Networks, tribes and advisors

December 20, 2017

 

It is impossible for a startup to thrive and grow in complete isolation. You need customers, staff, supporters and advisors. And that means that whether you are a social butterfly or the most reluctant introvert, you will need to systematically access multiple pools of people in a time and cost-efficient manner. Neglect this because you hate networking (or people generally) and you will throttle your chances of success.

 

Some enthusiastic extrovert founders seem to exhibit quantum-like abilities to be two places at once. While this skill is one I have definitely tried to mimic, despite a crowded room being very far down my list of favourite things, your mere presence at an event is not enough. I think you need a system.

 

Time the biggest enemy of startups. You simply can't be everywhere you're invited, or everywhere you need to be and still build your business. There are different pools you need to access, in different places and with different methods of engagement - including, but certainly not limited to face to face events. And the relative importance of these different pools will ebb and flow at different times.

 

So where to start?

 

1. Find your customers at their real watering holes, rather than the ones where commercial gatekeepers want to charge you to participate (in those scenarios YOU are the customer). Be creative, thrifty and audacious in identifying and getting access to those watering holes, then blend in when you do. Do not be the crass salesperson at what for your customer are often social events - you are there to make future relationships, not close a deal on your first date. Be useful, be interesting and if in doubt, be the person that always brings chocolate, whisky, or whatever local prop you have to work with.

 

2. Track the impact of your efforts. Where did you find your best hires and most trusted mentors, who introduced you? Where did you meet your customer for the first and second time, before entering a formal sales process. Note down the where, when, who and cost in a spreadsheet. I really do think you should track the impact of networking as you do any other marketing activity - for example, time/cost to new contact, source of leads/hires/deals, your most impactful sponsor. Even with events or activities that have worked well in the past, there may be diminishing returns and overlap from any effort, so if something has maxed out its potential, test something else.

 

3. Build, maintain and act selflessly with your tribe of supporters. Embrace asynchronous reciprocity. However much you hate the rest of this networking nonsense, get this right and it is not only for life, it will be of life-defining importance. These people will become and stay your friends. I don't care how independent or macho you think you are if you only get one thing - make it this!


4. The value of a sponsor/champion/door opener is enormous. A sponsor - in my view - kicks down doors and shoves you through. Busier than a mentor or coach, they nevertheless have your back and will help you if you are super-specific and make it easy for them. Ask for introductions, ask for their input on your approach and ask for ideas for patrons. Balance your ask in line with how well you know the person - someone you have built a relationship with is far more likely to invest time or cash with you, than someone you are approaching cold for the first time via LinkedIn. Ask, but keep your ask appropriate. And if you are asking someone to put their reputation on the line, understand that this doesn't happen on a first date. When it finally does happen, do whatever it takes to make sure you deliver.


5. If you are out meeting and learning from customers - then it is your day job. Yes, your team need you, but you have to make time to be present with current and future customers too. Don't feel bad and don't make the excuse you are too busy, simply because you hate it or your board don't get the value. All with the proviso that hanging out with your mates doesn't count - only if it is authentic, of real potential value and quantifiable does the 'drop everything' rule truly apply.

 

6. Hiring gets easier and less risky when you get out there. I highly recommend you and your team actively looking at meetups, accelerator events, university startup competition, speaker events as ways of finding young high potential pre-graduate or early stage hires. The time may not be now, but peer to peer inspiration is a way to get your startup brand on the radar without getting into a spending war with corporates. I would even suggest taking it further and offering placements, work experience, holiday jobs - it is hard work, but you build a pipeline and a brand which is crucial to hiring. For a while, my last company was highest rated Scotland employer on Glassdoor - thanks exactly to this kind of talent seeking approach. 

 

There is another important hiring/risk mitigation benefit to quality networking, especially with your extended tribe. You can have the awkward "what do you make of XXX...." conversation. Sorry if this makes you uncomfortable, but for your own protection you have to do this for potential senior hires, board candidates and investors you'll work closely with. Call it emotional self-care and due diligence if you will. You will be amazed how the tiny number of truly problem characters get about and harm so many people's businesses and lives - and how willing people are to share their experiences of that with other founders. I have had it put to me very directly, as in "you worked with XX, how did that work out - would you recommend them?" and when there was clearly more of a story, I've had it put far more subtly both face to face and via LinkedIn- "so we have a contact in common, XXX ............ [pause watch reaction and see if safe to proceed]".

