Networking Overload

I remember when I got into college, the thing everyone said was that it would serve me the rest of my life. “The education?” I asked. “No, no, not that. The network, dear,” they all replied. At the time, I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Networking for what, I wondered. I guess I was lucky enough to grow up in a pretty network-oblivious context. I went to a certain high school because it was the one in my neighborhood; took piano lessons because my parents signed me up; got into the clubs and activities I was good at, and rejected from the ones I sucked at. As far as I could tell, my involvement in everything just had to do with signing up, paying, and not sucking. Who I knew, or who my family knew, didn’t appear to play a role whatsoever.

So I get into college, and suddenly there’s cooing from all angles: Ooh, that network will serve ya! . . . . Eve, just make sure you try to keep in touch with everyone you meet . . . . Shmooze, shmooze, shmooze! I was so lost. What was this nebulous “network”, and what would it get me? From my perspective, the world was run on a 3-step process: 1. Apply 2. Get accepted 3. Participate. There was no Step 0: Network.

I’d say that I managed to make it through all of college without ever really deliberately networking. Maybe I gradually began to get a feel for what it is. My world got bigger, and unlike high school, I did in fact benefit here and there from connections that meant the beginnings of cool things I got to do. But they were always connections that just happened; not ones that anyone worked to make happen. It was a life of “one thing leads to another” that always seemed to work out well.

Life pretty much kept on going this way – with occasional benefits of this accidental network – until I started this business. Ever since that day, life has been a crazy, spinning vortex of people to whom I’m somehow connected. “You’re starting a business?” people would ask. And then kindly say, “My cousin started a business – here’s his email.” “It’s Web 2.0?” – “Here are 3 people you MUST talk to.” “Who’s doing your legal work?” – “Talk to Sam, he knows some good lawyers.” And each connection seems to yield several more on its own.

Before you know it, your professional address book is a massive tree diagram on crack. EVERYBODY’s got at least somebody that you should talk to. Sometimes the advice is right; sometimes it’s wrong; and sometimes it may be right, but it’s worthless because it’s just downright inapplicable. But the gems you pick up here and there – one in every ten conversations maybe – make all the difference. These prizes – the cap table template you can finally use, the brander who comes up with the perfect tagline on the spot, the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-family friend who opens the door to half a dozen investors – become such an instrumental part of the success you’re building, that the practice of exposing yourself to opportunistic connections like these becomes an obsession.

I’m really speaking about myself, so I guess I’ll drift back into 1st person and stop pretending. I have come to feel that following up on all these interpersonal introductions and connections isn’t enough. The thought that an uncovered diamond is lurking in my 2nd-degree LinkedIn connections keeps me up at night. Also, what about Facebook? Surely one of my 500 “friends” on there holds the key to some cutting edge technology that could enable MIXTT to blow its competition out of the water. And don’t even get me started on the conferences. Ad:Tech, Web 2.0, TechCrunch50, SouthbySouthwest, Women 2.0, I could go on . . . these give a new, meta definition of networking. The subline for all of these should be: Business Card Exchange and Elevator Pitch Bonanza, on Speed! I swear, I was stuffing business cards into my underwear by the end of one of these, after running out of pocket room.

I’m definitely not complaining. I owe the crucial points of this business to the insights of people I’ve networked with along the way. I guess I’m just rhetorically asking, where and when does it stop? How many doors do you open before you hit the point at which it’ll be more worthwhile just to enter one you opened before, rather than open another? And does the increased accessibility of networking – while compounding the opportunities in front of us – definitely leave us better off than we would have been within the “one thing leads to another” model?

At the end of one of the recent networking conferences, I was approached by a somewhat elderly man just at the point when I had hit my wall. I was hoarse from delivering the MIXTT elevator pitch, and paper-cut from throwing my business card at everyone in sight. This guy took a look at my name tag and asked, “So, MIXIT. What makes your business different from other social websites?”. Exhausted, all I could muster was, “I’d love to tell you, but it’s a long story.”

The man admonished me: “You’ve ALWAYS gotta be ready to sell yourself in this business!” and sauntered off.

I disagree with the old man. These days, if you attempt to intercept every potential possibility, you’ll never succeed, you’ll go nuts trying to, you’ll spend too much time creating options, and not enough time capitalizing on them. The dawning of Facebook and LinkedIn have changed things. We’re connected with so many more people online and off, and we’re all faced with more doors out there than we have time to open. So – a reminder to myself and other network-aholics: choose wisely, meditate, and recognize that you can still succeed if you leave a few doors untouched.

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