The Best Networking is Not Networking

My first job was at a research consultancy. I was learning and writing about the booming wind energy industry. A big part of my job, and that of and many of my colleagues, was to attend an ever increasing number of industry conferences. The goal was to be part salesperson, convincing potential customers that the analysts at our firm were smart people with interesting things to say, and to play journalist, getting nuggets of data and an informal consensus on topics for which we lacked data. The fact that I reverse-engineered the financial model for a complicated financing structure1 almost entirely from buying beers for CFOs at conferences was probably the only reason anyone in the industry thought I had anything valuable to say, for the first few years at least.

These conferences were like any other — people milling around in uncomfortable suits at random convention centers, and sometimes fancy resorts. The startup I worked for was still young so my business card carried little cachet, that meant I would have to do some networking… ugh.

I’m a slim 5’6” so nearly everybody, already packed into tight circles, was physically either taller or wider than me. Wind energy was already an old energy industry so nearly everybody was two decades or more my senior. The battlefield was intimidating to say the least.

As a natural introvert I hate this stuff. I don’t mind talking to people, but walking into a crowded room and trying to spark up conversations with strangers. Makes my palms sweat as much as anybody else. Except for extroverts who actually like that stuff, those people are lunatics.

At first I was very analytical about figuring out how to network in the least painful way possible. I observed my colleagues who were good at it, read Dale Carnegie books and that awful Never Eat Alone book, read some blogs and experimented continuously. I learned some stuff that does in fact work.

I learned if you are young you need to dress very sharply to be taken seriously. If you manage a billion dollar private equity fund, everybody takes you seriously even if you’re in an oversized mustard yellow three-piece suit, a bolo tie and cowboy hat with an eagle feather in it. If you’re in your early twenties with nothing to trade but your wit and charm, you need a dark well-tailored suit, pocket square, some strikingly neon dress socks in polished kicks.

I learned about a “whatzit” or a conversation piece. Sometimes the tiniest ice-breaker can kick off a great conversation so it’s good to dangle something, anything really, that someone can make an off-hand comment about to break the silence. In my case it was a metal and tortoise-shell business card holder that I deftly whipped out to distribute cards while everybody fumbled in their wallets for crinkled pieces of paper. “Oh nice card holder,” they’d say. I’d respond, “Thanks, what are you investing in these days?” I’m aware of the American Pyscho business card analog here but you gotta admit, Bateman was a smooth operator.

I learned to get to the conference really early because everybody is off their guard and bleary-eyed at the coffee line. I learned later to spend hours before the conference emailing attendees because hard to reach people were 10x more likely to agree to a 15 minute side meeting at a conference than a 30 minute phone call on their normal calendar.

These are just a few snippets, there’s mountains of advice out there on how to network better. And a lot of this stuff does technically work, it will improve what you get out of a networking event and it totally worked in some ways for me.

But then I discovered a networking tactic that worked 100x better. All the other marginal improvements I’d made were worthless by comparison.

The secret to power networking is: Make something awesome and tell people about it.

The way to crush a conference is to give a compelling, data-rich, slightly funny and slightly controversial talk. It’s as simple as that.

I learned this when the CEO of our company was supposed to give a presentation at a reasonably important conference and couldn’t make it at the last second. So my boss thought, “Tyler’s been working for us for like six months now, why not have him do it instead?” (Yea, everybody there was awesome like that).

So I worked my ass off, put together a really interesting deck, nervously told a joke or two and pulled it off. I made something and told people about it. And then an amazing thing happened, everybody wanted to network with me! My talk was on the second day, so people who had actively ignored me the first day were now introducing themselves, or sending their lackeys to arrange a meeting. I got invited to the cool nerdy after parties where everyone gets too drunk and tells you all the juicy data.

This isn’t even an 80/20 effort. Just giving a 15 minute presentation yielded 99% of the value of the conference with 1% of the effort. Unless you have a deathly fear of public speaking, sitting on stage and saying “look at this cool thing I have” is a lot less scary than walking up to a stranger and saying “Hi I’m Tyler.” At least to me.

After that my conference trips were both more effective and much more pleasant. I focused almost all my efforts on getting a good speaking slot and giving a kick ass talk and mostly didn’t worry about the rest.

The general pattern holds well too. Since I put my suits in storage and quit my conference jockey gig, I’ve spent the last four years making stuff and blogging about it. Blog posts have been by far the best source of any kind of networking for me.

Inbound requests from folks who want to partner or help with my businesses all come from blog posts. Interesting people who just want to have a chat, come from blog posts. Fellow entrepreneurs who want to swap stories, find me through my blog posts. The blog-first startup is getting a lot of traction as a business tactic because it allows you to cheaply make something useful and show it to people before you ever pitch an investor. If done well, investors read what you’re putting out there and reach out to you!