 

7. Beware of Echo chambers and make sure you are not simply networking with the mirror. It is far more comfortable to spend your time with who and what you know. The relief of going into a crowded room and realising there is a group of people you know is a comfort to many of us. But unless you are specifically there to bond with your tribe, you can't spend all evening/afternoon with them. If like me, you get more from 4 deep conversations than you do from 20 shallow ones - that is fine - just ensure most of those deep conversations are with relevant people in relation to why you are there at that particular event. Which means a) you need to know why you're there, b) you need to know what you ideally want to achieve and c) at face to face events you need a plan for not getting trapped.


8. Don't get cornered at events, learn the art of the pass and how to work the room. If you are an introvert, or this is not your natural state - always keep your glass/cup nearly empty so you can escape for a refill at any time, and if required take insanely frequent bathroom breaks for a bit of peace and quiet. As many women know, the best networking often takes place in the restroom anyway - especially at tech events where you're in the minority! 

 

Watch how very good networkers (or seasoned speakers who always have a crowd in tow) manage the "pass" - and never be offended when you get passed, it is simply how people ensure they circulate. (Yes dear friend, you know who you are, I am talking about you with both admiration and respect). The basic pass involves bringing a third person into the conversation getting the new person talking to the existing person (perhaps by giving them a summary of that person, or what you were talking about). With them now engaged with each other,  you move on. Either by literally moving or by bringing in a 4th person and talking to them. Obviously, this is all done in a friendly and civil manner - and don't be uncomfortable, neither you nor the person you were speaking to gain if you only speak to each other. (Obviously, dating has other rules, none of which I remotely understand - but this is NOT dating. Networking is never, ever to be mistaken for dating.)

 

9. Don't overspend - Networking, customer events, recruitment drives, investment readiness events and business development trips can get very expensive and I simply haven't found a correlation between price and results. Check out as many free or cheap events as possible before spending, go along to a variety of things as a guest, rather than joining as a paid-up member, don't forget time and travel are also costs, and wherever possible check out registered attendees in advance.

 

If you have become a technology vendor, you will find yourself uninvited from a lot of things, or at least disqualified to attend as a speaker or free attendee - you are the customer actually financing these events. Startups simply can't buy their way in, and I don't think spending all your budget on a single event has much chance of delivering an ROI (just as running a single advert will never work). So get creative about how you might mix with some of the same people in a different, less expensive environment. This could be hackathons, local sports league, through a gaming challenge, a meetup that you organise - it is not easy, but likely to be more achievable and effective than the commercial alternatives.


10. Beware of people selling access and advice. The results of building effective networks are never instant and anyone who tells you otherwise, or offers you instant access to theirs for a reasonable fee is at best misguided and at worst a cynical rip-off merchant exploiting the naive and desperate. You have to work and plan ahead to really build and maintain connections, you can't buy credibility and trust.

 

But as soon as you put yourself out there (which you must) you will get yourself in the sights of those charming folks who think you ideal prey for their phoney advice and one-sided deals. I reckon at least 8 out of 10 of the people you speak to at open investor events are actually trying to sell you their services/advice, often by seeming to be interested in investing in you.

 

Then there are the helpful consultants/advisors/wannabee NXDs who "just" want 20% of your company as the price of their infinite wisdom. B*%*!x to that. No one ever gets 20% of your company without properly buying in through a robust investment and legal process. So beware, if it doesn't feel right don't get involved. And ask your tribe for their experiences and to ask about on your behalf. It is a small world and other founders and entrepreneurs really do have your back.

 

So it took three posts to answer the very short question of "How To Startup?" - the first two parts are here:

 

How to startup as a first time founder - part 1 (the how)

 

Three sad facts about startup money - part 2 (funding and finances)

 

 

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