Networking for entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley is a way of life. Oftentimes, it’s the grease that helps startups find funding, land first customers, access great advisors and find the elusive awesome engineer that nobody else has hired yet.
But having been in the valley for over a decade now, there is one mistake I see people making over and over. And over and over some more. They focus their networking on the top instead of the middle.
What does that mean exactly?
It means this: trying to get to know those in positions of power or celebrity. Those with oversized reputations, like top-tier VCs and successful serial entrepreneurs. Focusing your networking here is dangerous. Here’s why.
- You’re not alone. In fact, you’re one of likely dozens of people that week who have pinged that top-tier person for help. They can only dedicate so much time and effort to each request. That means the advice or help you get may be off-the-cuff, hasty or weak.
- Offering help does not mean offering a relationship. More often than not, top-tier folks are happy to help with a one-time request. But helping one time does not a relationship make. Your punch card might have two rides at most; after that, you’re becoming an annoyance.
- You offer little in return. Relationships are based on reciprocality. Again, there is less of a reason for that top-tier person to want to create a relationship with you, as their expectation of how you may be able to reciprocate is low to non-existant.
- You’re not actually building your network. Perhaps after a meeting, you connect on LinkedIn. Awesome, we’re connected on LinkedIn! Nope, that does not mean that you are a trusted insider in their network. In a week or a month or a year, chances are that they’ll see your name and wonder who you are and where they met you.
- They are disconnected. Sometimes the most successful people are the wrong people to ask for advice. They may have succeeded a long time back and no longer have the relevant experience or skills you need. They may be overconfident and offer bad advice with near certainty that they are right. They may simply operate in a completely different environment from yours that makes their experiences completely different and irrelevant.
- You’re often alone. Some of your most valuable potential connections are never asked for advice. They never get a chance to offer their valuable relationships to others. Yet, when they get that opportunity, they put time and effort into fulfilling that request, because they are honored that they have the opportunity to help someone else.
- Offering help can help create a relationship. For those who have knowledge who rarely get to share and teach that knowledge, the opportunity to do so is special. It’s addictive. And when you find someone who recognizes your ability to help and teach, you want to build that relationship, because it makes you feel good too. Those in the middle rarely get these chances, so they love it when they happen upon one.
- You have much to offer back. It may simply be what I just mentioned above: offering someone the chance to teach and to be listened to as an expert. You may also be closer in your careers to where you can reciprocate with introductions, your own advice, etc. Those in the middle aren’t completely made yet; you’re part of their path too.
- Your perception of your relationship is accurate. When you network in the middle, and your invitations to connect on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. are accepted, it often reflects a more genuine desire to stay connected in the future. You can look at these connections and be certain that the person on the other end will remember who you are and why you’re connected.
- Their experience is relevant and connected. Those in the middle are typically still active in their careers, which means they most likely have up-to-date and high-quality experience and opinions on their industry, their peers and the trends they experience. They may have just been where you are now in your career, so they know more about you and what you’re experiencing.