They say, "Those who can’t do, teach." In business circles, a cynic might adapt this cliche to say, "Those who can’t do, network."
And at more than a billion people now connecting on online social networks, there’s a fair amount of evidence that this is the case. According to a Twitter bio search on FollowerWonk.com, more than 180,000 people identify themselves as social media gurus, mavens, experts, and ninjas. Thousands more declare themselves "networkers." Truth is, even we non-"networkers" are more connected than ever.
"A few years ago, I could probably count on my hand how many people had more than 500 LinkedIn connections," says Ryan Bethea, who goes by the title of Chief Connecting Officer at Socialnomics. Today, he says, it’s rare to find people in his network with fewer. According to a 2012 survey conducted by Power+Formula, 20 percent of LinkedIn users have more than 500 connections, and 70 percent have more than 100.
Just as the elevated noise from ubiquitous blogging and publishing tools led to the rise of content curators and apps that filter wheat from chaff, today’s hyperconnectivity presents a "drinking from the firehose" challenge to networking. Shrinking degrees of separation often leave people with a lot of "friends" but few relationships, and little indication of which potential relationships might provide real, mutual value.
This perhaps explains the emergence of a new figure in today’s innovation economy, someone I call the "superconnector."
Two weeks ago, I attended a party in Austin, Texas, where I knew fewer than two people. The guy I knew, however, was Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council. I asked him who I should know at the party, and he immediately introduced me to a potential client for my company. The moment that conversation ended, Gerber whisked me to another circle, where I made a valuable connection that, unexpectedly, may lead to a business partnership. The pattern continued all evening.
And he didn’t just do this with me. He worked the room, pushing people together, eschewing conversations that involved himself, and seeming to delight in parachuting around, connecting stranger after stranger.
Gerber is perhaps one of the best-known representatives of a growing class of tradesperson: full-time business connectors. Groups like his YEC, or Sandbox Network (to which I belong), Summit Series, and the myriad of incubator and mentorship programs popping up in technology hubs make sense of the human noise generated by our multiplicitous connections. I call them superconnectors because they link others in a more meaningful way than algorithms currently can, and they can’t survive unless they’re excellent at it.
If superconnectors are personalization engines for entrepreneurs, then Gerber is the Pandora of Gen-Y networking. His introductions within YEC have helped entrepreneurs raise millions of dollars, find business partners, and receive coverage in national magazines. And that, in turn, has earned him speaking gigs at the White House, an internationally syndicated column on entrepreneurship for Inc., and frequent television appearances. Those, in another turn, have helped him grow YEC and connect even more entrepreneurs to opportunities.
This pattern, practiced by modern superconnectors, unfolds exactly as Wharton professor Adam Grant’s soon-to-be-released book, Give and Take, suggests: Helping others increases net productivity and success for both helper and helped.
"The number one problem with networking is that people are out for themselves," Gerber says. "My main priority when I am leading my members is not to say, ‘How can this guy benefit YEC or further my career?’ I'm thinking, ‘How can I help that person?’"
Historically, there have always been people who can simply unlock doors; usually these are hard-to-reach folks like senators, celebrities, industry bigshots. Today’s entrepreneurial superconnectors are people mere mortals can access; their job is to show someone the right door and introduce the person with the key to it. And, fortunately for most of us, more of them are popping up all the time.
"You look at entrepreneurs and deals, and for me, very few of them came from a cold call," Bethea explains. "I think there have always been connectors secretly weaving relationships together throughout the years, but now it's getting brought into the light because it's accelerating rapidly from social networking."
What’s also different today is, through the same Internet that fills our inboxes and follower counts with spam, we’re now able to bridge worlds that previously were isolated geographically or along industry lines. App developers in Durham, N.C., can connect with hoteliers in San Francisco and make amazing things together. Entrepreneurs in New York can be put in touch with artists in L.A. and change each others’ lives. And perhaps more importantly, it’s through this mixing of disparate people and ideas from opposite corners that transformative innovation often occurs.
Entrepreneurs have a way of showing up whenever people experience common problems. In the case of networking overload, the opportunists are generous and savvy peer-to-peer business matchmakers. And that’s great because, whereas some of us are born to be the guy at the party who knows everyone, to make big things happen, the rest of us just need to know that guy.
[Image: Flickr user Gavin Schaefer]