Networking is bullsh*t – here’s a better way to do it

There is a lot written on networking and many so called experts on things like ‘The Five Steps to Networking Success’ or ‘The Ultimate Networking Guide’. I’m a little bit more skeptical about magic networking formulas for at least a couple of reasons.

First of all, those who typically have the ‘rule book’ for networking success are often theoretical writers, not real world business people who have used effective networking to build a billion dollar business. Secondly, as we will see, there is no single formula.

Let’s firstly take a look at a couple of real life examples. Lindsay Fox, founder of Linfox, self-made billionaire and a Ducere Global Faculty member, says in typically candid fashion: “Networking is bullshit.”

What he means is you don’t go out to network looking for some transparent business outcome. Instead you should focus on building genuine, long lasting friendships, as people will prefer to work with friends they know and trust. As Lindsay puts it: “Friendship is earned, and with that comes the trust, the integrity and the loyalty.”

Another Ducere Global Faculty member is Kay Koplovitz. Kay established the first US cable TV company, USA Network, which negotiated license deals with every major US sporting league and ultimately sold for around $5 billion. Since then, Kay established Springboard and has helped hundreds of women-led businesses to raise over $6 billion in venture funding. So what does Kay say about networking?

“If people would think of their networking time as transactional, they would make good use of their networking time. Women are very good at networking in a social way, but don’t of think of people they have met in a transactional way. If you look at people who network successfully, they know that you ‘give to get.’”

If you think simply, ‘I want to network with ‘so-and-so’ because he can give me an intro to someone I want to do no business with,’ it won’t work, because there is no mutual value. You have to think equally, a transaction, like: ‘How could I help this person, who do I know that might assist his business?’ If people feel they are being used, they will very quickly stop providing you with any networking benefits. It has to be a two-way street.

So the question is, which of these seemingly polarised views is correct? The answer of course, is there is no correct method. And believe me, this is actually good news for you if want to network effectively. It’s good news because it means you’re not going to succeed by trying to fit into someone else’s mould. My company works with dozens of world leaders including Presidents and CEOs and the only common thread I can see in all of these incredibly successful individuals is one thing: they don’t fit a mould, they each have developed their own style.

There are, however, some familiar traits: they are all genuine networkers. Don’t try and disguise a poor attempt at interest in someone just to get an introduction. They will see right through you. Whether you have a genuine way to offer mutual benefit, or want to build long lasting friendships, the key is to be transparent, ethical and genuine.

Let’s say you’re very sociable and confident and are at a major function. If you want an introduction come right out and say it. After the usual introductions and small talk try: ‘I understand you work at X. I’ll be totally honest with you, I’d love to meet your marketing director but don’t know how to get in touch with her, if you can help me I’d love to return the favour in any way I can.’ This level of honesty is far better than the person knowing in the back of their mind that it’s just a veiled attempt to try and get something.

However, if you’re the type that feels sick in their stomach about approaching a total stranger in a room filled with 350 total strangers, then network a different way. Contact an individual you would like to meet by phone, and ask them if they could spare 15 minutes for you to buy them a coffee as you think there are some areas of mutual interest they may have.

If it’s someone higher up the ladder and you may need a bit more to impress, offer to take them out to a nice lunch. I have attempted to get through in the past to senior-level people with numerous unreturned phone calls. Then I’d try leaving a message with the secretary, ‘Can you please pass on a message to John, I’d like to take him out to lunch next Thursday to Flower Drum’ (one of Melbourne’s best restaurants). I give no explanation of who I am or the purpose of the lunch so John has no idea who I am. But what happens next? I get a phone call because John is, at a minimum, intrigued: ‘So what’s this about a lunch at Flower Drum and what are you looking for?’ … Door opened.

People often think that networking means a major luncheon trying to scramble for business cards. I have probably collected 1000 business cards in this way, and probably followed up with 15 of them. It’s just not my style. But I know others who would get all 1000 cards, put them in their contact base, categorise them, email all of them to follow up and keep in contact (usually, I’d have to say, in some non-intimate way like a mass email communication or newsletter). If this works for you that is fine, this approach I guess is just playing the numbers.

Think about networking in this way, how many new connections do you really want. Thousands? Probably not likely. In most cases it would be better to network with 20 great and relevant new people a year that you can build a meaningful relationship with. With a number like that, everyone could achieve this in a style they are comfortable with. Initially you might think this is a small number, but think about it – in five years that is 100 strong relationships you have, imagine the reach you can access when you total all of their connections.

If you build 20 trusted and genuine relationships a year, the value both personally and professionally of those connections will be infinitely greater than a room full of business cards.


Mat Jacobson
BY Mat Jacobson ON 3 February 2014
Mat Jacobson is the founder of Ducere, a global education company delivering the world’s most innovative business courses online. He is also the founder of the Ducere Foundation, working with African governments to improve the quality of education in third world countries.