My Networking – Theory and Practice

Like most other people I think networking is really important and fun.

I had a great chat the other day with my friend Dave Zinman, VP of Products at Blue Lithium. We were talking about organization networks and the fascinating topic of network theory. Dave mentioned two questions they ask in network theory surveys, “Who do you go to for advice and who do you consider friends?” Obviously if a friend goes to you for both (advice and friendship) you’re indispensable.

Auren Hoffman once told me a different, equally profound insight about being an “expert” to your friends. For example, I know some things about business and technology and I know some things about education / youth / next gen issues. I am an expert in neither. But to my adult friends in business I’m their expert on education / next gen issues and to my school friends I’m their expert in business. My friend and PR maven Renee Blodgett recently asked me to talk to one of her entrepreneur friends who’s starting an internet company targeting college students. A friend from high school recently asked me if I could help him get a job at a financial services company.

Acquiring knowledge and experiences in diverse fields can produce a powerful “expert effect” which makes you valuable to your network of contacts.

A question I often ask myself is how much time to devote to weak ties versus strong ties. It’s a balancing act. What’s important is actively thinking about these two levels of relationship and what kind of relationship you are striving for with a particular person (in business or in life). Lots of weak ties are underrated — email only relationships can still be interesting and fruitful. I find it difficult to maintain weak ties with people if they don’t have a blog or aren’t good emailers. Maintaining strong ties, on the other hand, is just a product of sheer time and effort. Therefore, it’s impossible to maintain strong ties unless you actually like the person. And it’s nearly impossible to form strong ties when you have visible “needs” — if you start networking when you’re looking for a job or trying to raise money, it’s way, way too late.

Why do I care about networking? It’s fun, it’s important, and long ago I learned I won’t be able to compete with many people on raw intelligence alone, so I’ve resorted to getting really good at facilitating people’s intelligence, connecting them to new people and ideas, and trying to help others be more successful.

In the coming years, as far as my network is concerned, I am focusing on three things:

1. Young — I want to build relationships with younger people, ie under 30 or 40. The wisest people I know have gray hair, but the “next gen” demographic, who are usually funnier and more visionary, is shallower than I’d like.

2. Global — Talent is spread across the globe. I want to know influencers in all the major countries. With my international travel, I’m working on this.

3. Interconnected — I want to connect more of my friends. I have a big idea around this, to be revealed later.

One final point. Some people see “networking” as a dirty word, because it can imply a kind of greedy approach toward relationships. It’s a valid concern. If you’re not genuinely interested in people and their stories — everyone can be interesting for at least five minutes — then you can’t “network” to success. I derive a great deal of pleasure from exchanging ideas with interesting people. Indeed, there are people in my network who have provided zero professional benefit, but it doesn’t matter since I don’t apply an ROI calculator to each person in my address book. I also am not embarrassed about taking a professional approach to my personal relationships (ie non business related). For example, I created a spreadsheet that listed when all my friends from high school were leaving for college, so I’d be sure to see them before they took off. Relationships are so central to our lives that there should be nothing wrong with thinking about it in an organized manner.

8 comments on “My Networking – Theory and Practice
  • Ben,

    Interesting take on the under 30 or 40 crowd. I suggest that you step out of your comfort zone to build that network.

    Consider taking art classes or better yet, consider taking acting classes at Studio ACT. I guess it doesn’t much matter where you look for connection with your desired target, I am humbly suggesting that you avoid the young entrepreneur’s club or even a non-profit where young people are involved.

    Basically, go into the network knowing that it means virtually nothing that you have started 2 companies, etc., etc.

    I bet it will open up some great things in you.


  • Loved your take on networking – “if you’re not genuinely interested in people and their stories — everyone can be interesting for at least five minutes — then you can’t “network” to success.” Exactly, I don’t call it networking, I just say I’m interested in meeting and talking with interesting people. Way less pressure and way more fun!


  • Ben… this is a topic that is so in my thoughts.

    There was a time when I was a heavy “networker”. When I was 15-23 years old I was into every possible thing; meeting people from every walk of life. I was very active in politics at a state and national level. I started companies. I was on multiple non-profit boards. If there was a chance to say “yes”, I did! Doing this had two main points in my small brain:

    1. I would meet cool and interesting people. These people would challenge me and make me a better person.
    2. I would create relationships that could be leveraged at some point in future endeavors.

    What I found was that neither of these happened. I met very few interesting people and the relationships I built did not last or where not solid.

    This all left me with a bitter feeling. People that I had done major favors for, simply went on their merry way.

    After these early experiences, I was left with the fact that deep relationships may just not be possible in the business, “non-family” environment. People still contacted me, when they needed something. But the casual “hello” or “what could we do together” rarely happens.

    Now at the old age of 35, I am left with the general thought that I only need a few close contacts (I have two). I have a ton of associates who I will contact when needed and they will contact me when I can do something for them, but I would never call them friends.

    I believe in a free economy democracy and I think this applies to relationships as well. People will need you when you add utility/value to their lives. In the business world this almost always means that you make them more money. If you no longer can do that for them you will be replaced with others who can. Loyalty will only go so far and loyalty really only exists when there is a bet on the future value of a relationship.

    I am sure I am sounding like a bitter,cold, last few years of his life Theodore Roosevelt, but this is my experiences with “networking”.

  • Tom,

    Thanks for the interesting comment. Your experience is thought provoking.

    I suspect I’m taking a similar approach now that you took when you were younger.

    My big reaction is that 23 years old is not a lot of time. A lesson I’ve learned is that some relationships “pay off” in tangible ways years later. Of course, there are some relationships that do NOT pay off in real ways (like making more money) but, like philanthropy, sometimes the mere act of engagement is award enough.

    You’re 35, the throes of your career. I would think now is the time the probability of reaping reward from networking in your 20’s is highest. But you seem closed to that possibility, or at least have ensured it won’t happen.

    On the “people are only interested in you if you can add utility” — my experience has been a little different. I’ve found the most successful people always think about how THEY can help YOU, not the other way around, because they have faith in karma, and they have faith in quid pro quo.

    Your point about having two close contacts and then bundles of “associates” is a legitimate strategy. I have one entrepreneur friend who has an extremely close relationship with a highly connected entrepreneur and investor, and anytime he needs something, he goes to this close friend. A couple deep relationships with connectors can be an effective approach. For me, I prefer to have my eggs in more baskets, but I have the time to do this. Perhaps my approach will change when I’m older.

  • “you have started 2 companies, etc., etc.”

    You’ve started 2 companies? What’s the second? I thought it was just Comcate.

    Inquiring minds want to know 🙂

  • Ben, TK:

    Another issue is that I believe that the culture of Silicon Valley is
    very different than that of other locations. Here, everyone expects to
    network, and because everyone is in the same industry, the chances are
    much greater that any given pair of people can help each other.

    The other thing is the nature of how networking plays out. I rarely ask
    anyone directly for a favor. Rather, I let people know what I’m doing,
    and let them approach me if they think there is a way that they can
    help. This keeps things at a mutually beneficial level, rather than
    making people feel like they have to do anything for me.

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