Understanding the Power of Your Human Networks

Posted on Mar 23, 2014 | 0 comments


We all intuitively know how important human connections are in business but for many people it’s like exercise or eating well – one of those things you keep meaning to get around to.

biggie puff daddy

It reminds me of a line my wife and I often jokingly say to each other after seeing the awesome film “Notorious” about the life of Biggie Smalls

“I know mothafuckas who know mothafuckas.”

Please just take 8 seconds to listen to this clip on YouTube – it’s priceless. It always struck a chord with me. The critical skill is not just your immediate network but the network beyond that you can tap into if you’ve earned the right through nurturing your 1-degree relationships.

After my first Tweet with the Notorious mothafucka quote, I thought about my role as a VC and I Tweeted the following

role of vcs

It came from my weekend activities.

I spent an hour on the phone working with Sam Rosen, the CEO of MakeSpace on a senior exec he is considering hiring. Said senior exec is somebody I’ve worked on-and-off with for more than 10 years and for whom I have the upmost respect. I spent an hour across two phone calls with him telling him why I believe MakeSpace will be a billion dollar company (which I do).

I reviewed an email from Kara Nortman, the CEO of Moonfrye who is working on putting together venture debt. I’ve done that 20 times so I gave her my quick feedback on terms. But I don’t know it as well as the people who have negotiated terms in the past 18 months, which is all that is relevant. So I connected her with two CEOs and a CFO.

I then traded emails with two former senior tech professionals in LA. I will soon announce a few fundings (not yet closed, sorry) and I’m beginning to help them think about how to ramp up their engineering teams. And I spoke with the CTO of another great company I used to be on the board of and enlisted his support in potentially being an advisor to one company.

And I realized that my place at the table isn’t always the opinionated guy debating company strategy but often it’s knowing the smartest people in the market and having close enough relationships with them and having put in sufficient time helping that that I know when I can call in favors.

How did I get here?

Building Your Network
Either you have a well established network or you don’t. Either way I always recommend the 50 Coffee Meetings mantra and speak frequently about it. In fact, I practice it myself. My basic philosophy is that almost anybody can build a network by investing time in it. My metaphor is simple: If you take just one coffee meeting per week where you reach out to somebody new that you’d like to know by the end of the year you would have had 50 coffee meetings and thus 50 new connections in your network.

If course you can’t manage all 50 on an ongoing basis with a heavyweight touch but let’s say just 10% of them you really hit it off with and you maintain contact, emails, social mentions and physical meet-ups. That’s only five deep connections to manage per year. But time has a funny way of slipping past us all and you’d be surprised how quickly 5 years passes. If you practice the 50-coffee-meeting principle you’ll have 250 connections and 25 meaningful relationships after 5 years. Maybe 50 if you really invest time and effort.

People I barely knew 5 years ago I now count amongst my close friends and/or business colleagues. Roger Ehrenberg. Brad Feld. Fred Wilson. Greg Bettinelli. Tristan Walker. Nihal Mehta. Manu Kumar. Sam Rosen. Of course I could go on and on. My point is that the seeds you plant today will yield big results if you put in the time and effort into your friendships. But they must all start somewhere.

You may enjoy this post as an example that talks about my first meetings with Brad Feld, Tristan Walker, Justyn Howard and more. All originally through Twitter.

Whom to Meet?
The question of whom to meet depends on your career stage and your ambitions. The following post is advice I gave to my good friend Sam Teller when he was just a junior baller, “Never Ask a Busy Person to Lunch.” It was meant mostly as tongue-in-cheek advice but basically said senior people should be coffee not lunch unless you really know them well.

Let’s say your a junior developer, marketer, product manager, biz dev person at a startup or well-established technology company. You might first seek to meet your peer group in comparable jobs at similar companies. Having a peer group of people “like you” is incredibly helpful. It helps you do better at your job because you can draw on the advice of people across many organizations.

Next you might target people who have jobs you think “you might like to have one day” and you can say that when you reach out to them. If you make it clear you’re not looking for a job you’d be surprised how many people will give you time and advice.

Finally, I think it’s worth meeting “mentors.” You simply need to ask. The best way is to ask somebody you respect to meet and make it clear you’d like a short meeting just to learn and get mentorship. You have to select carefully. VCs often don’t make great mentor meetings because they meet too many companies and too many people to be able to provide mentorship outside of the CEOs and management teams with whom they work. CEOs often aren’t a perfect fit either. But feel free to “call high” and see whom you get to say yes. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

One quick hack for you – plan “industry lunches.” If you have 1 or 2 friends that are experts at a topic (or if you are) you can often leverage their attendance to organize a lunch for 8-10 and lead a topic discussion. Make sure to book a private room in a restaurant so you can actually conduct a round table. If you did 5 of these a year you’d hack your way to 50 key relationships and … suddenly you are seen as the “table maker” who gets people together. You have now used this method to hack your way into the maven club.

Mavens & Super Mavens
The guy who popularized the term maven was Malcom Gladwell from his break-out book, “The Tipping Point” in which he talks about how ideas or products spread through networks until the reach a point where they “tip” over into mass adoption and the phenomenon spreads ever faster.

