The origin of my involvement with Liftoff Ventures is a case study in the power of community based networking.
When many people think of networking, it's about going to cocktail hours and one-time events and other situations of forced interaction in which every attendee is there primarily to "network." In my experience, this type of networking simply doesn't work. It's a miserable hour or two of small talk in which everyone tries their best to impress everyone else, hands out business cards, and promises to email each other. Most of them hardly ever follow through; you'll likely never see these people again and there's really no accountability.
Truly effective networking is how I ended up having lunch with a group of strangers in Amsterdam who now message me when they're traveling to Boston so we can catch up.
The earliest seeds of Liftoff Ventures began when I met Rich. We were both student speakers at the Sustainable Environmental Journalism Conference in Miami in 2011. He was there with his company NexDrive, and I was there with Young Voices for the Planet, an organization that had produced a short film about the environmental activism I engaged with in middle school and high school. We became friends on Facebook and spent the following years experiencing a digital version of repeated, spontaneous interactions. In March of 2014, home for Spring Break, I reached out to Rich to catch up; I saw that we were both doing work in the startup sphere and thought we would have an interesting conversation. An hour later, we were analyzing the differences between the East Coast and West Coast college startup scenes. The East Coast seemed to be more campus focused, while the West Coast was more incubator centric with big names like Y Combinator. We wanted to figure out a way to bridge the two. At the end of our call, he told me that I absolutely had to meet his friend Michael at Babson when I returned to Boston.
A week later, I found myself at a Panera in Boston with Michael and his friend Eugenio.
There was no concrete reason for the meeting, other than the fact that when Rich suggests you meet someone, you show up. That was the level of credibility Rich had. He's a connector. The three of us at that table in Panera would go on to form the Boston team of Liftoff Ventures, with the aim of supporting student entrepreneurs across the country who were balancing school with startups. Liftoff would transcend campus boundaries, but would encourage students to continue working toward their degree instead of dropping out like the Silicon Valley incubators. Rich headed up the California team, bringing in friends and acquaintances from various schools. Over the summer of 2014, Rich and most of the California team worked out of a house in St. Louis; Eugenio and I couldn't join them because we both had travel plans in Europe. Rich immediately suggested people we needed to meet during our travels. Liftoff was working with the Kairos Society and Rich introduced me to the entire board of the Netherlands chapter. I spent an afternoon with them in Amsterdam, cooking Lebanese food at one of their apartments and eating a picnic in the grass by a canal.
In that moment, I reflected upon all of the points of contact that had led to me being there with that particular group of people.
The reason I was there was networking, but it was something very different from the contrived networking events I associated with the word. It was community based networking. I wasn't with random people, I was with people removed from me by one degree of separation. I was cultivating relationships that blurred the lines between friends and colleagues. We stayed in touch because we had met in a planned but authentic way. The point of the meeting was for us to get to know each other, not to discuss business or pitch ourselves or collect business cards. We talked about startups, but it came up organically as we told each other what we were working on and what our goals were.
When you build a community, you build a network of trust and accountability.
Friendships grow from repeated, spontaneous interactions with the same person. If you look at networking from a friendship model, it becomes clear why one-time events do not create a community. If you meet someone once in a superficial situation and have no obligation to follow up with them, it's a lot easier to simply slip away and let the fledgling connection die. If you run into someone frequently, or share a circle of friends, or even just one mutual friend who will ask how the meeting went, it's not so easy to disappear.
These are the strategies I use for effective, community based networking in college:
- Cultivate multiple groups of friends who do different things. Ask for advice, and make it clear that you're available to return the favor. Look for opportunities to connect people from the different groups of friends who might have something in common.
- Be a connector. If you know two people who you think would get along or would have really interesting conversation, introduce them. Encourage them to be accountable by following up on the introduction yourself.
- Talk to people with the goal of learning who they are more than what they do. Today, their field might be unrelated to yours. Five years from now one or both of you might be doing something completely different, but you'll still be friends. In a community a person is a friend first and a connection second.
- Be the type of community member you hope to meet. When you say you'll show up, show up. When you say you'll send an email or make a phone call, follow through. Be trustworthy and accountable.
- Be an interesting expert. Bring something to the table that makes other people want to meet you. Become the go-to person for a certain skill or market within your friends group, and let that reputation extend into a broader community.