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.