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Home / Success & Failure  /
The Networking Mantra

Worthwhile networking isn't all that easy to do when you're a nobody

Every month or two, I attend a networking event here in Bangkok meant to bring various entrepreneurs together.  In fact, I attended just such an event last night.  Normally, the events involve a speaker followed by networking - in this case, a few superficial handshakes and an exchange of business cards that will probably find their way into the trash can.  Last night's event was a bit different.  The organizer, aware that prior networking events fell far short of the expectations, sat half the people on one side of the room and half on the other.  In a ten cycle rotation, we introduced ourselves in 2 ½ minutes and the person sitting across from us did the same.  I imagine it felt a lot like speed dating. 

I met more than a few lifestyle coaches I couldn't be sure had their own lives in order; two or three financial advisors who may not have been financially sound; and a couple of desperate real estate agents.  The only stranger among the crowd I'd be willing to meet again was a pretty Swiss woman.  She introduced herself early on.  She was not one of the ten people I speed conversed with.  She graduated from a Bangkok high school with a friend of mine from the gym who showed up out of the blue for his first entrepreneurial meetup.  The three of us chatted for some time until we collectively made our exits.  In prior unsociable meetups, I'd have felt compelled to leave as soon as possible. 

Metcalfe's Law states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of members.  The law is actually referring to Ethernet networks, but little matter.  All networks are connected somethings which, as a whole, are exponentially more powerful than any of the constituent units individually.  Napoleon Hill wrote in Think And Grow Rich about the disproportionate power one receives from mastermind groups, another way of talking about forming a focused network. 

Networking isn't overrated.  But networking events are.  Whever they've been, I feel like I'm auditioning but have no idea for what role.  The others haven't been especially friendly or given the slightest hoot what I do or who I am.  As a result, my interest in these types of events has waned. 

I used to think it was me in particular.   I just didn't know how to "work" as room, as they say.  Apparently, I'm not alone in this belief.  Do a web search on how to work a room.  There have been plenty of books published on the subject.  The cold hard truth is that s0

Why beat around the bush?  Shaking hands with a smile with people you've never seen before doesn't come naturally.   The average person just isn't that interested in meeting a total stranger s/he probably has nothing in common with.   At yesterday's event, more than one person I spoke with was retired or semi-retired.  They weren't doing any business networking I could get whiff of.  They were there primarily as a social occasion. 

Networking events feel unsatisfactory most of the time because the participants have such disparate backgrounds and skills, and there's rarely a bridge to bring particular groups of people together who might have something to offer each other.  Ideally, each of us would always see the value in another.  In reality, we need to have something in common, some kind of shared interest or similar vibration, so that the conversation flows naturally.   This certainly was not the case last night with the Thai real estate agent I quickly tuned out.   Or the semi-retired American financial coach who sat across me with his arms akimbo looking at the floor.

At last night's event, I wasn't in the market for a real estate agent or a financial coach; and although I collected their business cards, do you think that if I were in the market for their skills in six month's time, I'd be dialing either of their numbers?  The person sitting across the table must possess a skill or product I desperately need or be one helluva nice person for me to even consider saving their card.   I don't bother offering up a business card anymore.  I tell the other party ritualistically handing me theirs that I'll e-mail them mine later in the evening.  I maintain a scanned copy of my business card on my smart phone.  Only if I deem the person a possible worthy contact at the end of the evening (or if they assiduously ask my card a second time) do I ever bother e-mailing it out. 

Humans are social animals.  We need contact.  But how much contact do we need?  In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell spoke of the Rule of 150.  The maximum number of people one can have a genuine social relationship with is 150.  Whether you believe the maximum number is 150, 125, or 175, the concept is sound and the suggested numbers probably not far off.  The maximum number is slight.  Any of us could add that number of Facebook friends to our totals within 24 hours. 

The word we need to focus on here is 'genuine.'  You can have over a thousand Facebook buds.  How many do you actually communicate with?  In Gross Miscalculations About Lost Friendships, I documented that the genuine Facebook friends you're in touch with online largely mirror the people you're in touch with offline.  The rest are weak ties you eavesdrop on passively.  You would have lost touch with these people without a tear shed in the pre-Facebook and pre-Twitter eras. 

You must have noticed that wealthy and/or successful people seem to have huge networks, rolodexes as large as some dynamo's Facebook lists.  They're invited to keynote speeches, charity dinners, and celebrity roasts, and appear to know and be friendly with everyone.  Their networks surpass the magic 150 by a long shot. 

The conclusion outsiders would draw, that I used to draw, is that the successful person advanced to this pinnacle of attainment through his humongous network, the value of the lucrative network equal to the square of the tons of also successful people a part of it.