I’m sure I’ll think of other good distribution methods for the make and tell people about it but for now it’s all about the blog game for me. Or rather the full pattern is: make something awesome, blog about it and then Buffer it, and then later repost it to Medium.

People always think the end-game to actually get value out of your blog is to monetize it with ads or something. But I think the biggest benefit by far is it allows you to do “pull networking.” You write down “these are the things I’m thinking about and like talking about” and others can read them and reach out to you if they like thinking and talking about those things too. That is infinitely more valuable than the $0.00005 per page view for one weird trick ads in your sidebar.

Making things, by the way, is also the only way to network upwards. What do I mean by that? Well let’s say you want to meet someone you look up to and admire: a writer, film star or entrepreneur. If you deploy all the traditional networking tactics incredibly well, they might be impressed and maybe you would get to meet them and gram a selfie with them. But let’s say you actually want to become friends, confidants and colleagues with these people. No amount of cold-calling, leveraging alumni networks or stunts can get you there. But write a best-selling novel, Kickstart a film in Sundance, or build a fast-growing startup and now you get invited over for drinks and conversation. The only way to build a real relationship with someone who has hugely asymmetric demands on their time is to make something they admire.

Sadly there’s no one weird trick here. The making of awesome things is massively harder than becoming a LinkedIn Group power-user, but it’s massively more rewarding too.

  1. “tax equity” for the energy geeks

Evolution, mountains, careers and superjumps

This is a post about career and life decisions, but first, evolution.

Survival of the fittest gets all the credit in evolution. But if that was all there was to evolution, we would all be slowly converging towards a single super-fit species. Evolution is only so powerful thanks to another

equally important component: mutation. As a species slowly grinds away towards slightly better fitness, occasionally, a member of the species mutates, and radically changes. Most of the time the mutation is a failure, but sometimes the complete shot in the dark yields a much better adaptation that ultimately creates an entirely new species or comes back to dominate the original one.

A good metaphor for understanding this interplay is that of the fitness landscape. Imagine a mountain range, with peaks and valleys and each mountain is a random height. Traversing this landscape, height = awesomeness, so everybody on this landscape always wants to get as high as possible.

Now imagine you’re dropped at random somewhere on the fitness landscape. You have a fancy GPS watch that tells you your elevation, but a dense fog has set in, so you really can’t see the whole range, or even the whole peak/valley you are currently on. How do you get higher? Well, you’ll take a few tiny steps in one direction, check if your getting higher and either keep going or change directions and check again. This is survival of the fittest, small variations that double down on incremental improvement.

But what happens if you have randomly been dropped at the foot of the tiniest little hill in the whole mountain range. Your survival of the fittest strategy won’t serve you very well, yes, you’ll eventually make it to the top of the hill, but what then? This is a local maximum. You are improving alright, but you’re going up the wrong hill, taking you further away from the higher, more awesome, peaks in the range.

This is where the mutation comes into play. Mutating in the fitness landscape is the equivalent of a super jump superpower. When you mutate you launch yourself to some other random spot, check your elevation and start feeling around for ways to get a bit higher. You might end up lower than the top of your first little hill, but you might also land on a much bigger Mount Awesome, and your incrementalist strategy will get you right to the top.

The interplay of small improvements and a few big random jumps is what makes evolution so powerful. Short guess and check with the occasional superjump is also the best strategy for traversing the fitness landscape. The metaphor is pretty simplistic, but I think it’s a powerful mental tool for a lot of scenarios.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the fitness landscape in the context of career trajectory. I think most of us spend way too much time optimizing for a local maximum when we should be taking a few more random superjumps. We’re halfway up our little hill. We think about all the work it took to get up to this point. The stack of degrees signifying our right to be so far up this particular hill. The carefully constructed CV that shows us a clear path several more steps up the same hill.

By contrast the mutation, the superjump, the leap of faith seems crazy. Where will we end up after the jump? What guarantee do we have that the we’ll land on a higher mountain? What if we fail and land smack in the middle of a valley? No no, this hill is just much safer and more certain. Two more steps up.

But evolution tells us that this really is the best way to get as high as we can. So maybe we should take a few more leaps of faith in our careers, trying out a field where we have no expertise, no credentials, just confidence that when we get there we will work hard and get better and starting heading up the hill. I’m not saying all the time, but probably more often than we do now.

Another upside, superjumps are definitely NOT boring.

Related listening: Tim Ferriss on reasons to be a Jack of All Trades