes about fifteen people – but these people are special. Every year I'll meet between one and three new people who are just magic, and I know they'll have a profound impact on my life. It's never ‘what can this person do for me,' it's a realisation that I've encountered someone awesome who I want to be connected with and learn from. I've always thought the whole ‘networking' thing wasn't for me, and when I reflect on why my network is so powerful despite this I'd say it comes down to how much I value and nurture these relationships. Almost all good things come to me from one of these fifteen people.
Don't beat yourself up about not being an expert socialiser.
Some people are born extraverts and some are introverts. That's fine. We introverts have different strengths: feel good about your quieter disposition. And check out this great TED talk by Susan Cain on ‘The Power of Introverts': http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html I spent years thinking that I should be different – louder, funnier, more extraverted. Now I recognise the need to be grateful for the talents that I do have. This is just another thing I'll continue to work on.
Stick at it and it gets easier.
When I think back ten or even two years, I've become much more comfortable at networking as I've practised. Now, I hardly notice my introversion and some people are surprised when I reveal that I find large events difficult to navigate.
Being invited to events like MaiTai is such a privilege. I've come to meet so many incredible people, learned a new sport and had a tonne of fun in the process. The first time I went a couple of years ago, I only knew two people – and not even very well – and I stayed in a house with a group of about ten whom I'd never met before. As an introvert, I found the whole week daunting. But I pushed through, and I'm glad I did. As an entrepreneur the road is tough, but events like these and the people that you meet can make the journey so much more fun, attainable, ultimately fulfilling.