02 Mar Chapter 3: The Ultimate Guide to Building a Professional Network
In 2012, I took 250 coffee meetings in 400 days to build my professional network in Chicago.
I went from quite literally knowing no one to building relationships with some of the biggest influencers in the entrepreneur community.
Five rules of building a successful professional network:
Rule #1 – The easiest way to be remembered is show up every week for a year straight.
The below excerpt is meant for advertising professionals to show the value of repeat advertising. Apply it to the value of you interacting with the same professionals over the course of a year.
The best connections I made were from a group that met every Friday at 6 pm for a happy hour. I went every week for a year straight.
Gary Vaynerchuck is the master at repetition. He recorded over 1,000 videos for WineTv. 1,000!
You shouldn’t expect any ROI from networking within the first six months. Real connections take time. It also helps you take your time building genuine relationships, and not closing deals right away.
Rule #2 – The best networkers aren’t business card collectors. They are hustlers building real value.
The most interesting people at any event you attend are the people who are starting something. They are the ones with the stories, the struggles, and the successes.
They aren’t there to build a Rolodex. They are there to learn from others and find others that can help them succeed.
For you, this means that it is never too late to start a side hustle.
Nothing ends a conversation quicker than “I’m an accountant at a mid-size company.”
Be interesting. Start a side hustle.
Rule #3 – Dear Introverts – Don’t overthink small talk.
When an introvert asks me about networking, they always ask “What should I say at a networking event? I’m not good with small talk. I don’t like to talk about myself.”
There are two questions you should ask everyone you meet at any networking event:
- What are you working on?
- How can I help you achieve your goals?
That’s it. Stop worrying about what you’re going to say and instead become interested in them. Ask deeper questions about the company they are building or the company that they work for.
Every interaction becomes that much easier.
Also, remember why the other person is at a public function. They WANT to meet new people. You’re not breaking into their house at midnight demanding to know what they do for a living.
Rule #4 – Networking doesn’t have to happen at a networking event. Get that out of your head immediately.
Introverts run away from networking because they believe this involves meeting strangers at an after work event and mindless small talk resulting in exchanging business cards and never talking to them again.
Extroverts love it because they get to add people to their network, and in most cases, end up doing nothing with these new contacts. They just like the act of meeting new people.
Networking doesn’t have to happen at a networking event. Get that out of your head immediately.
Networking is first and foremost about building better relationships with your existing network and then it’s about meeting new people.
The real way to network is to start with your core group first and expand outward from that trusted group.
The hands down biggest mistake most “networkers” make is that they’re so busy focused on meeting new people, they’ve completely forgotten about the great network that already exists around them.
Rule #5 – If you’re not having fun building your network, you are doing something wrong.
There are three reasons to “network.”
- To learn something.
- To meet interesting people
- To have fun.
Ideally, you hit all three of these points. If you don’t hit any, you need to question what you’re doing.
What are the benefits of networking?
I tried to rephrase this question without sounding like your college counselor, but I couldn’t do it no matter how hard I tried.
Getting involved and putting yourself out there is truly the only way to create opportunities for yourself.
You should network to build a better career, make more money and to create long-lasting friendships. Networking is a long-term affair. If you’re in it for the quick sale, you’re going to be sadly disappointed. It just doesn’t work that way.
If you want to make more money, get promoted and build long lasting friendships all while removing all the roadblocks from making this happen, this guide is for you.
The truth is that in today’s complicated business landscape, no one can do everything. There is someone out there who needs your skills as much as you need their resources, mentorship, or the experience you can gain from working on their projects (or with their team). The trick is for you to be able to find one another. These days, your career is a team sport, and you get first pick.
I put together four steps to building a professional network.
Ready, Let’s go.
Step 1: Find your second home, fast. AKA: Build your community.
Step 2: Utilize your existing network to strategically expand.
Step 3: The tools and processes to maintain and grow your network.
Step 4: General networking tips
STEP 1: Find Your Second Home, Fast. AKA: Build Your Community
Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is a parlour game based on the “six degrees of separation” concept, which posits that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart. Movie buffs challenge each other to find the shortest path between an arbitrary actor and prolific character actor Kevin Bacon. –
The first major mistake most people make with networking is assuming that you have to know everyone. Is it good to know everyone? Sure. Is it possible? Absolutely not.
Your new #1 goal is to be at most 2 degrees of separation from the influencers in your industry.
This means you should either know the influencer first hand or know someone who can connect you to that person. I’ll show you how to do this. These networking tips are tested, and work for any industry.
Step 1.1: Identify who are the influencers in your industry. Find the people you admire in your industry. Find the people that you don’t have a relationship with, but want to have a relationship with. Find the people that could potentially hire you. This is where you start.
Step 1.2: Put a plan together to build your community.
To get 2 degrees away from an influencer or head honcho, you just need to find those people who are most likely connected to those people. These are the people at other levels under the influencer you’d like to become closer to.
How? You do this by becoming an extremely active member of a professional organization that aligns with your objectives and your influencers objectives.
I’m going to teach you how to target, stalk and engage someone (legally of course).
