Last night I slept in a Church.
I’ve joined a new network, one of the other members is a priest on Norrebro so the annual all-night meeting took place in an unusual setting, in the rooms adjoining the church. We were shadowed by a 3-meter tall figure of Jesus. It’s the first time I’ve had a sleepover with Jesus but he behaved well.
The network is a “VL gruppe” the traditional Danish powerhouse of connections, which I always imagined consisted only of greying old men. So it felt very “grown up” to join. But I needed a change of network.
Six years ago my job was MD of the startup network organization Venture Cup, so not surprisingly I was at all the startup events. It was my job, and I was having a blast. While having the time of my life I built up a kickass network within people who start, and fund, crazy new ventures. Some of the people became friends and trusted advisors (most did not).
Then my circumstances changed. In the last three years I hardly attended any startup events. My company Everplaces builds technology for the travel industry, so if I’ve been at conferences at all it has been travel conferences where my clients are. After all, my job is to find out what they want and ship products across the counter.
In these six years i’ve gotten to know a million interesting and inspiring people. But now I needed a change again. Because lately it has been dawning on me that my network had become totally vertical; startup buffs and travel buyers. I was starting to find myself in conversations with people who all thought the same, and knew the same. So how was I going to learn, to become a better business person, a better leader and a bigger person in general?
Here’s why I think you need alternative contacts, to your industry network.
The problem with vertical networking
You’re too close to being competitors to build proper trust
Any business is in a race for investment, customers and best employees, so it’s common sense that trust is only partial among people who need to promote their own success in order to stay alive.
Appearance is the only truth and you’re only worth as much as your reputation. That’s why there is so much bullshit out there. And that it’s always going “brilliantly” when you ask people.
So, when you have a real challenge (which you do all the time) you’re hard pressed to seek advice in an honest talk with anyone in your vertical, because it will have an impact on what they say about your company when someone asks them. Even if they have the best of intentions word always gets out.
You loose insight into what the rest of the world would like to buy
25-year-old geeks tend to build products for 25-year old geeks. That’s why that world is overflowing with wearable gadgets and apps to solve first world problems. But we cant all make the next Pebble.
I want to find the really big problem which company with really big pockets are willing to pay really big amounts to get fixed. For that I need to have a network with people in big companies, and try to listen intently for problems they have.
Too much coffee, too little business.
Honestly, there is too much chatter and too little business in the startup world. Your company isn’t a startup, it’s a business, albeit a small one.
I love hanging out with startup people, and have a lot of friends in this industry. But I’ve also learnt that I need to distinguish between times when I drink a beer with startup people I like, and business networking. That’s because I don’t sell stuff to startups, so they can never be the primary business relations to me. So personally, as I have way too little time so I focus my meetings on people I can sell something to, work with or who can help me improve me company, this means attending limited “startup stuff”.
I think there must be a millions hours being spent on aimless networking within the industry at the moment. But unless your customers are startups, unless your learning rate is sky rocketing at these events then I’d be careful not to confuse it with making-your-business-grow networking.
That’s why I’ve entered into a grown-up network. Not to replace my travel and startup contacts, but to enrich and expand my network, and to make sure I am putting myself in places where I can learn the most, on several levels.
I hope to establish more commercial relations with decision makers from big business, and, most importantly, to learn from people who know more than me, whatever vertical they come from. I hope you find what works for you.