In his book he talked about mavens as being those people who are connected and through whom ideas spread faster. These people are like the hub in a hub-and-spoke network and the shortest point to somebody you want to know is through a maven. The older you are and the more traveled you become you realize that there are actually people in the world who are – in Gladwell’s words – super mavens. Their networks are so vast, their connections are so senior and their travel and networking are so prolific that if they decide to spread something they can cause a Tipping Point or at least play a significant role in it.

Brooke Hammerling. Shakil “Shak” Khan. Terry Kawaja. Paddy Cosgrave. Robin Chan. David Hornik. Michael Kassan. Bill Gross. Howard Morgan.

These are the mothafuckas who know mothafuckas. The always hilarious Terry then Tweeted this with the following new business card ;-) although we’re gonna have an East Coast / West Coast feud over the spelling of Mothafucka. Or maybe he as just being more polite than I?

terence kawaja

We are in a global economy and there are the new global warriors that do business across continents, across industry boundaries and with many different players. The are at the center of a web and even being two degrees away from a super maven can help you greatly. But please don’t harass these people. You need to connect into the web with time, care, respect and reciprocity.

Give Before you Get
The golden rule of networking ought to be the mantra, “Give Before You Get.” In that post I highlighted that the most satisfying way to interact with others is to find ways to help them. Being thoughtful and considerate and doing for others is the surest way to earn the respect of those with whom you want to build relationships.

When I speak on college campuses I often tell the story of one of my favorite people, Derek Anderson, of Startup Grind. He’s the master networking because he’s “politely persistent,” thoughtful, works to help others and has great follow-through after the meeting. I tell the story of how I first met Derek. He had been asking me to speak at his conference Startup Grind. I get asked to speak at lots of conference but sadly can’t do most of them.

Derek didn’t ask that. He wrote to me and asked whether I would be willing to interview Clayton Christensen who is somebody I greatly respect and have written about extensively. Derek certainly could have done the interview himself but by offering it to me he established the first dot in what by now is a long line in our relationship. This result was this amazing interview with Clay Christensen – I could have listened to him all day.

From there? Marc Andreessen saw the interview online and wrote to me asking me to dinner. Thus a new relationship was started and strengthened. Because of Derek.

Derek followed up with a super kind care package for me (and importantly for my kids) thanking me for having given up my time to attend his event. I have been back now many times.

Ask Sparingly
When you have a well-established network and when you’ve put in the time to earn the trust and respect of your network you eventually earn the right to ask for small favors. Often I judge my “right” to ask for a favor based on how many deposits I’ve put into the bank of helping that person in the past. If I’ve put in time and effort I don’d feel bad about asking sparingly for help.

But here’s the thing … don’t be an over-asker. Treat your network well and it will be there for when you really need help, favors, advice and time. In the past I have been able to ask Brad Feld to come and spend time with the community in LA. He has investments here so it was less big of an ask BUT … I made sure to visit the Boulder community the first chance I could to return the favor.

The wider your network is the fewer times you need to ask any individual node for help.

Ask Specifically
The other advice I find myself repeating often is when you do want to ask for help, advice, time or favors you need to ask specifically rather than beat around the bush. I wrote about how to do this in my post about how to make business phone calls more effectively.

Often I find myself in a phone call, in a coffee meeting or on the other end of an email chain with somebody and I’m sensing that they want something. I’m ok with that – I enjoy being helpful when I can. But what drives me nuts is when I’m on that phone call or having the coffee and the person whom I’m with doesn’t get to the point of what they want. If I make a call and don’t really want anything I actually say that out loud as in, “hey, I don’t really have any specific reason for this call. I just thought it would be good to check and and see how you’re doing with X.”

When I want something I might start with a bit of a personal catch up or banter but then I turn toward, “Listen, the reason I called is …”

Trust me. Busy people want to know your purpose. It’s ok to call with a purpose. And the sooner they know the sooner they can help. If you’re younger and have less experience please read the phone call post where I give more details.

Get Permission
Finally make sure you are not THAT person. You know, the one who sends out tons of unsolicited and un-appreciate email intros that are generic like, “Hey, I thought you two would enjoy meeting.” Yes, there are occasions where you can get away with that. But mostly it’s disrespectful. The best practice is a “double opt in” in which you ask first if the person you want to intro do actually wants to meet the other person. I wrote a whole post on this called “How to Handle Intros.”

Trust me – your maven network that you worked so hard to build will turn on you if you’re an over introducer. The scarcest resource these people have is their time. Please respect that.

Where you’ve put in hours helping others you do have the right to occasionally short-hand and ask for A to help B but when I do so my email intro often says “a 15 minute call to quickly discuss X” which is a way of reminding the person who needs the help to be respectful of time and the person I’m asking to help knows the the topic is bound by a specific ask.

A Network Takes Investment
Finally, your network is like a plant. It’s only as good as the pruning, watering and attention you give it.  You need to put in the in-person time, I call it “shaking hands and kissing babies.” You need to keep in touch with the occasional Tweet, email, text, phone call or coffee. If you establish personal relationships and build strong rapport your relationships will stand the test of time.

I’m surprised at how my world from 20 or 30 years ago seems to constantly come back into the light and people whom I haven’t seen in years re-appear. You can pick up again. But the best measure is a bit of care and attention along the way.