A Little Help from Your Friends

Forget online dating. Online business networking is where the really sexy stuff is happening.

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Ah, love — digital style. You no doubt know of Friendster, the online social networking Web site. In only a year, the service has gained cult status, particularly among the 20-something set, by capitalizing on two ideas: first, that everyone in the world is connected by no more than six degrees of separation, and second, that the best romantic matches are the ones we find through our friends. On Friendster, members post profiles on the Web and invite their friends to post profiles, too. As people invite more friends to join, they can see the exponential growth of their networks — and can directly contact those friends of friends. Members can provide testimonials affirming their friends' date-ability and can suggest matches of people who might want to go out on a date. The site is addictive — it claimed more than 6 million users in early March and spawned a new pick-up line: "Are you on Friendster?"

If it works for romance, why not commerce? A handful of companies have begun using Friendster-style social networking to help businesses and professionals find a perfect match. We're not talking romantic partners here, mind you, but access to previously unreachable customer leads, investors, business partners, job candidates, and employers. As in love, the best business links often come through people you know: The best hires are usually referrals, and the best way to get in the door for a sales call is through an introduction from a mutual friend. Until now, however, we've been limited to calling on people in our immediate circle. Social networking software offers the tantalizing opportunity to reach out not just to folks in your own little black book, but also to the friends and associates of all those people (as well as their friends and associates).

Looking for a new job? Post your profile, search your network for contacts, and ask those friends of friends of friends to help you find a match. Need an introduction to a venture capitalist? Get that colleague's former college roommate to hook you up. It's a tantalizing notion: Play this game right, and the dreaded cold call becomes obsolete.

It could work out that way for Keith Furuya, a 39-year-old financial advisor for MetLife in Silicon Valley. He estimates that about 30 of his 50 high net worth clients have come his way thanks to introductions through a web-based networking service called Spoke. An old business-school classmate of Spoke CEO Ben T. Smith's, Furuya was intrigued when Smith invited him to sign up the with service 18 months ago. "I've always been a big networker, and when I look at my Rolodex I have over 1,000 names in there," he says. "But I didn't know who knows who or how those thousand people could help me get to new clients."

On the Spoke Web site, Furuya filled out a simple personal profile — name, title, company, contact information — and clicked a button marked "build network" which downloaded a program from Spoke that mined his Outlook email and contact database for information about who he knows and how frequently he maintains contact with them. In a few minutes, Furuya's new, online "Spoke book'" was populated not only with the thousand contacts he had manually entered into his Outlook contacts list, but also with everyone he'd ever exchanged email with from that email account. Spoke also rated the strength of these relationships based on how often and how recently he had emailed with each person, as well as whether he was the only recipient of a message or was simply part of a larger distribution list.

Any of these contacts who were also members of Spoke could then grant Furuya the ability to reach out to people in their networks, and so on up to more than four degrees of separation, providing him with relevant information about — or introductions to —potential new clients. This year, Furuya wants to add 15-20 new clients to his roster, all with net worths of at least $2.5 million — a tough circle to gain access to without personal introductions and referrals. With Spoke on his side, however, Furuya doesn't think it'll be a problem.

Next, he hopes to encourage his decision-making MetLife colleagues to start using the Web service as well — and ultimately convince them to purchase the enterprise version of Spoke's software. While the Web version is free and allows users unlimited use of Spoke's email and contact data-mining tool for referrals, the enterprise version integrates directly with Outlook, Eudora, Siebel, or Salesforce interfaces; and employees can manage their workflow through one of those tools and track their networking progress and referrals against their project goals and sales targets. Besides searching for relationships, this high-test version of Spoke searches public records and Web-based data (such as news items, Web pages, and photos) to compile a dossier on the target contact. Spoke recently signed up the North American division of management consulting firm Cap Gemini Ernst & Young for the service after Spoke executives noticed a cluster of CGEY employees using the free Web version and then used their own networking software to wangle an introduction to a Cupertino, California-based CGEY vice president.