But is that true? 

Metcalfe's Law only states the value of a network in terms of the number of people part of it.   It's the business gurus and laymen establishing the assumed link that the huge network lead to the success. It's practically a mantra by now:  expand your network and then expand it some more, for without a valuable network, success remains elusive.

Rather, it looks like success is more responsible for an expanded and valuable network than the other way around.

Just look at a few examples.  The author Amanda Hocking has recently been trumpeted as an e-Book heroine, becoming, in less than two years, one of the best-selling eBook authors of all time.  She went from broke to multimillions within two years.  Was it robust networking that got her to the top?  It doesn't look like it.  She placed a few rejected eBooks on Amazon and Smashwords, paid heed to a few tips of literary advice she'd read on other author blogs, and the books took off within 6 months.  Only after she succeeded did other already successful authors join her network. 

Take Steve Jobs.  When he started Apple in 1976, he wasn't a member of any shimmering networks.  He, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne worked out of Jobs' parents' garage since they couldn't afford to work anywhere else.  They were later able to gain the financial and business support of multi-millionaire Mike Markkula, and Markkula was surely a factor in Apple's eventual success.  Jobs' eventual luminous network, including billionaires Lawrence Ellison and Bill Gates, came later, after it was an established fact he'd 'made it'.   

Let's move on to the actor Brad Pitt.  How large do you think his network was when he arrived in Hollywood in the 1980's?  After he rose the ranks up to the A-list, his network consists of plenty of other famous movie and TV stars.  Notice how common it is for one famous star to marry another one, like Michael Jackson did with Lisa Marie Presley or Pitt did with his first wife Jennifer Aniston.   Had Pitt remained a nobody, you can forget that marriage ever happening. 

It's relatively easy to expand your network to meteoric proportions once you have a certain amount of status or success behind you.  You have easy access to greater talent and more restricted personalities.  99% of people will gladly pick up the phone when you call. 

The Rule of 150 (or whatever the magic number is) holds as firmly at the top as it does for any of us at the bottom.  You simply cannot have intimate contacts with an infinite number of people.  It's true that the rich and famous seem to know a lot of people they could call on for favors.  The legendary actor Jack Nicholson has said that "The average celebrity meets, in one year, ten times the amount of people that the average person meets in his entire life."  Let's say the President of the United States rings you up tomorrow and asks if you can deliver a favor for no financial compensation.   Odds are you would say yes, but you're not part of his network, and you won't be even after you've performed.  You'll receive a photocopied letter from the White House thanking you for your services to the Land of the Free.  High status individuals can ask favors from low status ones who are grateful to perform them!

I had a very wealthy relative pass away last year.  I didn't know him well, but I got to observe him closely on a few occasions.  I suspect he didn't have a lot of real friends or, to put it another way, deep contacts with many people.  He did, however, have a lot of social contacts.  He was friendly with a wide range of people.  Because he was important to his community and the people whose numbers he collected also possessed a high level of status, maintaining these contacts, whether they were 150 or 250 or 500, didn't require a lot of work.  He just had to invite them to a wedding or a car show or have a group lunch with a bunch of them once a year. 

Networking from on high involves less work with more reward.  Down in the real world, you have to work longer to meet less appropriate contacts, and what's more, spend real time to keep them an active part of your network.  And because you have to devote more time to preserving these connections, a strong consideration in choosing whether to perpetuate the contact comes down to a very simple qualification:  do you like him or her?  Is spending time with this other person painful or pleasurable?

People at the top needn't make this distinction because they don't have to spend quality time with anyone to get favors performed.  If Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ever needs a financial advisor, he can call up any number of finance billionaires such as George Soros or John Paulson, whether or not he's ever met them, and ask for a referral.  Zuckerberg wouldn't have to like the billionaire he consulted or the advisor he eventually hired; and if it were Soros or Paulson or another billionaire in that exclusive club offering the recommendation, Zuckerberg could rest easy that his money was actually working for him. 

Your or I, in comparison, would be solicited at networking events by much lower quality financial advisors.  All of these prospects would need to be seriously vetted by us, and you likely wouldn't make time to go to that stage unless the advisor quickly impressed you with his financial savvy or was someone you took a liking to and wanted to see again. 

When starting out, a super competent, reliable, and vast network is always appreciated but not necessary.  You need a small group of people with skills and expertise you trust.  It may only consist of one other person.  If you can use the little you have to make giant strides on the success ladder, the larger and more competent network will naturally follow without considerable effort.

Don't sweat it.  I don't anymore.  You don't have to feel guilty for blowing off that next networking meetup if you have somewhere else you'd much rather be.   The place you'd much rather be has as much chance of offering you a life-changing contact as anywhere else. 

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