Hey, Startup Founders: You're Networking Wrong

According to Tracy DiNunzio, founder and CEO of Tradesy, you'd be better off doing any number of things rather than attending a networking event. Here's why.

The tech startup explosion has spawned a vibrant social scene, ripe with enough panels, fireside chats, and fast-pitch events to keep your dance card full most every night. These gatherings promise to connect, educate, and entertain you, the early-stage or future founder, and it can be tempting to hit the town to soak up the excitement of our booming industry. Business cards are exchanged, hands are shaken, cocktails are consumed . . . all in the name of “work.” What could be better?

Lots of things could be better. In fact, even sleeping would be more productive than attending a startup event.

The fact is that unless your customers are startups themselves (in which case you should network your face off at tech events), the people who can truly make an impact on your company--investors, potential partners, and future employees--are not out networking. Important, successful people are, by definition, in high demand. They don’t hit the town to seek out opportunity because opportunity comes to them. And even if you do manage to find them at an event, they’re unlikely to be impressed by your business until you’ve achieved proof of concept. Once you’ve created something of value, those very same people will be compelled to take meetings with you. Meetings that you can plan and prepare for, so that your first interaction with them is impactful and results-oriented.

Your sole job as an early-stage founder is to put in the long hours of focused work that make your product great and your customers happy. Doing that right will consume all of your time and energy for a while. So in the rare moments when you’re not working, you simply don’t have the time to stand around sipping wine and chatting up other startup founders about today’s tech headlines. Instead, you should sleep. Eat something healthy. Meditate. Do anything that recharges your batteries and prepares you for another day in the trenches.

When I was bootstrapping through Tradesy’s first two years, I never attended events. Instead, I stayed focused (obsessed, really) on improving our product and technology. I was glued to the computer for 17 hours a day, with my eye so tightly on the ball that I barely noticed when I gained 20 pounds and developed some killer back problems. In that time, I taught myself how to design, code, market, and manage customer service, all via readily accessible, Google-able information online. I woke up every night between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. to live-tweet and get on Facebook with our European customers. I rented out my bedroom on Airbnb and slept on my couch to pay the rent.

It was grueling but ultimately rewarding. While our competitors were out networking, Tradesy was growing. Customers who loved the product helped us quickly turn profitable, which got Tradesy accepted into the Launchpad LA accelerator, which led to instant one-on-one connections with advisers and venture capitalists, who eventually funded the company to the tune of $3.5 million to date. Today, Team Tradesy is 17 people strong and touches millions of customers every month.

Of course, I didn’t do it alone, and neither can you. Every entrepreneur needs the support of mentors and advisers, who will help you strategize about your company’s growth and keep you from developing tunnel vision about your product. So how do you connect with these people if not at the next “Using Social Media to Grow Your Startup” panel? It’s easier than it seems, as long as you can respectfully entice them to meet with you in a way that’s targeted and efficient. I like to call my favorite method “The World's Best Approach to Networking Without Even Having to Put on Pants.” It goes a little something like this:

Send a brief email that includes: a) An expression of your appreciation for their specialized expertise; b) a "quick" explanation about why 20 minutes of their feedback would be relevant and valuable to your business; c) a statement that acknowledges how busy they must be, but that even busy people need to eat, and finally; d) an offer to bring them a meal of their choice at any convenient time and place.

This no-fail approach to efficient networking lets you connect with key people without wasting time, which is your most valuable resource when your company is pre-funding. Every minute is currency that you’ll never get back once it’s spent, so even your networking strategy has to be designed for maximum results with minimal resource drain. When I used an approximation of this method, I had a 100% response rate and eventually developed long-term relationships with several key advisors. And I’ve since made time to meet with every single entrepreneur who has contacted me using this technique.

Smarter networking isn’t about all-work-no-play. It’s about developing the crucial skill of relentless prioritization, which will position you for success while leaving enough time for the things that make you feel good, like sleep. While other startup folks are out on the town, broadcasting plans for things they have yet to achieve--a habit of founders that is both unimpressive and ineffective--you’ll be inching ever closer to your next milestone. When you get there, take an evening off to celebrate with family and friends. Then get back to work. You’ve got a business to build.

