By Allen Bell and Allison Goldman
We’ve all had chance encounters that have often changed the course of our lives — or opportunities that fell in our laps just by being at the right place at the right time. Very few successful people would discount the value of networks and networking; offline or online, there are more opportunities than ever to connect.
But what about those opportunities that present themselves routinely that may require a little more than the click of a mouse? Those situations that might require a little more effort and personal risk (nobody likes rejection), but may offer a reward far greater than passive, routine networking. Those potentially life-altering “right place right time” moments might be less random if we did a better job of recognizing and acting on the opportunities that most of us don’t recognize or ignore on a regular basis.
We’ve done a lot of networking ourselves over the years and have witnessed both great outcomes and missed opportunities. We can tell you from our experience that the best and most successful networkers, especially those engaging in entrepreneurial activities, don’t just network through traditional approaches, but live and breathe connecting with others in their day-to-day lives. Building the confidence to initiate this type of networking takes some time, maturity, and finesse; however, the payoff can be more than worth it.
The following are a tried and true ideas that may inspire you to conscientiously incorporate networking into every aspect of your life. You may discover that great connections and good fortune do not have to be as random as you think.
1. Initiate a conversation in an unexpected setting
Have you ever overheard an engaging conversation relevant to you in a coffee shop or airport? Next time don’t hesitate to join in and introduce yourself; you never know who you might be crossing paths. It never hurts to join or initiate a conversation if you have something applicable to say and have the opportunity to connect with an individual or a group of people in an organic way.
As an example, I once while flying to Chicago unknowingly sat next to the CEO and the vice president of a billion-dollar company based in Canada. The two were having a witty conversation, and I interjected with a joking comment. My joke was reciprocated, and as a result, we spent the remainder of the flight chatting about both business and leisure topics, later had lunch together at Chicago O’Hare Airport, and finally exchanged direct contact information for future business opportunities.
This approach isn’t just applicable to business-related conversations but is a practice that you should utilize in all facets of your life. Even more astonishing is engaging in conversations with random people in foreign cities. You wouldn’t believe how often speaking to a random person results in additional connections in the future or the discovery that you have a common acquaintance.
2. Seek advice and contacts from notable public figures
Write down three people you admire that are public figures. Don’t limit yourself here. Whether you admire the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a notable entrepreneur, or Bill Gates, truthfully list a few people you admire.
Now think, if you had the opportunity to have a conversation or an email exchange with these individuals, what would you ask them? How would these questions relate to your career or startup, or how would they help you advance your business or your personal goals?
Next, do some research on these individuals online, starting with LinkedIn. See if you can find out a direct email address or the contact information for their administrative person (typically the gatekeeper). Put together a thoughtful email or voice mail message explaining the reason you are reaching out to them and give it a try. It does help to explain why you admire this person, the advice you are seeking, and how you will use the advice given. Don’t get easily dejected and stop after the first rejection.
You’d be surprised at what can come from this activity. We’ve had some of our colleagues connect with anyone from Steve Wozniak to James Franco with this approach. All have been receptive to at least an email exchange or short phone conversation. Be sure to ask if you can keep in touch with these individuals or if they can connect you with others who may help you reach your goals.
3. Cultivate nearby “mind farms”
Most cities or even small towns have access to academic centers. In recent years, major universities and colleges have adjusted curriculums to increase experiential learning opportunities for their students, especially business schools. This has opened the door for startups and other emerging businesses to become case studies for a range of classes, from marketing to finance to organizational behavior, to name a few.
In our case, SeaTurtle Sports has been the beneficiary of two case studies: one for a Harvard marketing class that provided an analysis of our digital strategy and recommendations to improve performance; the other for a University of Charleston masters’ program in strategic leadership. The class focused on maintaining an open and innovative culture within our organization as it grows.
In both cases we’ve been able to apply many of the recommendations to improve our business; we’ve opened doors to those interested in working with and for SeaTurtle Sports in a variety of capacities, and we’ve increased awareness of our company in our hometown. This style of networking has reaped benefits for SeaTurtle Sports both in the short and long-term.
4. Find the social hub in your city
Find the coffee shops and bars where entrepreneurs hang out in your city. Assuming you are not in New York, L.A., or a big Texas city where you stumble across fellow entrepreneurs, you will need to seek out the three or four prime locations where business concepts and startup war stories naturally buzz throughout the room.
Look for those “networking” events put on by local chambers or the entrepreneur clubs at area universities. In New Orleans, the Tulane Entrepreneur Association (TEA) is very active and has frequent socials. Attending these events can accelerate introductions to like-minded individuals where it is typical to compare notes and often leverage and trade resources.
In the end, some of the best advice you’ll ever receive for your business may come from entrepreneurial peers and university students who bring fresh ideas, perspectives, and unmatched enthusiasm for beginning their professional careers.
Six degrees of separation really does describe our modern world, and there is no better way to leverage this reality than by increasing personal connections. If everyone adopted a philosophy that we’d enhance more lives by moving the default from six degrees to even five, we’d potentially accelerate a lot of careers. Therefore, networking, when viewed with a fresh lens, maybe the most powerful tool you can use to reach your business and personal goals.