“Networking” doesn’t have to be icky


I had to go to what was effectively a “networking” event last week and it wasn’t that bad. Actually, it was sort of awesome. I met incredible, passionate people who were all doing interesting and inspired work. 

When I indicate that it was “sort of awesome” I don’t mean to come off as cynical, or to seem perplexed. It’s just that before I started my business, I maintained a negative view of “networking” events. It isn’t because of the crappy food or cheap alcohol (Portland Greendrinks, after all, has great drinks), but because for a long time these occasions felt degrading and a little inhuman. 

The concept of networking is not itself off-putting. We know about the strength of crowds and connectivity and all that. And part of my background is that of a community organizer. The key to effective campaigning is getting to know a lot of people, gaining trust, and recognizing in communities and networks of people the strengths and resources that can help you make your case, sway opinion, and evoke action as a means of making things better. 

Of course, when done in the name of preserving clean air or overturning some injustice, or raising funds for those in need, or even to get somebody elected to office, the concept of networking feels like a natural and even a noble part of a larger process. When you are doing it on behalf of yourself, your career and your venture it can feel… weird or even a little icky.

Feeling undaunted by the task, and then open to it, is largely a matter of perspective, which we’ll get to in a minute. But first, why does / can networking feel icky?

In my experience, this comes from two places:

  • When I very first started working for a tech focused organization about a decade ago, I started going to a number of “networking” events. So many people I ran into at these things were really, really bad at it. There were people who would put their business card into your hand before they would even engage you, and others who would overtly and ungracefully fish for information about how your work could benefit their projects or bottom lines. While I am positive that the strength of network construction and cultivation has benefitted me a million times over, it can be easy to associate the concept with the people who are the worst at it.
  • Stemming from these experiences, it can feel super odd to isolate “networking” — the act of getting to know people in a way that can be advantageous to your endeavors, personal and professional — from “being a human” and doing so can feel like it’s cheapening and commercializing our humanity. That we have turned this part of “being a human” into a professional skill can feel dirty. Getting out there and getting to know people, and reading blog posts about getting out there and getting to know people, in hopes of compounding the bottom line? That’s pretty gross, right?

Bad networking is highly visible while good networking is nearly invisible.

I assume that it is engagement in “networking” strictly as a means of boosting business—or seeing it as one of several steps that will lead to making more money or having better opportunities—that leads those folks who lack self-awareness to shove their business card in your hands before anything else. Again, the tricky thing about networking properly is that when it’s done poorly, it sticks out and leaves a bad impression. When it’s done well, you don’t even notice it happened as the opportunities, advantages and other benefits it leads to don’t present themselves with immediacy. “Networking” doesn’t feel dirty when it feels human—it feels good and as a result, leads to strengthened ties and more opportunities and connections for your future. Without instant gratification, it can feel like nothing is happening, or like, you know, you’re just being a person meeting other people who know and are doing interesting things.

This applies to all forms of interaction, not just “mixers” and other designated “networking” events. I have been on the receiving end of so many emails that make explicit they’d like to meet up to “network,” I am not always convinced that these random correspondences aren’t coming from robots attempting to pass themselves as human. I feel similarly about many solicitations to meet up and get coffee, or to pick my brain. Many of these invitations feel either inhuman, or like one degree away from saying, “I think you have something that I want, and I would like to facilitate a time for extracting it from your very being.” Exploration of mutual passions feels secondary at best. 

Because of the bad experiences I’ve had with the crappy kinds of networking in the most generic sense, for a long time I felt a great deal of shame about engaging in the practice. Isn’t trying to meet people because it’s potentially advantageous for business growth… gross?

Let your values, not your bottom line, guide your journey.

It is gross, I think, if that’s how you look at it or the impulse you allow to guide you. And perhaps, having worked a number of jobs that were just that… jobs… is what made me see networking from such a simple and deductivist perspective. But when we started our company, and we started making work I believed in, and when we began doing cool things like subsidizing creative work and telling stories that weren’t getting told and when we started trying to be good community stewards by way of our business practices, I began to really care about who we were becoming and what we were doing. It was the values of our business that helped to make talking about it—and seeking a community and resultant resources to make it grow—feel like a worth while endeavor. I wanted to meet people of like mind and like passion to collaborate with, to build cool things with. I wanted—out of curiosity and passion—to learn from people who had been in a similar place and learned different lessons. I wanted to know what they were doing, and understand their experiences. I wanted to better understand what communities we should tell stories about and with, and what businesses with which we might collaborate. When it was about expanding upon our values—and helping to grow them, and realizing something deeper—the “networking” part of networking, the part that feels stilted and inauthentic and disingenuous, felt less like a disembodied part of being human and more like a logical step in working toward or creating something bigger.

It’s what makes an email like, “Hey, we don’t know each other formally but I get and appreciate what you’re doing and I think you’d feel the same way about what I’m up to so let’s talk” feel so much more meaningful than the aforementioned sterile and disingenuous solicitations.

Not only did it make the process easier on my end, I found that it was a perspective that resonated with the people I was meeting in this context.

Passion goes a long way.

If you’re networking because at the end of the day you think it’s going to be beneficial to your bottom line or to some arbitrary advancement, it’s going to come off that way and you’re going to look like a douchebag. If you’re doing it because you have something that you believe in, and it’s something that moves you—something you’re passionate about—then by all means, let that guide your outreach endeavors.

There are a lot of tips out there about how to network. You know, don’t be narcissistic and exclusively talk about yourself. In fact, try to avoid talking about yourself at all—part of the whole point of this endeavor is to get a sense of the community, its players, and what’s going on overall. Most importantly, though, let your passion guide your conversations, engagement, and your related pursuits. Let that curiosity guide you. I’ve seen hundreds of posts that offer suggestions and techniques for how to network—what questions to ask and what to engage around, but above everything else, just be a person and if you can, be an interesting one.

You don’t even have to be interesting.

Who do you want to talk with at an event? The person who has read 50 “Top 5 Networking Hacks” posts, or the person who just read a life-changing book or recently watched a controversial documentary? The person who does nothing but listens to business-focused podcasts or the person who just listened to a moving interview with a former addict or paradigm-changing innovator? You don’t even have to be an interesting person, or be into topics widely considered interesting. Just know about stuff that doesn’t feel like they all serve as tips for getting you to the next step, as if life is a video game, be passionate about that stuff, and share that passion with the people you meet. It is peoples’ passions that move and compel me in conversation, not necessarily the subject matter. Listening to someone talk about what they are passionate about—what they are/have been moved by—is one of my very favorite things. Listening to someone talk about something rehearsed, or some “listicle,” makes me want to stab myself (and then that person) in the eye.

Having a business—being an entrepreneur (and this goes for folks who simply do work they believe in or are excited about, or have an idea they’d like to build into something beautiful)—should itself make this process easy, and this perspective an easy one to adopt. You have something you care so deeply about and you are working insane hours on it. You are likely taking a pay cut to make this thing possible, and taking one leap of faith after another. You are doing this because you believe in it, and you believe that there is something worth growing, expanding upon, making bigger and better. You can start looking at networking, in this larger sense, as part of this endeavor and finding common ground and passion with people on similar paths rather than like some otherwise human task disembodied from its own humanity. Screw networking. Now that you are working in this field / on this thing, you have an excuse to go out and share your vision, values and passion with other people doing other impressive, interesting and awesome things. 

How do you make networking a less icky / more nourishing part of your endeavors?

NOTE: For less verbose and existentially trying insights on networking broadly, this one is very good, and here are some tips for networking while sober.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.