I recently attended two events. One was a casual cocktail fundraiser for my local science center, where I had a great time and closed out the night—and even came home with a few new names to add to my roster of interesting people.
The other was an opening-night gala filled with high-society types air-kissing each other for their Instagram accounts and onlookers frantically trying to make conversation. I was home playing with my kids within an hour.
The difference? The first was a gathering of real people where I was able to add to my network. The other felt a lot like networking, and there’s a critical distinction between the two.
According to conventional wisdom, networking is a cornerstone of building a business or advancing your career. But as an investor and a recruiter, nothing scares me off more than the words “networking opportunity.” I get nervous just thinking about the feeding frenzy of people trying to hide their real motives under all that small talk.
Having said that, ironically, I made my living as an elite headhunter. Today I’m an investor with a multimillion-dollar portfolio of dozens of businesses, but I haven’t forgotten about how critical it is to make connections. Meeting the right people is essential, no matter the business you’re in. But forming long-term connections based on common values—not just collecting contacts based on quick, transactional encounters—is an art that not everyone understands.
So how do you build your network for real? Here are a few principles I’ve learned, through trial and lots of error, along the way. Whether you’re a job seeker or an entrepreneur seeking funding, the same principles apply to building lasting relationships.
Grow your circle from the inside out
As a personal rule, I try to be available to young entrepreneurs and students whenever possible. So I didn’t think anything of it when a student at one of my alma maters added me on LinkedIn. When he showed up unannounced at my office the next day, however, it was another story. Some people consider cold calls and door-knocking to be a positive sign of hustle. To me, it seems intrusive, and even a little hostile.
A much better approach is to start with people you already know and build out from there. Who can your trusted colleagues introduce you to? Who are your friends’ friends? Just like in personal life, a warm intro can speak volumes about your own credibility and start the relationship off on the right foot.
Thanks to social media, it’s easier than ever these days to see where networks already overlap. Do a little homework and find that hidden connection. Leveraging your existing network to get an intro shows you’ve already got some common ground, and it makes for a much better first impression than showing up out of the blue.
When it comes to business, don’t talk so much about business
There’s a fundamental misconception that business is about metrics: market size, sales, KPIs, etc. But before any of that, it’s about trust. And it’s hard to trust someone who’s a walking, talking elevator pitch.
Anyone I’m going to invest in or hire for a role has to show me they’re a real person, first and foremost. If I can discuss world events, politics, sports, even the food in the buffet line with people, it lets me know how they think, where our values align—or don’t—and, most importantly, that they care about more than just getting me to cut them a check. (Pro tip: I read a half-dozen new sites everyday—never be at a loss for things to talk about.)
When a young entrepreneur named Jayesh Parmar was referred to me by a colleague back in 2016, we definitely didn’t bond over the intricacies of his cloud-based ticketing platform. Instead, we sat in my office and shot the shit about growing up in small towns, the Canadian Football League, and technology in general. Jayesh came across as a humble, interesting guy—who happened to have a promising business idea (which, by the way, he recently sold to Eventbrite). After an hour (literally) of meaningful banter, I signed a check and was ready to do all I could to help.
Give, give, and give some more
At the end of the day, the cornerstone of any real relationship is generosity—giving without the expectation of return. The best business networks are no different in that regard. You need to be prepared to give, freely and gladly, if you’re ever going to build real connections. A lasting network isn’t built around quid pro quos: It’s about making generosity a way of life.
For inexperienced entrepreneurs or young people just starting out, I know it can sometimes feel like you have nothing to bring to the table, that you’re always the one asking. That’s not true. You have your unique lens on the world, your passion, and your expertise in your field. Communicate that articulately, and it’s gold.
Every entrepreneur I talk to who shares their story helps me get a better read on market trends and new innovations coming down the pike. Take Daniel Dubois, founder of the sports-gear-sharing platform ShareShed. He was just 21 when we first met, but Daniel gave me a window into an emerging sharing economy, and my advice and financial support helped him build a business he eventually sold to Leavetown.
It takes a lifetime
Above all, building a real network isn’t like collecting followers on social media: You can’t just pick them up in quick, surface-level encounters—or, worse yet, buy them.
Networks are built on shared interests and values, and it often takes time to tease these out. You may not form an instant connection or find ways to align your interests in the short term, but knowing and supporting good people—decent human beings who are smart, honest, and ambitious—inevitably leads to good things. Nurture those connections and give them time to grow.
For example, years ago I was approached by an entrepreneur seeking investment in his venture. The project wasn’t a fit for me then, but he struck me as uniquely capable and very driven, so we stayed in touch. When colleagues of mine were looking recently for a rockstar COO for their dental startup, I knew he was perfect for the role. Patience pays off.
It might sound obvious, but being real and genuine and treating the people you want to connect with like human beings, not bank accounts, is often all it takes to make a connection that stands a test of time. This isn’t sexy and it doesn’t make for a must-click headline. But the payoff will be worth a lot more than any stack of business cards could ever be.