Six lessons in networking from a serial entrepreneur

"The success of you as an individual is heavily dependent on your ability to network. I receive 15 resumes a week, and yet if someone on my team introduces me to the girl they play tennis with who’s interested in working with us, I’ll talk to her. The resumes go in the bin, I just don’t have the time."

So says Colin Pyle, Canadian serial entrepreneur, co-host of the Silicon Real podcast and CEO of organic coffee company CRU Kafe

I first met Colin at an event in April of last year. Having spent many a lunch break watching Silicon Real and fantasising of the far away land of the London start-up scene from my then-desk in Switzerland, Colin was something of a celebrity to me. I gave him a shout-out in my talk, and we chatted for a while in between speakers before Colin himself took to the stage. What he proceeded to say has stuck with me ever since.

Colin recounted how, when he first arrived in London, he had made a personal pledge to meet two new people a week as a way of forcing himself to build new relationships and create opportunities. His advice stuck in my mind because I myself had just moved to London, tearing up the rule book on how to build a career in the process.

I believed then, as I do now, in the 80/20 rule of opportunities: 80 per cent of opportunities are found via informal networks, and yet only 20 per cent of people actively pursue them. 

On the flip-side, only 20 per cent of opportunities are found via jobs boards and other formal means, and yet for 80 per cent of people these are their only means of job-searching. The result is an almighty bottleneck, selection criteria inflation and a pervading sense of hopelessness. 

Of course, the 80/20 rule doesn’t only apply to job-searching. It applies to entrepreneurs who struggle to get funding or CEOs who struggle to hire great people. The term 'opportunities' has its own subjective relevance for each person, but the theory remains true all the same. 

Read: Turning online connections into offline success

The solution is to circumvent the bottleneck by tapping into the abundance of unseen opportunities that can only be reached by proactively building relationships with people who have access to opportunities that are beyond your reach. This kind of deliberate cultivation of relationships is akin to spinning a web; the larger, stronger and better-placed your web, the more likely you are to catch bigger and better prizes, and more often.

A little over a year after our first encounter, I met up with Colin to extract more lessons on the power of networking, in an effort to understand more about how we can all behave like a serial entrepreneur and create more opportunities than we know what to do with. 

I took six key lessons away from our conversation, and here they are in Colin’s own words.

1. Network like you’re playing Blackjack, not Roulette 

"I used to spend a lot of time gambling when I was in university. I’m talking two or three nights a week at the casino, counting cards, playing Blackjack, Poker and Roulette. If I compare the business world to the casino it’s very interesting. With Roulette, each spin is completely independent from the last and the next spin. There’s absolutely no point in looking at the board at what rolled before because it has zero implication on what’s going to roll next. I think a lot of people manage their business careers like that, where each meeting and encounter is completely independent of the next.

"Most people who behave like this do so because they don’t prioritise their network. But then there are people who manage their networking like they’re playing Blackjack. With Blackjack, every card that comes out and every move that’s made will affect your decisions and your behaviour. Every action in a game of Blackjack spins a whole web of outcomes and potential outcomes that you must interpret and then strategise accordingly. That’s how I look at the business world. Every single meeting is so valuable in terms of my strategic thinking going forward. I just had a meeting with a guy I’ve never met before. There’s three potential exit introductions for me and three potential HR introductions for me. Creating your network is one thing, but spending time to grow your network is incredibly valuable."

2. Know where you are in your network

"I just met somebody who’s more senior than me, which means that his time is arguably more valuable than mine. I’m going to send him an email later today with a recap of our meeting and points to move forward. I’m going to make it as easy as possible for him to help me out. A lot of people have a self-inflated sense of the value of their time and won’t do that recap because they believe it’s not their role, and so the meeting falters out and nothing ever happens. It’s the people who can follow up and be organised who will succeed."

3. See the whites of their eyes

"It was sales that taught me the power of networking. When I was running my foreign exchange company I had to focus on getting customers for the first time in my life, and I didn’t know how. I spent the first three months making 100 calls a day, and it didn’t work. Then I started meeting people in person, either I would meet them at events and collect cards or I would reach out to them and arrange a time to chat face to face, and I had a much greater return. I learned that if you meet people in person, follow up and do a good job, the referral network is incredibly powerful."

4. Create a validation network

"It’s crucial to have a group of trusted people who can validate things for you, because there are a lot of people out there who don’t know what they’re doing. If you need validation on people, ideas, market opportunities or anything else, being able to reach out to that trusted network is invaluable."

5. Add more to the most important relationships

“The success of a business can be boiled down to the ability of the leadership team to leverage their networks and create win-wins. CRU Kafe coffee is in every Soho House in the world, they didn’t need to do that but we give them so much above and beyond our product that they do it gladly. We give them content, videos, I do a chat there once a month, so if another coffee company comes in our customers know that we do more than coffee. The lesson here is not to approach every relationship with an attitude of take, take, take.

"The people who take will only get one give from me. It happened yesterday, somebody wanted something from me with no suggestion of reciprocity. That person will come back to me in two, three or six months’ time but unfortunately I won’t time for them."

6. LinkedIn is a vanity metric

"LinkedIn is completely useless as a tool for building deep network connections on its own. Your network is not about size, it’s about strength, power and people. If you need a network of a thousand people, it’s the wrong thousand people. A trusted network of 30 people is far more valuable than 500+ superficial LinkedIn connections. Those 30 people will undoubtedly be able to connect you with the people you need, and the people whom you can help too."

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