About Building A Network And The Hilarity That Ensued
Back in 2011 I signed up for an incubator in Utrecht (The Netherlands). For half a year I got coached as an entrepreneur, working on one of my app businesses. One of the things I learned, is this: get out there, rely on your network, to make your business thrive. This article is a personal account of how I came to that realization.
Ivory Tower Syndrome
It’s the quickest road towards failure: not asking for feedback. Many entrepreneurs, me included, sit in their ivory tower and think they can change the world. An idea, an app, a business, they all need shaping and refining. You can’t do that on your own, you have to ask others for their opinions on your masterpiece.
Often, the people you ask for feedback come up with great additions. You hadn’t thought of them, because you’re so deep into the ideation of your product, making you oblivious to obvious thought.
How (Not) To Build A Network
In the past years as an entrepreneur, I’ve gotten into quite a few hilarious and odd situations. Let’s say I made these mistakes, so you don’t have to:
- Got invited to a fancy dinner as a +1 with one of my clients. There were lots of courses, tuxedos and “important” people. We switched places every course, to get the conversation going. One time, I sat across a man I didn’t know. So, I ask: “And what do you do?” Turns out he’s the CEO of the company that threw the dinner.
- Another time, I had a meeting at a prospect buyer. The meet was just across town, so I got on my bike and cycled over. While cycling, it poured down from the heavens like crazy. When I got to the prospect’s building, I was soaked, there was literally no dry spot of me left. When I entered the building, the guard burst out in laughter and handed me a towel. “Can’t let you in like that”, he said. Fortunately, the prospect could laugh about it too.
- I once met a future client at a summer festival. We both smelled of beer and campsite, hadn’t showered for days, but had the best time of our lives. I later found out he worked for a famous fashion brand and was looking for an app developer. Not long after, I went to work for the company.
The first step in building a business, is building a network. A network is nothing more than a bunch of people you know, and can rely on. You can ask them for feedback, introductions, recommendations, or have a chat every now and then.
There’s no easier way than to build a network by providing value for others. Then, it’s a common mistake to assume you “consume” this network by asking favors. It’s not like that, people simply want to see you succeed. Asking for a favor opens the door for more favors. Based on the concept of reciprocity, you yourself are likely to help in return, too.
It’s hard to get started with building a network. To get you going:
- Go to Meetup.com and look for networking events in your area. Pick a topic you’re interested in, put on some nice shoes and start talking to people. It’s often fun, you get to meet new people and with the right attitude, you’ll know when an interesting opportunity presents itself. Remember: providing value is key to a healthy relationship.
- Look at your closest friends. They say you’re 5 to 7 “hops” away from a famous person, 5 links between you and Barack Obama or Bill Gates. There’s gotta be some interesting people, and companies, between you and those famous people. Create a map of your friends, relatives, colleagues and find out how beneficial your network can be.
- In marketing, they always say: “Go where your customers already are.” For networking, it’s no different. Find groups of people, online and offline, who are already centered around a topic of interest. Join the group, provide value and let organic networking do the rest.
Asking For Feedback
During my time at the incubator, working on the app business, I met with a few dozen people to talk about the app. Usually, I would get an introduction through my network to interesting companies. I’d pitch the app idea to the company to get invaluable feedback about the product I was building.
Initially, it didn’t go too well. When meeting the person I was discussing the idea with would criticize the idea, shoot it down, and downright reject it as a possibly profitable business. I found that very demotivating, but still wanted to get valuable feedback out of it. Thanks to the frustration, I often dismissed the criticism, throwing away anything good that might have come from it.
How did I resolve this pattern?
- When meeting, I’d first pitch the rough 30-second version of the product. Usually, I’d get negative unconstructive feedback rightaway. I would listen closely, writing down sensible points. Unconstructive feedback would go into my right ear, and then out the left.
- Then, when the negative feedback cleared, I’d start firing questions. I would involve them in the creation of the product, benefiting from what they know about the market, business, design, and development.
- Ultimately, I’d recap what we had talked about, reinforcing the most important parts of the conversation.
What changed? I found out that people who give you negative feedback think they’re helping you, but it’s you who experiences the feedback as negative or unconstructive. By listening, a person feels heard and accepted; you’re accepting the feedback and the help. This makes room for more active and constructive thought, clearing away the negative air.
Also, being proactive instead of reactive means you’re being more directive. By asking specific questions, instead of general feedback, you can make someone think before speaking. It’s easy to say: “This idea sucks”, it’s much harder to come up with a creative addition to a problem. By directing and guiding the ideas, thoughts and solutions, you can bring out the best of a conversation.
What Happened To My Network?
By learning how to handle feedback, I could make my business thrive. I made many mutually beneficial connections with people in the industry, many of which I still keep in touch with to this day.
I realized the CEO at the dinner must have gotten tired of everyone knowing who he is, before he’d even met them. We had an interesting conversation about apps, and he was thrilled to see such a young person talk about technology passionately. Although I can’t know for sure, I’ve must have made a better impression than most of the dinner guests.
See? Networking isn’t as boring as it sounds. And it sure makes a good story, and money in the bank, for later times!
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