Building a network is about playing the long game

When I moved to San Francisco, in many ways I was totally starting over. After 8 years in Boston including 3 in its tech scene, I had built many great friendships and connections. I still keep in touch with many of them today, but being across the country is definitely not the same as having beers, dinners and coffees regularly.

I find nothing more fascinating than the challenges and struggles in building a company and how some succeed where so many others fail. I greatly value the insights into how companies are run and the tough decisions leaders face, so it was really disappointing to suddenly miss out on all those conversations I was often privy to in Boston. As I’ve worked to rebuild what I had in Boston, I’ve come to realize an important lesson:

Building a network is about playing the long game.

A number of my friends in Boston are now successful founders and C level leaders. Many are raising B and C rounds right now and two even sold to Twitter for a substantial sum. I’ve learned an immense amount in conversations with them and found their first hand accounts inspiring.

As much as I would love to know the same caliber of successful founders in the Valley right away, it’s unlikely to happen. Instead, what I can do is the same thing I unintentionally did in Boston: get to know people before their startup success. Some of the aforementioned founders I knew when they had just raised an angel round, others before they even started working on their ideas and were instead employees at other startups.

You don’t know Jack.

I hear many people try to get to know the big names in town or even pretend they already do because they talked to Ev or Jack or Zuck once at an event. When you think about the odds of them remembering you or answering your email (if you even have their contact info) it’s pretty slim.

…but you could know the next Jack.

Instead, focus on getting to know the talented people around you that will be successful. Find ways to be helpful for them (much more likely than you being able to help Zuck) and keep it all in perspective; over time you will grow and develop and so will your friends. Like a fine wine you’ll find your network gets better with age. Those same people will happily return your emails and provide assistance no matter how successful they become. They may even work with you on your next venture.

10 thoughts on “Building a network is about playing the long game

  1. Great post, Jason. Relationships with people of your same level often develop better because you’re able to help each other out as you grow. Just wanting to know the big names is a one-way street where you’re the only one asking for something.

    The “next” Jack will be much more likely to answer your call when you’ve helped them along the way.

  2. Well said Jason. I’ve taken this same approach with angel investors. Initially I worked hard to get the well known “successful” angels, but then found that you can build better relationships with the new/emerging angel investors. My hope is that one day my investors will say “I invested in Promoboxx” and have that mean something for their credibility.

    • Ben,

      Thanks for the comment. I love the sentiment and continue to root for you guys at PromoBoxx.

      I hope we get the chance to work together or collaborate on something some day.

      Thanks,
      Jason

  3. Hey Jason, thinking out loud here. After I relocated to Singapore from New York, I found that I was starting from the ground up as well. Fortunately, I’ve made a lot of great friends!

    Here are my observations from traveling to and spending weeks each at Manila, Ho Chi Minh, Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, Sydney, NYC, SF, Boston, Boulder in 2012:

    • Without a “ecosystem culture” (ie events and places where founders hang out), it is hard to get to know people, period: ie Tokyo, Beijing
    • With a nascent ecosystem, it is also hard to identify good entrepreneurs: Ho Chi Minh, Manila, Shanghai
    • When an ecosystem becomes too vibrant, I suspect that it gets harder to build meaningful relationship with founders: NYC, SF
    • Based on the size & culture of the “community,” these cities are probably the most conducive: Boulder, Boston, Sydney, Singapore, Seoul

    Perhaps the exceptions are if you are in an accelerator, incubator, founders program where many likeminded folks gather for extended period of time. It still comes down to if you are putting yourself out there.

    • Ray,

      Thanks for the insights. Everywhere is definitely different. My hope was to convey that no matter where you are, the people you are most likely to have ongoing success connecting with are those that you can relate to and are at whatever stage you are at. You can help them and they can likely more directly help you.

      As you suggest, being in a place with a higher concentration of likeminded people with the same career paths will help. However, I challenge you to think more globally. I have great friends and contacts all over the country (and in a smaller percentage, the world) that I am able to maintain and build connections with them due to skype, Twitter, email, our blogs and other technology that is location agnostic. Nothing beats face to face, but you can get a surprising amount done without it.

      Thanks,
      Jason

  4. Your post provoked two thoughts

    1) As you mention networking is not only about getting to know “famous and successful” people, but about mutuality. After working and living in five different countries, I have come to the conclusion that some people, who might be terribly valuable to know you, are simply not receptive to a friendship or business partnership at this moment in time. You have to learn to cut your losses. Don’t waste energy and instead focus on the people that are receptive to your personality and to your ideas. This will lead to a relationship built on mutuality and be much more satisfying.

    2) This leads me to the second point which is touched upon by your comment about the “long run”. Building relationship takes time and effort. Judging every counterpart for their “assets” and “benefits” they could bring you is not a nice way to go through life. Sometimes we all need to take a step back and enjoy a relaxing conversation. It may lead to nothing, it may lead to something and you just chatted to your next client, but you should always enjoy the process and be welcoming to all sorts of people.

  5. This is a great post! I’ve spent the last 4 years working at a successful startup here in Austin, and I’m blown away by how much that experience seems to be worth when it comes to networking.

  6. Jason,
    Since SF is such a diverse place there are a lot of casual opportunities to connect with people from varied professions and walks of life. Do you have any thoughts and experiences on networking and collaborating outside of your key industry? Or do you find it more prudent to stick to what you know best?

    Cheers,
    AP

    • AP,

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

      I think diversity is definitely helpful and important. Yes, people in your industry can bring the most value from a career perspective, but that’s not all life’s about. To be a healthy, well-rounded person, you want to build friendships and acquaintances from all kinds of careers. And just because they have a different career doesn’t mean they don’t know others who can help you.

      I find the best rule to follow is to treat every person as an opportunity to learn from them. Sometimes that may be startup related, other times it’s the best places to hike. There’s no such thing as a bad person to meet simply because of their profession or walk of life (unless perhaps what they’re doing is illegal).

      Thanks,
      Jason

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