This activity requires a LinkedIn account. By now, you should know how important LinkedIn is for all things career related. At this point, if you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, you should stop reading and go back to posting quotes on your Instagram.
If you pay for a premium account, fantastic. If not, you can still accomplish all this without one.
Step 1.3: Write down the people you consider the top performers or the most professionally connected in your desired industry and city.
I use LinkedIn heavily to do my research.
Step 1.4: Email them
The next best step is to email them with one simple question. So, you’re probably thinking, “Well, that escalated quickly Robbie. I haven’t even met the person, and you want me to cold email them?”
The answer is, yes.
Let’s say you want to email Janet Davis who is a VP of a successful digital agency.
Your email should contain 2 sentences.
This email is ideal for several reasons:
- It’s under five sentences (so it’s short and sweet).
- You have successfully introduced yourself as someone who is genuinely curious to join a high-quality group.
- If she runs a networking group or event, she will recommend that you attend hers. Voila! This is your “in” to meeting Janet in a comfortable environment.
- You’ve shown that you have done research about her, which will make her more likely to respond.
- Once you start your search, you should send at least 5 of these emails.
Step 1.5: Plan B: Scope the scene yourself
If you don’t get a response and don’t know where else to get good recommendations about local events, this is your next option.
Find 3 types of events:
- General Meet & Greet Networking (Network after work, Speed Networking).
- General Networking with an emphasis (The Chicago Black Professionals, Cheers for Moms, Chicago Technology LGBT, etc.).
- Event / Speaker Focused (Tech Event with a speaker).
What event should you go to first?
I know this answer sounds simple, but exudes many people.
- Go to the event that has the people that you want to meet.
- Go to the event that you have something in common with.
For example, if you are a graduate of Notre Dame University, and you had the option of going to the Digital Marketers in Chicago Meetup or the Notre Dame Digital Marketers in Chicago Meetup which one are you going to go to?
The Notre Dame event. Your college alumni are the most likely to help you and connect you.
The normal digital marketing group will be less likely to help you initially because they don’t have any common bond with you.
Whatever you do, don’t go to the event where you feel the most comfortable. Go to the event that will give you the most value.
Here’s an easy way to get started:
- Go to http://meetup.com
- Select your city
- Select Career & Business
If you’re looking to start a company and don’t have a clue where to start, I see 3 events out of the 8 pictured above that can benefit you immediately in terms of building connections with Chicago entrepreneurs.
I was going to make a joke about there being only one group for you if you are Asian, professional AND love horses, but then I realized it’s the year of the horse for the Chinese Lunar New Year in 2014, so I’m an asshole and I retract that statement.
Step 1.6: Attend
Networking events get a bad rap. I hear the same things over and over from people who don’t like them: “Oh, they are such a waste of time.”
My advice on this topic is to use networking events consistently as an entry point into a new industry, then ramp down the number of events you go to and focus on a few that keep you connected.
Use them as a survival technique initially with the plan of becoming an official organizer or leader of a Meetup group. My suggestion is not to start one, but to join one.
Networking events are useless for me now because I already know enough people to get connected to the people I want to. I’m already 1 or 2 connections away from Kevin Bacon.
- Do not go there with an agenda.
- Do not go there looking for a job.
The only real benefit of a networking event is when you start to see the same people over and over.
Here is how a conversation usually evolves if you attend the same event multiple times:
1st time: “Hi John, so what do you do?”
2nd time: “Hey John, good to see you again. How did your project end up?”
3rd time: “Hey John, it’s a pleasure to see you as always. My project to get more connected in the digital marketing space has been going well. I’m looking to connect with the founders of digital marketing agencies in Chicago. What do you think the best avenue is for me to do this? Is there anyone that you can connect me with?
Note: If you don’t have a job right now and you’re not creating anything, there should be no reason why you aren’t at these events at least 3 times a week. Going to a networking event is 100 times better than what you are doing now: “looking for jobs online.”
Step 1.7: Get officially involved
If you found a group you like, it’s time to get involved in a low commitment way so that it doesn’t interfere with your job, but still gives back to the community and helps you maintain your edge. You never know how organizing an event, or hosting a get together of colleagues and acquaintances might benefit you.
Step 2: Take it the next level: Expand Your Core Group and become the hub. [Advanced]
Step 1 is a lot of work, I’ll admit it. It works like hell, but yes, it’s a lot of work.
You can do this exercise without doing Step 1, but it only really works well if you already have a great core network. Professional networking is, in my opinion, the act of you becoming a professional at networking.
Step 1 is the grassroots way to build a network and the foundation for my system. Whether you’re a college student, or a job seeker looking to advance, these networking tips will take you to where you want to go, but you have to do the work first.
Let’s say you have an excellent network of contacts and you want to build a closer relationship with your group and start involving influencers more often.
Ideas for different types of groups you can create:
Start your own small networking group. Create a monthly or bi-monthly networking group.
- Private, invite-only type groups around a niche topic or industry
This is my recommended approach when it comes to building a hub. I would almost always start here.
