Networking for Geeks: My Top 10 Tips

If you know me, you know I’m really just a geek at heart. For years and years, I had my head down working on various startups. Mostly, I was doing one of a few things: Coding, learning from customers, building teams, or tracking down problems.

Less than six months ago, I became focused on a new set of personal goals (startup advising, coaching, investing, etc). I decided that this was the stuff (particularly very early stage) that I really wanted to be around. I always follow my passions and it’s (almost) always worked for me. A major personal goal for me is never to work on something I don’t believe strongly in, and apart from my internships during college, I never have.

When I made this decision, one of the initial downsides to me was that I was going to have to get out and meet people. Lots of people. Now, I like people, but I am no natural networker. I find it much easier to speak to a machine than to another human, for the following reasons:

  • You can passively listen to a machine. It’s going to keep telling you the same thing until you do something about it.
  • If you say something stupid to a machine, you lose no credibility whatsoever. The machine still does everything you tell it to, and does it exactly how you asked it to do it.
  • You can ask an awful lot of a machine, and machines don’t want anything in return.

I knew people didn’t really work this way. When you start companies, you have to deal with people to some degree. However, I had co-founders who did most of this type of work while I was bossing around the machines.

Today, I feel like I “get” networking. It really wasn’t that hard to figure out. I want to share what I’ve learned with other geeks, so you can avoid some mistakes.

Here are my top ten things geeks should do when networking. Non-geeks should already know this (read on anyway to test yourself).

  1. Network at least once a week. Make it a habit.
  2. Network down as much as you network up. Now, I’m not trying to artificially create classes of people when I use this up/down reference. I’m just referring to what is obviously true – there are people who can potentially help you much more than others, and there are people who you really can’t reasonably expect to help you. You may be asking yourself silly questions such as “who’s below me?” or “why would I want to network down instead of up?” Well, learn to be a mensch – it really does work. Somehow, the universe understands that when you help others, it should help you. Network down – you want others to do it for you, right?
  3. Respect peoples time. You probably want to network with some incredibly busy people. Time is their biggest asset. Recognize that when you ask for it, you’re asking for something they value greatly. Ask for 15 minutes in an initial meeting, and ask to to go their office or a coffee shop close to them. Make it easy to say yes.
  4. When networking up, ask for advice. You may want to ask for something else really, really badly. Advice makes the other person feel that you respect their opinion and are not just after something from day one (even though you may well be).
  5. Be honest. Sometimes people come to me with really silly ideas, business plans, or requests. While it’s important to be polite, it’s also important to be honest. Share your opinion and don’t just laugh inside. Remember that your opinion probably matters a great deal to the person you are approached by. Therefore, you have a have a real chance to help them out. You can literally help them to succeed by being honest and sharing some wisdom that you have acquired. I think the worst thing you can do is to just nod your head with seeming approval and then tell everyone else the funny story you just heard. Being honest is important in every case. When networking up, don’t pump yourself up too much or grossly exaggerate the truth.
  6. Don’t forget to network sideways, too. I’ve learned lately that you can learn a ton from people who are in shoes that are just about the same size as yours.
  7. When networking up, offer something in return. When I network up, I view the time I am getting as a gift. I always try to offer the person giving me this gift something in return that might be of value to them. I’m not talking about buying the coffee, I’m talking a about doing something more than the bare minimum that shows thoughtfulness. For example, I might offer them free use of the software that my company is building (usually a win/win anyway) or ask if I can make a donation to the charity whose board the person sits on. Another great technique is to just say something along the lines of “This has been really valuable to me. How can I help you out?” Like many gifts, it’s really the thought that counts and often the response will be “it’s not necessary.”
  8. Explain why you want to meet. Don’t network “just to get to know you better.” We all know plenty of people, and have no particular need to know more random people (unless we’re on Myspace). As Brad Feld points out, “Have a clear purpose in mind.”
  9. Be passionate. Being passionate makes you memorable. People will automatically associate you with two or three tags in their mind. They won’t remember everything you said. I aim to be associated with words like “Colorado” and “Startups” (hence the name of my blog), as well as words like “Geek” and “Software”. It’s all too easy to get associated with words like “Boring”, “Annoying”, and “Rings a bell”.
  10. Follow up. Remember to follow up with a thank you email, additional information promised during the meeting, detailed contact information, etc. While this is commonly done when networking sideways or up, it never hurts to do it when networking down.

Good luck. And if you just read this entire article hoping to learn something new about TCP/IP, then my evil plan has worked.

file under: Blog, Startups