--Tracy DiNunzio is the founder and CEO of Tradesy.com, a website and mobile app that connects women who buy and sell fashion quickly, safely and easily. Her mission: to make fashion accessible, affordable and sustainable for all women.

[Image: Flick user Mr. T in DC]

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9 Comments

  • Mark Deutsch

    Thanks for sharing this article. You make some good points about networking "events" - they are not the best use of your time as a startup. At the same time real "networking" doesn't take place at networking events, it's what happens outside of the events and the relationships that develop, that is how serious networking is defined. What generally happens at events is database building. Any highly successful business owner and entrepreneur will tell you that networking is an absolutely critical part (if not the single most critical part) of their success. We will also tell you that a narrow, deep network is what counts, not a shallow, wide network. Whether you create that depth through events or other means, go deep, not wide. Use your time wisely and make sure you are indeed networking, not simply database building.

  • Marjorie R. Asturias

    It took me awhile to realize that all the long hours (some of them EARLY hours, as many networking events I attended often took place at 7 or 7:30 in the morning!) I was putting into networking was generating very little in terms of leads and clients. The very FIRST networking event I attended (a local Chamber of Commerce event) got me one of my first clients, but that was an anomaly, as it turned out. Over the next few years, I found that most of my clients have come from referrals and through good ol'-fashioned organic search on Google. Every now and then, I would get an interested party at an event, but most of the time they'd turn into just nice coffee chats because they were not my target client. 

    Now I focus almost all of my networking and lead generation online and the rest of the time I'm working on building the very best agency that I can. That means polishing our customer service process (hiring a very customer-oriented account manager helps!) and refining our workflow so that when we execute a campaign strategy, it's insanely perfect and flawless.

    Are we there yet? Nope. I launched the company nearly 4 years ago, but it's only been in the last two years that I've come to that epiphany regarding networking events. I think it helps that I'm 41 and don't have time to hang out and quaff alcoholic beverages with people I may never see again. I do enjoy the socializing aspect of it, but I'm mindful of the fact that I have a super-supportive husband and four active rescue dogs (my fur-babies!) at home with whom I'd rather spend my rare moments of free time. It helps me to keep my eyes focused on why I'm doing this in the first place: to provide a better future for us, my family, and build a great agency with great customers. 

    We may not be there yet, but we're getting close. 

    Thanks for such an inspiring article! 

  • Carolyn Hughes

    Definitely food for thought. However you never know who you're going to meet networking and who they know. There's no substitute for meeting people face to face and putting a face to the Twitter handle. Although, I do like your idea for smart networking and not attending events just for the sake of it. 

  • Jadyason

    Thankyou. I liked this idea of contacting mentors. Simple but effective.

  • Landaw

    Astute observations, thanks. And, Anon, if you're not networking for potential future gain (i.e., sales, funding, or employment), why would one network?

  • Les

    Well said (Tracy!)  I could not agree more.  Speaking from my own experiences... I've boot strapped Pooki's Mahi (http://pookismahi.com) and stuck to my expertise in New Product Introduction and Agile Methodologies to focus, continue to prioritize and execute.  Learn and pivot to improve product launches.  Our online store launched in May 2013 (yes, this year!) but we have been selling (globally) products in key marketplace since 2012.  My company/team of advisors are heading to the 65th Emmys (products are featured in the Celebrity Gift Bags). 

    It is very easy to be distracted with "networking events."  Realistically - Pooki's Mahi customers are not at the startup networking events.  They found me through my own network, the hard work launching the unique product set, focused marketing efforts through social media and my product partners.  

    IMHO - If you want your company and its products to be discovered, then continue to execute on a (realistic) plan.  Not saying you shouldn't attend "networking events."  If you do attend, then make sure it's worth your time.  

  • Raj

    I completely agree, as a startup you are not going to find people you need to connect with at  networking events  ;-)

  • anon

    I like this article, I really did until I read about a no-fail principle to networking. Sounds like a sales pitch.