A Spoke rival called Interface Software casts an even wider net. Its InterAction service pulls extra information from databases such as VentureWire, Dunn & Bradstreet, and Hoover's for still more information about a potential contact. Then, if the software turns up a useful relationship with a potential customer in a search, it will also identify any interactions that anyone else at the company has had with that person's firm — providing context for any sales conversations that take place. "The totality of a relationship goes beyond who knows who," says Rick Klau, vice president of vertical markets at Interface. "It involves what contact that person may previously have had with your company, what business they are currently seeking, and where they are in their own marketplace."

How does this play out in the real world? Consider the recent experience of Sturge Sobin, an attorney who runs the international trade litigation practice for boutique Washington, D.C., law firm Miller & Chevalier. One night, one of Sobin's researchers saw an item on the news about a consumer appliance company that was "being hurt by unfair import taxes, in a market of about $250-$300 million a year." Using InterAction's public records and proprietary database search, Sobin researched the company's history and decided that the company was a perfect target for Miller & Chevalier's expertise. The software also turned up the fact that one of M&C's partners had done work for the appliance company years ago, and in fact had a personal relationship with the CEO. "It's not a relationship I would have known about without InterAction," says Sobin. "I picked up the phone to the partner, asked if he'd introduce us and our services. We were retained to represent the company in a litigated trade case and the legal fees for us were, well, substantial."

Okay, but is any of this stuff starting to creep you out? If so, you're not alone. Even some serious contenders in the social-networking business take issue with the approaches of companies like Spoke and Interface, which critics say are invasive, or, perhaps worse, so open and democratic as to water down the value of any connections made through them. LinkedIn, co-founded last spring by ex-PayPal executive Reid Hoffman as an aid to hiring, features an extensive gatekeeping system. Users may not directly contact anyone who is not in their immediate circle of contacts, but must instead request a referral endorsement from the common colleague. That has made it attractive to more-senior professionals who are interested in networking with highly recommended individuals, but are equally concerned with protecting access to themselves and their own existing contacts. Another site, Ryze, has quickly become known as the social networking destination for freelancers and entrepreneurs.

The whole point of a personal network, according to these sites' creators, is that it's personal — relationships are carefully nurtured over time. Releasing those relationships to the entire company or to the world at large can undermine the very trust upon which they're built. "Your network is yours, it's not the company's," says LinkedIn co-founder and marketing vice president Konstantin Guericke. "It's a dangerous thing for individuals to turn that information over to the company. The last thing you want is to put your Rolodex out there for people to walk through."

Ken Toren, the founder of a portable medical records service company called REDmedic in San Jose, hired his sales director through LinkedIn, and raves about her exact fit for the job he needed to fill. "I found her three degrees away on LinkedIn. It was a trusted network — my own — and I got exactly what I wanted, directly, rather than going to the masses and leaving things up to chance," Toren says. Similarly, freelance marketing consultant Scott Stratten, who runs a company called "Un-Marketing" in Ontario, Canada, claims that the community feeling and ongoing conversations on the site literally draw customers to him. "I'm making more revenue from Ryze without ever having to approach a customer," he says. "They see my profile, read the views and commentaries that I've posted in previous discussions on the site, and they approach me with opportunities."

In the end, the success or failure of any of these social networking services will depend on their ability to sign people up for their service. After all, the more people who join, the larger the networks, and the greater chance that you will find your perfect connection — to Bill Gates, to that ideal sales rep, to whomever can help advance your business and career. Right now, each service offers a little something special. Want a community atmosphere? Go to Ryze. Want to protect those contacts, but maybe rub shoulders with more senior professionals? Check out LinkedIn. Want someone else to take care of the data entry, and turn up contacts from your email files who are long gone from memory? Sign up with Spoke. Want the largest amount of data about a contact, and unfettered access to your colleague's Rolodexes? Lobby your company to get InterAction.

But you'd better choose your favorite soon. We'll probably see a shakeout in social networking before too long, as these companies and their various clones experiment with business models of varying success, or ultimately cannibalize each other's memberships and combine one another's features into a single, super-service. Until then, all's fair in love and war.

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