Start with about 6-10 people in your industry that you have a good relationship with and ask them if they are open to meeting once a month or once a quarter. You can meet at a bar/restaurant to start it off. If you can meet at one of your offices, even better.
The key to making this work is making sure that everyone in the group is quality. If you get one bad apple, then others will look down on it and down your group goes.
At the actual event, you can set a topic and discuss it. It doesn’t need to be formal. You are opening your network to others, and you will now be helping your network be more connected.
The idea is that you keep expanding the group for each new event. You ask each member to refer one new person that you think would benefit from this group and help others.
- Private, invite-only dinners (or even breakfasts)
Same concept as the private invite only groups, except this time, you invite new people every single time. This is much harder to pull off in my opinion but can reap a lot of great rewards.
I know in one instance the host of the group charges $100 for each event and dinner and drinks are included. It’s a premium price to pay, but it can bring in some great relationships.
That’s an extreme example but I wanted to show you that you can be creative with how you do this.
- Public recurring events
These are usually industry events with a keynote speaker and attendees. These are events you would find on meetup.com.
This is a very time-consuming effort, and so you should only do this if you have the time and you’re in it for the long run.
With that said, the results from organizing this event will help your career ten fold.
Step 3: The tools and processes to maintain and grow your network.
Over a short period, I built one hell of a network. The problem soon became managing my network correctly.
I use two tools to manage it. As you will quickly notice, it’s nothing spectacular or out of the ordinary.
- Email or an email marketing tool such as MailChimp
Here’s the one big tip I use to manage a large group of people.
Here’s my process:
- I make a new contact
- I add them on LinkedIn
- Send a quick email to them saying it was nice to meet them at the event.
- In that email, I also ask “I have an email newsletter that goes out about once a month. I help connect my network with each other and give you a small update about what I’m working on. Would you like to be added to it?”
- Add them to my newsletter once they agree. This is where I use MailChimp.
- Send out the newsletter once a month.
I do this consistently. No excuses.
Here’s what I include in the newsletter:
This is all that I send, and it works wonders.
I’m now helping others get connected with one another and I become the super connector. I also reap all the rewards from helping other people.
Also, if you didn’t notice, I’ve essentially given myself job security. I now have a huge audience of people who can help me if I need to look for a job.
Luckily, I haven’t used it for that format, but it was a great security knowing I had that leverage.
I also use LinkedIn to post status updates and write new articles using LinkedIn Publisher. It keeps everyone in the loop about what I’m working on.
Step 4: General Networking Tips
Your network should consist of contacts, colleagues, references, mentors and protégés – and they should all be rooting for you. People aren’t computers: you can tick all the boxes on paper, but if they don’t like you, they won’t want to work with you, and they certainly won’t go out of their way to help you.
1. Make it about them: Follow the 80/20 rule: Only 20% of a conversation should be about you. Listen to the person you’re talking to, instead of thinking about what they can do for you. Draw them out. Show a genuine interest. And if you can help them in any way, volunteer immediately.
While you are interested in selling your services, no one wants to feel like that’s the only reason you’re talking to them. Furthermore, if you have taken an interest in their needs and goals, you’ll be better situated to offer them services and suggestions you know they can use. If you can align your needs it’s all for the greater good: there’s nothing more attractive than a perfect fit.
2. Have integrity: It’s about being trusted as much as it is being liked. Losing your reputation for honesty, fairness and straight-dealing can be a death blow: who’s going to entrust you with anything important then?
Be vulnerable: It’s ok to ask for help or advice, and to be upfront about what you need. Trying to pussyfoot around the subject just makes you look shady. Telling people what you’ve tried, even if it hasn’t worked, shows them that you’re serious and already working on your own behalf. They may have tips and feedback to help you on.
3. But not too modest: Standing next to the big fish in your pond, you may feel rather small. But don’t be intimidated – there’s a fine line between paying your respects and pulling yourself down and you need to draw it. This isn’t the time to be modest: if you don’t acknowledge your strengths, how is this highly connected stranger going to recognize them?
In the professional world, we like to think that status is a measure of merit. Rightly or wrongly we value confidence and competence, and being deferential implies that you’re less capable than other people. No one’s going to entrust you with a task you don’t look like you can handle.
Even if you have fewer awards, a more limited reputation, a weaker backhand in tennis, carry yourself as this person’s equal. After all, you’re not dying to work with the person who’s a smaller fish than you, are you? Neither are they.
4. Discuss your side projects: You want to show that you’re active in your own right, helping yourself instead of expecting others to step in for you. No one intentionally infects themselves with a parasite, but it feels good to help someone who shows promise.
Side projects are great for this purpose for two reasons: first, they’re completely your baby, so they prove you’re self-motivated and skilled enough to carry them off. Second, you can discuss them freely without giving the impression that you talk about your company’s work out of school. Remember what I said about being trustworthy?
5. Respond: to that email or phone call. Keeping in touch with old friends is important.
6. Reconnect: Be the one to send the email or make the call, and catch up with old colleagues and companies.
7. Reach out: to new people. This is the tricky part, but don’t let it intimidate you. There are ways and means of doing it effectively.
In conclusion, networking skills take work, but the payoffs are huge!