[Dave Heal's] Observations & Reports

The Tao of Boulder: Or, how to network without being an asshole

Be desireless. Be excellent. Be gone. – The Tao of Steve

I moved to Boulder last August and until recently mostly thought “networking” was so much bullshit business school glad-handing. And it is, kind of. Or it can be. But, fundamentally, it’s a way of talking about building relationships. I don’t know that I’m the paragon of networking success, but I didn’t screw it up badly and in the past year have learned a fair amount about what not to do when you move somewhere new.

Be present

This seems obvious, but you can’t network properly unless you live in the place. There’s a limit to the success you can have on Twitter or on forums or in blog comments sections. And the harder you try to make yourself known remotely, the more likely you are to come across as desperate and overbearing. You can create a real solid foundation using social media, but it’s not a substitute for interacting with people across the full spectrum of neighborly human interactions. Nobody has solved the borrow-the-milk-over-IP problem yet.

Be helpful (more often than not)

I stole this “be helpful” mantra from Chris Sacca’s Foundation interview with Kevin Rose, and I think it’s the hardest but most important piece of advice.

Boulder has a culture of generosity that makes it easy to get undeserved meetings with Important People. The kind of meetings where the idea that you might provide anything of value to the person is nearly laughable. This is OK. But go in with a plan. Have something specific you want to talk about or ask and make it quick. Learn as much as you can about the person, but more importantly learn how to deploy that information. Dave Heal Coffee Meeting Heuristic #1 is if, at any point, it sounds like you’re reciting a Wikipedia page, you’re doing it wrong. Your research should merely inform the discussion, not constitute it.

This is mostly revisionist conceptualizing–I guess some might call it “learning”–but I think of most networking as a pyramid. You need to prove your value to people along the base in order to get referred up the pyramid. Occasionally you’ll get shunted a few levels up because you’ve been particularly impressive or the person is particularly well-connected. In those situations especially it’s important not to be afraid to ask for things.

I’ve talked with a lot of people who assume this stance of preemptively apologizing for wasting someone’s time. No, you will likely not be able to give the local hotshot Ruby developer tips on how to write more elegant code. But maybe he (or she!) also likes rugby, or industrial design, or needs help writing an OK Cupid profile. Worst case scenario is you have nothing to offer immediately but you ask intelligent questions, listen attentively and graciously exit. This is a perfectly fine outcome for some substantial percentage of encounters with people you hope to eventually have a more balanced, reciprocal relationship with.

Be interesting

Have hobbies, pursue them passionately, meet others who do them. Repeat. The best relationships–and this is especially true in a town like Boulder where everybody is doing stuff all the time–don’t emerge from meet-ups or events. Or at least they aren’t sustained by these interactions alone.

You should be into at least one discipline or area of inquiry so intensely that you can communicate a sense of expertise to someone who is merely an enthusiast. And you should participate in one group activity or sport (even if that “group” is just a lonely two-person Turkish Oil Wrestling club) where you can have interactions without the temptation to indulge in shameless careerism.

Be everywhere (but not all the time)

People need to know who you are. But you also need to make other folks do some of the work for you by talking about you when you’re not there. Give people, the scene, etc., some room to breathe. If you are at every event, you better have a very finely tuned sense for how you’re coming across.

Also, make sure to hang out with people who aren’t like you; they are more likely to need you. Community manager meet-ups serve a purpose. But especially early on in your career, you’re much more likely to be valuable to people with complementary not overlapping skills. Mere competence in an area where others are incompetent is often enough to get you into a conversation. When the local hadoop meet-up organizes a frolfing team, you can be their coach. Think The Mighty Ducks, but for data nerds.

At some point you will have to be excellent at something, but you can work into that if you get a foot into the right door. I know more than a handful of lawyers that have floundered through learning the on-the-job nuances of business because they were adequate contract writers or simply just knew who to talk to when an entrepreneur didn’t.

Be humble

Don’t be a dick. And own your place in the ecosystem unapologetically. This includes not talking incessantly about your own “hustle.” Business people and aspiring non-technical co-founders have become obsessed with justifying their existence by referring to the fact that they’re constantly flitting about from one physical location to the next. Just do the thing and let the rest of the world apply the obnoxious buzzword du jour. “Hustler,” to paraphrase The Big Lebowski, is not a name people self-apply where I come from. Everybody knows you can’t code (yet?). That’s why you’re excellent at selling and marketing and talking to customers. It’s fine.

In the end, patience is key. It’s possible to network effectively and efficiently, but the most useful relationships are just that. Relationships. You can’t will somebody into trusting you enough to give you a meaningful referral to their friends and mentors. And most of us aren’t so obviously incandescently talented that one brief encounter is enough to get a meeting with the people that can help you the most.