Your network is your net worth. You've likely heard this cliché bounced around as gospel, usually from people who are well established and have been able to leverage their connections to expand their business.
You've also likely gone to an event and met that one person whose sole purpose seems to be introducing himself to everyone, giving out his card to anyone nearby and then moving on to the next batch of humans.
Ostensibly trying to build up his network, all he did was shoot himself in the foot.
So how does one build up their network? How exactly do you go from just "another person" to someone trusted whom you can do business with?
I've been an entrepreneur for 18 years. I've run businesses in a plethora of industries, from gaming to local search to nutrition. Along the way, I've learned a few key lessons on how to build rapport with professional contacts.
I've summed these up in the following five rules:
1. Think friend, not contact.
This is my guiding rule. I treat all people I meet as a possible friend. That means I'm interested in them beyond just what their professional capabilities are.
To bring that mindset to the forefront, find mutual interests outside of work. It's often quite relaxing to turn off our work brain and focus on things that matter to us – travel, art, movies/TV shows, sports, books, politics, religion/spirituality, social media, food and so many other things.
Building such a bridge helps people associate with you as a real human, not just another "connection." It lets you bring in depth and inside jokes and references that only the two of you understand, deeply strengthening the bond.
2. You don't need to connect with everyone.
This is the yang to the yin that is rule No. 1.
Don't be that guy who tries to be friends with everyone and namedrop at every single opportunity. The Internet's greatest strength is that it's removed physical distance as a barrier – with your ability now to connect with so many people via the Internet, it's okay if you don't hit it off. Don't force it; remember, think friend, not contact.
3. Be the hub and build a community.
My friend Derek Coburn operates a financial-services company. He realized that many of his clients needed services that another one of his clients could provide. To help make those connections, he started hosting lunches and dinners to bring such people together.
The end result was incredibly powerful for his business. As he expanded everyone's network, they started to introduce him to others, expanding his.
I regularly host lunches and dinners with my fellow entrepreneurs, and a few times a year even do larger charity food-offs. The word has spread so much that people fly in just to attend and be a part of the community.
4. Appreciate your expertise.
No one is the best at everything – no matter who you meet, you will inevitably be more skilled and adept at something they are not. Offer your assistance freely and without strings attached.
For example, when entering the nutrition space, I met a fair number of dietitians and trainers who were clueless about local search. With my previous expertise, I was able to suggest some tweaks that helped out their business. It was no skin off my back, and it also showed them that I provided value.
5. If you're going to give a gift, make it an actual gift.
Giving me a T-shirt with your company branded on it is not a gift; it's a marketing tool. If anything, it's downright insulting; you see me as some kind of distribution vehicle to build your brand.
Think of what you would want to receive as a gift. Do you talk about sports? Get tickets to a game. Talk about books? Gift them your favourite book (even better – get an autographed copy of their favourite book). Food? A delicious meal.
You'll notice a recurring theme here – these connections are about depth, not breadth. The reality is that 10 deep connections are far more beneficial and powerful than 50 superficial ones.
Taking a spray-and-pray approach to networking is not only a waste of time but can in fact build up a negative reputation.
People want to work with people they like, and if you show yourself as someone who contributes value, you'll get a ton of value back.
You don't have to be their best friend, but by focusing on building an underlying friendship and mutual respect, your network will expand.