A substantial part of my job — and the job of any CEO and face of the company — is to be out there and get to know as many of the right people as possible. You do have to worry about the fine line between attending to networking and spending too much time away from production, but if you're in it for the long haul the networking you put in will help you immeasurably in the later years of your company. Here are some basic tips about how I've successfully gone about networking in New York.
How to Introduce Yourself
When I first arrived in New York in Fall, 2006, I spent a lot of my time going to as many "meetups" as I could — like the New York Tech Meetup. After working up the courage to approach people who were mostly a lot older than me — I was 22 — I'd open with the terrible line of "Hello, I'm Spencer. What do you do?"
I actually thought that this was a perfectly acceptable opener until one time I asked two women slightly older than myself, and got scoffed at for asking that question. I was taken aback. "What? That's not an acceptable question at a networking event?" Of course I knew it wouldn't be a good opener in a bar, but here? Their point was that I should get to know them first and what they do would come out in good time. And really what people do isn't the most interesting thing about them — only a part. I thought it would be different from a social event, but it really wasn't. Point taken.
Since then I've always approached anyone I've ever met at a networking event or just in life by trying to get to know the person first. If the two of us get along and the conversation is good, what they and I do will naturally come out. It's the single best piece of networking advice I can give you: Get to know the person.
Find Shared Interests
After you've gotten to know the person and you've fallen into an easy rapport and take an interest in each other, the conversation will naturally lead to what you're both working on. (You are at a networking event.) After the small talk, you'll want to find shared interests.
Any kind of overlap between your company and the other person's always makes for better conversation. It's hard for me to fake interest in a biomedical company — and you shouldn't ever fake interest. However, I have to overcome my lack of knowledge in the field and recognize that a small biomedical company could and probably does share interests with Carbonmade. Find those common threads and chat about them.
Ask Questions and Listen
You should lead with questions. However, being the person leading with questions can sometimes backfire because the person you're asking may not understand conversation etiquette enough to realize that at a certain point they should return those questions back to you. I've been caught numerous times nodding and saying "uh huh" to someone who wouldn't shut up. That's the drawback of this approach, but you'll learn something along the way and figure out soon enough if this is someone that you want to spend time getting to know. Sounds harsh, but someone rambling on about what they do and not caring about you is a strong indicator of a failed potential friendship.
Be Well Read and Add to the Conversation
If the person or group gives you time to talk, make sure you're up to speed on current tech happenings. You can be up on everything you need to know by reading Hacker News, Daring Fireball, ReadWriteWeb, GigaOM, and TechCrunch. The day's or week's news always gets into the conversation, and not knowing what's happening will give the impression — not undeserved — that you're not involved in the everyday life of the culture you're hoping to become a player in.
It only takes a half hour to an hour a day to skim the headlines and pick out the important stories, and over time you'll get even faster. You work in technology, so you should be interested in this material anyway. Not knowing during the course of last week, for instance, that Apple banned the Flash-to-iPhone compiler is evidence that you've been on another planet.
It Matters What You Do
I'll be blunt: If you're working on a successful company, people will want to hear more, but if you're working on a silly idea that nobody cares about then you're going to have a much harder time networking with people. Most people will be turned off if your company is "currently in stealth" and you can't talk about it or if you're not doing anything and just here to meet people. At least work up an idea that you can share with people.
There's an interface between the success of your company and your personal success as a networker hoping among other things to promote your company: they grow each other. The more interesting your idea and story, the more people will be interested in hearing about it. That's how we got the Carsonified story. This should go without saying, but I've met too many people who failed to understand this basic concept because it seems too circular to be meaningful.
Get to Know the Right People
I'll be blunt, again: There are lots of people who attend networking events all over the city and you can't meet them all, so you'll need to spend your time getting to know the right people and not just anyone. If you don't make some sort of selection and target the people you find most interesting, or the ones who could help you out the most, then you could keep going to events with the constant feeling that you'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Be proactive and go up to the people you want to meet. It may be nerve-wracking at first, but the more you do it the easier it gets. More often than not you'll find that these people are happy to meet you and chat. After all, no matter how successful they are already, they'd just stay home if they weren't interested in meeting people like you. When people approach me, I'm always excited to meet them — it always feels great that someone wants to talk with you, and I'm sure it will be in my case for a long time to come. You shouldn't be shy about it. Just make sure you're not spending all your time talking to people who can't help you along — unless of course you're talking for reasons unrelated to business!
You've Got Your Base!
Here's the best part about putting in your time networking during the first few years: Once you've established a solid base, you no longer have to spend a lot of time going to networking events! (Though for reasons I've explained it's sociable to keep involved to a certain extent.) Why? Because your network of friends will introduce you to people over beers, coffee and dinner. These meetings will be a lot more intimate and they'll involve people you know you'll want to spend time getting to know.
These days almost everyone I meet is a friend of a friend, which makes it a lot easier and means I have to spend a lot less time going to networking events. It's a lot more self-selecting and the hit rate of making new friends and a good networking contact is a lot higher. But, as with anything else, you need to spend your time establishing your base!