True confessions: I have not always been a good networker. When I started my marketing communications business 15 years ago, I lived in the middle of Silicon Valley and was lucky enough to have a client base right out of the gate. In fact, I rarely went to networking events unless there was an interesting speaker, it was free, or there was the promise of a raffle prize that had the Apple logo on it. I was fortunate to get most of my work through word of mouth, random outreach, and a little bit of kismet.
It was a much different story five years ago when I moved to San Francisco. Though only 50 miles separated these two bustling tech centers, the business landscapes were a tale of two cities. While Silicon Valley gravitated toward older tech like semiconductors, hardware, and software, SF was all about social media, apps, and the sharing economy, inhabited by scrappy startups. Picture the days of rents just beginning to climb to ridiculous rates, the sight of cranes a bit more commonplace, and brogrammers starting to taste the wonders of hand-crafted, artisanal beer out of mason jars. In other words, pre-Google bus days.
It was an exciting time but also a scary time for me. While I possessed the general tech cred, I knew I needed to expand my reach and grow my business locally to make it in The Big City.
So…picture if you will, mild-mannered Diane Prince turning into Wonder Woman, or in my case, Janice Cuban transforming into San Francisco Networking Woman (sans the tight superpowers outfit and arch enemy fighting). I flew through city, industry, Meetup, and other myriad of events—shaking innumerable hands, swapping a gazillion business cards, and eating hundreds of sub-par hors d’oeuvres washed down with mediocre wine.
Through it all, here’s what I have learned as a networking pro who’s been through the San Francisco trenches.
Conventional wisdom: Arrive when the event starts
New rule: When was the last time you showed up at a networking event at the beginning and it was crowded? Exactly. Fellow networkers typically are racing from work, fighting traffic, etc. Depending on the length of event, I recommend showing up 30 minutes in for that perfect “networking tipping point”—the best buzz in the room, conversations are flowing, and the highest odds to shake the most hands.
Conventional wisdom: Approach a group of people and introduce yourself
New rule: Um, no and no. What’s more intimidating at a networking event than walking up to two or more people and cutting in? This doesn’t even include the possibility that you could be interrupting a good networking moment and might even get that “stalker look” from said group. Instead of this intrusion, help out a fellow solo attendee: if someone is standing by him or herself, they’ll appreciate that you saved them from an awkward moment munching on a carrot or checking their phone by their lonesome. And who knows, it might even be a good contact for you. Which takes us to…
Conventional wisdom: If someone is prattling on, make up a fib to excuse yourself
New rule: Politely end the conversation by saying you don’t want to keep them from meeting others at the event. Who can argue with that? And it’s actually true. Don’t give the person some B.S. about talking to someone you know in the room (unless you really do), or getting another drink when your glass is half full. People are not dumb and will sniff out that you’re bored or done talking with them. They’ll also remember that move if you contact them in the future wanting an introduction to a lead. Manage your networking time carefully but be nice.
Conventional wisdom: Prepare and memorize your elevator pitch
New rule: Well, this is a half-truth. Of course you should have a spiel ready to go, but before you spout off your own mouth, find out more about the person with whom you’ve just shaken hands. If you’re in a business like me where you write for different types of industries, knowing that someone’s profession is real estate versus tech marketing is going to make a difference in how I talk about my services. Since most people naturally love to talk about themselves anyway, ask questions first and find out what makes them tick, their interests, and who knows, it might even lead to a discussion about their potential work needs.
Conventional wisdom: I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to get new business
New rule: Of course we all want new business. Duh. But one of the nice surprises I’ve found over the years is that these events can also be a resource for new friends, colleagues, and mentors. Bonus: these folks are more inclined to help you in the future just because they like you. In fact, I’ve made an entirely new circle of friends in San Francisco from networking alone. In other words, “friendwork” it too.
Conventional wisdom: Always dress “professional”
New rule: No word has become more confusing than this the past few years. Long ago in a tech galaxy far, far away, it was expected that you wear a work outfit to a networking event consisting of suit or dress slacks. This uniform has been changed considerably. Even “business casual” can now translate to jeans, leggings, and more creative outfits, especially in San Francisco. If you’re going to a lawyer or banking networking event, be buttoned up of course, but this is the exception, not the rule anymore. Common sense dictates that no matter what city you live in, keep it professional: a messy look, dirty jeans, or too-tight tops are still no-nos and make the wrong first impression.
So…are you ready to use your superpowers? Now that you’re armed with new networking mojo, get on that cool outfit, dust off your business cards, and fly yourself off to that next event!