Blog Post

A First-timer’s Tips for Networking in Silicon Valley

Five months ago I became a founder for the first time. I am not a total novice to the Valley; I’ve been fortunate to work with and befriend some very smart (and now influential) people from companies like Google and Powerset. But I am also a Midwesterner who migrated to the Valley in the late ’90s, and my resume includes staid institutions like NASA, which while innovative is not exactly a go-go Silicon Valley company. I tend to think of myself as a member of the Valley “digernati” — working off Valleywag‘s radar, not a member of those startup mafias that seem to follow every liquidity event.

Still, one thing that has happily surprised me is my success at networking my way to just about anyone I wish, or need, to see — even if I’ve never met the person previously. Granted the connections often take longer than I’d like, but 9 times out of 10, when I reach out to find someone, it produces an email exchange, a phone call or a meeting. This is how I got to critical partners, added advisors, and found new hires.

Friends tell me: “You’re such a natural networker!” and it makes me laugh. As an engineer who spent most of his awkward teens in his bedroom writing code, I couldn’t disagree more. The truth is that I have taught myself to network, and I work at it — a lot.

Maybe it is consistent with being a geek, but I actually honed my relationship-building skills through practice and experimentation: I took a year sabbatical when the dotcom bubble burst and during this time, the only contract I made with myself was that I would focus on building my professional relationships. I learned some important lessons about networking during this time. Maybe they will also be helpful to you:

The First-Timer’s 4 Rules for Networking:

1. Never, ever, underestimate anyone.
That old adage of the guy who cuts someone off driving to the interview, only to find out in the parking lot it was the hiring manager, is true more often than you’d like. The woman scraping the gum off the floor in the restaurant may be the owner, you don’t really know. I believe that every human being has something positive to give to this world, and those who are open to that premise stand to benefit from it the most.

2. Be genuine. While many people will tolerate a blowhard, most won’t reciprocate without self-interest. But by engaging with people you genuinely enjoy, you’ll quickly see reciprocal engagement and spontaneous acts of generosity. Being genuine is also more efficient. Put on an act, and you’ll end up wasting precious time in business relationships that may be useful to the other person, but which are not in your own interest.

3. Be patient.
If people think you are expecting something from them, they tend to feel used or taken advantage of. What’s the rush? One contact I made resulted in a very important and marquis advisor being added to my company — three years later.

4. Give before you get. As soon as I meet someone new I’m immediately thinking about whether I can help them, not because I want to trade a favor (I may not need anything from them), but because this is how I would like to be treated by them. Pro-actively giving may seem like a cost, and it may require you to be a little extra patient as well, but in the end, the reciprocal support I receive, simply by offering to help people who aren’t asking for it, is overwhelming. It builds tremendous loyalty and respect.

Andrew Hoag is founder & CEO of Black Drumm, a stealth-mode startup developing tools and services for specific areas of social commerce. In his spare time, he chairs Founder’s Nest, a private peer group of entrepreneurs & CEOs in San Francisco.

18 Responses to “A First-timer’s Tips for Networking in Silicon Valley”

  1. Andrew,

    You get it completely! The fourth tip is a Jeffrey Gitomer mantra and the mainstay in any great ongoing networking campaign. The tip that shows your maturity is #1.

    Prior to my position as business director to, in my youth, I worked a jackhammer, paved roads behind asphalt screeds, was a hod carrier for a bricklayer, and spent an ill fated summer serving summons for court appearances. These “positions” all taught me to never under estimate the other guy or girl.

    Allow me to add one to the list–listening. Here is my take on listening:

    Thanks for the great reminders!

    Dean and Susan

  2. thank you for a starters guide to networking. This is the first post describing a litany of failure even when on has practiced what you have written.

    my point is that You were doing something more than the points enunciated above, as having practiced them myself for many years I am still at the junk heap of failure. These reminders never hurt and serve as pointers to get up and do it all over again, possibly better in its next iteration.

  3. Sebastian

    I am also by nature a poor networker. I have approached it differently. I made sure that I have a few friends/colleagues who are highly capable at networking and more importantly networked with people with power, and delegate it to them if I need to “network”. Secondly I always try to make sure I have something of value so that people are more interested in flocking to me.
    I have decided that it is better for me to focus and build out my strengths even more and gain a competitive edge as a specialist, than to be well-rounded. Actively networking would take to much time for me. How ever I agree it should not be underestimated.

    I have one small tip, to add. When ever I meet someone of interest, I always make some notes in that persons contact details in the evening/next mourning when I discover something new and seemingly trivial. Like hobbies, beverage/food preference, kids etc. So that when ever I intend to meet them again, I can initiate small talk or even bring an appropriate gift. People often compliment my good memory! (maybe they are just being nice)

    btw, this works with girlfriends too.

  4. How do you give before you get? This is a serious question…

    I have colleagues that I can pass information or referrals to, but only once I’ve known them for long enough to really understand what they’re all about, what they’re seeking and what they’re currently lacking.

    Otherwise the best I can offer is (true) interest in their product or service, and an ear to listen :)

  5. Appreciate GigaOM striving to provide new content on weekends, hiring new talent. But advice like this – no thanks, there are plenty of primetime stories to write about. Andrew wrote up a sound piece, but it is for a student blog.

  6. Thanks, very good posting. Especially since it is not only valid in Silicon Valley, but everywhere in the world for every purpose. Having this mindset, it increases your capabilities of being social and of seeing the added value in talking with people that might seem uninteresting in the beginning.

  7. Great advice Andrew-

    I stumbled upon a similar technique after suffering through a “greed phase” on Wall Street: I learned that when things aren’t working, I take a step back and ask myself, “Am I taking more then I’m giving? Am I more focused on my needs or on creating something good for everyone?” For some reason just asking those questions seems to put things back on track and whatever I’m doing starts to progress again.