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How to network with the best: As told to an enterprising high school student

Networking is a critical skill in any field, especially in entrepreneurship and innovation. What follows is an email exchange between a high school student and myself that I thought others might enjoy.

After the Lemelson-MIT Program’s recent EurekaFest (http://web.mit.edu/invent/eurekafest.html) — our annual celebration of innovators — a high school student participant emailed me for advice on networking. This particular student proved to be exceptionally skilled at arbitrage during our event’s design challenge (http://tinyurl.com/3x4vxnf), trading and selling parts among the student teams for fake currency…so he already had a hook (see rule #2) with me! 

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Student’s email:

> Hello Mr. Schuler!
>
> Though I am somewhat proficient at swindling money out of the other
> participants at the MIT Inventeams design challenge, I consider myself
> inept at networking due to my lack of experience. Could you please
> give me some advice on how to network properly without being too
> bothersome to the person I am attempting to network with?
>
> Thanks for your time,

 

And my reply:

Hi ______,

Good to hear from you and apologies for the delayed reply!

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I wouldn’t call what you did swindling! More like identifying arbitrage opportunities…a unique and incredibly useful skill!

Networking is a skill to develop, so you’re already on the right track.

In general, the people with whom you want to network enjoy networking and will respond. You have an added advantage: you’re young. People will be impressed with your initiative and interest in networking with them.

I’m not sure if you were asking about networking face-to-face at an event, like EurekaFest, or virtually — so I’ve tried to tailor the following to both…

A few simple rules to networking success:

1. Be persistent and patient when cold-calling (contacting someone you’ve never met)
There is a fine line between persistence and annoyance. People are busy. An email from someone they don’t know may not be read or may be filtered by an assistant. They may be distracted with important business at-hand. All of this is to say that you can’t expect a person to email you back same-day! Craft your email to be brief, i.e.: only a few sentences which introduce yourself, state why you’re reaching-out to the person (see rule #2), and how to reach you. Be patient. If you don’t hear from them after one week, consider re-sending the email or calling and leaving a short voicemail or trying to reach the person’s assistant (if they have one). Don’t take a lack of response personally. If you still don’t hear back, move-on to another person. You may be pleasantly surprised a few weeks later…

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2. Show your value & have a hook
Before you talk with or meet someone, figure out what it is you can do for them, i.e.: do they have a problem that you can help solve? Do you have a particular skill that might be of interest? Do you know someone or something who/that can help? There’s as much and perhaps more value in being a connector b/t people as there is being the connection yourself. It’s not about what they can do for you…yet.

3. Firm handshake, eye contact, a business card, and two pens
The basics go a long way…when you meet someone for the first time, introduce yourself and shake their hand while making eye-contact. If it helps you remember their name, repeat their name…”nice to meet you, Bob”. Give them your business card and ask for theirs. Thank them for their time…and use their name again. After you talk, jot down a few notes on the back of their card to jog your memory later, for follow-up (see rule #5). Have one pen for yourself and another to loan someone…someone always needs
a pen and will be thankful when you offer one up…don’t expect to get it back, so choose your pens wisely!

4. Food & Beverage
There are a few strategies to employ if you’re at an event where there’s food — with most events happening in late afternoon or evening, almost all will have food and you’ll likely be hungry. Since it can be challenging (messy) to eat and network at the same time you can either eat something before or take the first 10 minutes of the event to eat, saving the rest of the time for networking/talking with people. Most events have alcohol. Stick to water or soda…now and even when you’re 21+. This is a favorite piece of advice from my entrepreneurship professor and co-founder of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center: “If you have a choice b/t hanging out near the bar or the shrimp cocktail…choose the shrimp cocktail.” He’s right. Though we’re seeing a lot less shrimp cocktail these days…

5. Follow-up
You’ve already shown that you’re good at this. After you meet/talk with a person, follow-up to thank them. Email is great. A hand-written note leaves an impression. If you don’t hear back, see rule #1. I’m sure you will have collected a number of business cards…

Go for it.

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