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How to Get Started Building a Network of Value

May 31, 2022
by
Josef Scarantino
June 1, 2022

If you’re interested in becoming a founder, investor, or even just exploring the startup ecosystem hoping to find a role that fits like a glove, you’re going to need to build a network. Not just any network of random connections, but a network specifically curated to your interests, goals, and passions in life.

Luckily, there’s a fundamental principle to building a network that has worked for scores of superconnectors, movers, and game-changers, and one I’ve been openly practicing for many years. It’s as simple as being an asset to those around you. Or, in less business-like terms, it’s about serving, sharing, helping, benefiting, and assisting others.

Enter Mike Gelb. Known as “The Consumer VC Guy,” Mike is a living example of this principle, starting with his LinkedIn profile. Check out the header of his profile and you’ll automatically be drawn to phrases and keywords indicating his dedication to being an asset: “I Help Founders and Investors…,” “Share Stories of Personal Development…,” and admonishing people to “Join Our Tribe.” There’s also mention of “community” and “fundraising tips” and a clear delineation that his focus is on consumer tech.

A couple weeks ago, Mike dropped some wisdom on LinkedIn that I thought was worth emphasizing, especially for those wanting to scale up their network.

Mike summarized the fundamental principle of being an asset to those around you when building an intentional network of value. He took us a step further and outlined some constructive ways you can put words into action.

Side note: Kudos to Mike for sharing his wisdom and giving his blessing on this post.

Let’s dig into the 6 ways you can become an asset to everyone around you.

  1. Create a database

    Assuming your LinkedIn profile is totally optimized and you are easily discoverable by the people who would want to find you, let’s get one thing clear. You aren’t going to remember everyone you meet. After all, your brain was optimized for processing, not storage. Ever heard of Dunbar’s number? It posits that the average individual human can maintain stable social relationships with about 150 people. In other words, you’re going to need a database to go from a novice connector to a superconnector. And the earlier you start, the better.

    It’s truly astounding how many people in the startup space don’t proactively manage their relationships through a database, but are passive reactors to incoming emails, calendar invites, LinkedIn connections, text messages, and calls (yes, people still do calls).

    A database will allow you to segment your connections by industry and other areas, record interactions, and customize how you follow up and engage with people on a daily basis. Whether you use a complete CRM like HubSpot or even something homegrown like Airtable or Notion, most of the available tools have ready-to-go templates for managing contacts to reduce setup time. There are practically no limits to the type of database you can design.

    Start simple. And whatever you do, don’t let your email serve as your database.

    How does this help build your network?
    Building a network is an investment of time and relationships. But the results can be transformational to your life and career. Start with a solid foundation of a database to stay organized. It may take some adjusting to get used to, but you will ultimately be more efficient in the long run.

  1. Get to know people on a personal level

    We hear quite a bit about authenticity, but I’m often struck by how people misinterpret authenticity to give them license to act or speak a certain way simply because it might be the way they are outside of a professional environment. It’s almost like the way people behave online versus how they would behave in real life.

    It’s not about that at all, actually.

    In my eyes, authenticity is the opposite of being transactional. It’s about being human and sharing your life. It’s about remembering that we don’t check our lives at the door when we open our laptops or go to a meeting. In this context, authenticity is 100 percent about sharing the experience of the human condition.

    Some of the greatest relationships I have developed came from conversations that had little or nothing to do with business, but about some shared life interests like astrophotography, woodworking, travel or camping. When you are growing your network and show genuine interest in people’s lives, they take notice. People will also be more trusting of you, knowing that there’s more to your relationship than simply finding something of value to exchange.

    How does this help build your network?
    Authenticity builds connectivity. In a world where we are constantly being sold something, it’s no surprise why people are suspicious of cold emails and random messages. The fact is, we desire authenticity and connection. It often takes one person to initially break the ice in a conversation for authenticity to give rise to connectivity.

  1. Connect people who you think would benefit if they knew each other

    Speaking of being an asset to those around you, this is where you begin to derive value from being organized (in your database) and being authentic. Instead of going into meetings considering what you can gain, listen intently and look for opportunities that would benefit others at the table.

    Believe me, having the ability to see opportunity everywhere is like a superpower. When you start to see opportunity everywhere, you begin to consider how you might want to engage people across your network. Many people are able to make introductions, but doing so at scale is the key. Connecting people at scale is the true essence of building your network at an accelerated pace. In order to do this at scale, however, you need to architect your database accordingly. You need an operating system.

    The simplest way to organize your contacts might be to implement a tagging system. For example, let’s say I meet a fintech investor looking to meet founders. I  might add the investor to my database using tags in their profile: fintech, investor, seed stage, actively investing. When I meet with a fintech founder looking for seed stage investors, I’m able to do the same and create specific tags for their profile: fintech, founder, seed stage, actively fundraising. A simple database query does the rest of the work for me.

    While this example might seem laughingly rudimentary, multiply this by 100, 500, or 1,000 and add several layers of complexity to it, such as location, investment stage, or a dozen other factors and scenarios. You quickly realize the need for a database versus a search field on a website that feeds you mostly noise. The value of connecting people across your network multiplies exponentially each time you make a successful match. With each connection you make, the world gets a bit smaller and someone’s network has gained value, not only to them, but to their connections if they implement this practice.

    I really like Mike Gelb’s suggestion, “When I meet someone new, I try to think of three other people who might be helpful to that person.” If everyone did this without expecting anything in return, the world would look vastly different than it looks today.

    How does this help build your network?
    A network’s value increases in proportion to the connectivity of its members. Without an intention to connect others within your network, your connections are just a database of contacts, nothing more. Seeing opportunity through connection shows you are putting others before yourself, which causes more people to seek you out. A large percentage of my personal network exists simply because I saw an opportunity for someone and made the connection.

  1. Host URL events

    Most likely, many of the new connections you make will be geographically diverse, adding a depth of perspective to virtually any topic. This gives you the opportunity to extend these perspectives to others in your network by bringing like-minded people together in a way they may have never experienced before.

    The best part is it’s completely free and can be started with as few as two or three people. If you’re feeling adventurous, pick a date once a month where you will schedule a Zoom meeting, decide on the discussion topic with those in your network who have the same interest, and start engaging. I have personally put this into practice by building a Slack community of connectors from my network.

    Something I’ve seen some investors and founders do is set aside time every Friday to offer 15-minute “Office Hours” to anyone interested in scheduling time. My favorite story of how this practice led to incredible outcomes is from Brad Feld.

    How does this help build your network?
    Online events are meant to gather people based on similar interests. Hosting an online event is likely the easiest way to begin building a sense of community within your network. They allow people to have more freeform conversation, build stronger bonds, and attract new people to the network.

  1. Host IRL events

    Taking things another step forward, you can host live events in your local city if you have nearby network connections. Live events are nearly as easy as virtual events: pick a date and time, choose a location, figure out your topic or theme, and start inviting connections.

    Local events can be dinners, happy hours, coffees, book clubs, hikes, whatever people might like to do in your city. Not everything has to be about drinking at a bar, either. In Denver, where I live, it’s not uncommon for founders to go on hikes together in the mountains. The combination of nature, meeting new people, and sharing  ideas has powerful potential to unlock possibilities.

    How does this help build your network?
    While hosting live gatherings can feel socially taxing for some people, they are the most intimate way to connect, especially for those largely focused on building a local network. In some cases, live gatherings are a preference. Everyone has their own way of connecting with others and may thrive in live settings.

  2. Write a Newsletter

    Creating content around a central theme that brings an audience together is highly underrated. I know what you’re thinking, “I don’t have time for the work this requires.” However, there is no limit to what you can or cannot do with content. Only the audience dictates your boundaries.

    Mike Gelb offers a great recommendation: Create a newsletter that's a bulletin board of every ask in your network. This is what he practices with the Consumer Fortnight, a bi-weekly deal flow newsletter aimed at investors. Some startups have even received funding because of his newsletter.

    A newsletter could be as simple as solving the needs of your network or it could be about your process of learning something new or building a venture in public. The more niche, the better, so you stand out amidst the sea of newsletters available. But there’s nothing like writing specifically for your network.

    How does this help build your network?
    Crafting a newsletter might feel difficult to get started, but the payoff is huge if you are focused with your topic and targeted towards your audience. Writing helps establish you as a thought leader. A regular newsletter format sets a predictable cadence readers come to anticipate. And finally, a newsletter gets your thoughts out in the open for others to find you, those you may have never met through connections.

    Connect with Mike Gelb on LinkedIn, Twitter, and his website The Consumer VC.
    You can also subscribe to his newsletter The Consumer VC on Substack.
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