daily articles for founders

Jacques Mattheij on: Networking without going places

Jacques Mattheij, who blogs regularly on http://jacquesmattheij.com/, is a long-time entrepreneur who's been through hell and back, and his most recent project is ww.com, a real-time web broadcasting platform. He is well-know to the Hacker News community, although he recently quit it, having achieved a staggering 50'000 karma points within a couple of years.

In this article, Jacques shares a technique for making the most from networking, without turning up.

The Problem

The problem with getting 'gigs', when you're a consultant, is that you are more or less expected to go out and 'network'. Typically, this means that you get to hang out with a bunch of people in the field of your choice and rub elbows being social every once in a while, typically while standing up in a large room full of people that are telling each other how fabulous they themselves are, while consuming small bits of food and drinks.

I've been to a few networking events and, honestly, I feel like a fish on dry land when I'm there. I don't know who to talk to, I don't like the atmosphere, and I don't do alcohol, so typically I'm bored out of my skull and somewhat annoyed - not the best first impression to make on the others.

It's possible that I've been going to the 'wrong' events, and that there are better places to go to. Those events that make me feel from the announcements as though I should probably be there are either too far away from here to be practical, or would take me away from what I really should be doing for too long. Since this is the scene here, I don't have much choice in the matter... or so I thought.

Networking through other people

A few years ago, after yet another wasted afternoon and evening, I figured I had to change tactics or I'd continue to waste my time in a way that was both counterproductive and downright frustrating.

The decision to do something about it was easy enough, but finding a good solution didn't exactly come to me overnight. It took a while to talk it over with other people and finally, after a few trial balloons, I hit on this trick:

Instead of going to 'networking events' I found out who was going there too, and tried to find a few people who were going to the places that I used to go to, and a couple that I had never heard of as well. This then gave me grounds to approach them with the story of my frustration with the networking events in general, but at the same time my occasional success at scoring a job through a contact made there.

The structural solution to the problem was very simple: those that do go to these events obviously like it, so why not make it worth their while? For every customer that you find me through whatever means (networking events or simple referrals) I pay a percentage of my gross income on that customer in the first year, typically 10%.

For a big job, that can add up to a nice sum for the person that brought me the contact, and it incentivises them to keep doing it. I'm absolutely religious about making sure this money is paid out and accounted for, to the point that I'll remind them to send me an invoice for a job that was referred, and I'll keep them informed if the same customer later wants me to do a repeat job.

Who would you do this with?

As a rule, the people that I have this arrangement with are not looking at my referral fee as their means to go shopping on Saturday morning, but as a token of appreciation for spending the time and effort to be on the lookout, and occasionally handing out my card. This gives them a lot of reasons not to hand out my card unless they feel the match is an excellent one. I much prefer that over having a lesser experienced person approach a crowd of people with, as their main goal, to carpet bomb (AOL style) the attendees with my card. That would very much work against me.

It Works!

Nowadays, almost all of my contract jobs (and there are not that many of them anyway, but they do still flow my way) are coming in through this referral mechanism, and I haven't been to a 'networking event' in 4 years.

Of course, the 'be seen' and 'keeping your name in play' aspects of the networking events disappears, but I never cared much for it anyway. I'd rather talk nuts and bolts in a quiet room or get some work done for a paying customer.

If everybody adapted this scheme, it would stop working. So, here's to hoping that lots of people continue to go to networking events where they'll run in to one of my 'representatives'! The people that do this for me are people that I've known for a long time, that know my strong (and weak!) points and that have no problem attaching their reputation to mine.

The best part of it is that those that help me in this way probably do a much better job of presenting me to a prospect than I ever would do myself!

It's not commission sales

It would be fairly easy to interpret this as a commission sales model, but while the ingredients are there that's not really the case. For starters there is no sale or anything like that being done by the person that represents me. It is probably closer to having a few people, knowledgeable in the field, that keep their ear to the ground for the specific conditions that match my talents and personality. If the job is a bad match, they stand as much to lose as I do, if they refer me. So far the 'score' rate has been 100%. In other words, every time someone referred me, it led to a job, sometimes as fast as the next day in some foreign country. The second difference is that they are not at all involved in negotations, can't make any binding offers and don't have a say in the 'product'. It's strictly a stack of business cards in the pocket of a third party.

This model might be adaptable to product sales, but I have not tried that, and I can see some reasons why it might not work well. For instance, you'd have to have a larger number of people doing this, which would lead to territory conflicts, and there would have to be all kinds of formal agreements in terms of volume discounts and so on. Since the agreements I have are completely informal, no contracts, entirely based on trust of all parties involved, a person that depends on their 'sales' for a living would not be able to function well in this environment. That's precisely why I kept the number of 'representatives' very low and the quality really high.

If you want to adapt this model to start-ups, and you make a go of it, then I would very much like to hear how you did it and what the effect was. As presented here, it works best for consultancy in very narrow niches.

Step by step

  1. Decide, for yourself, if you would rather go to networking events, or spend the time doing what you're good at
  2. Make a profile of the kind of person that would be able to represent you best
  3. Identify one or a few people like that, and approach them with the proposition
  4. Make sure they know your reputation, your strengths, and your weaknesses inside out
  5. Wait for the first job to be handed to you and do your absolute best to make the person that referred you look good, even if the match is a poor one; in that case, talk things over afterwards and correct course if required
  6. if you have multiple people doing this for you, try to make sure they're from sufficiently different circles that they won't be attending the same events

This article is part of a series.

More from the library:
Getting users for your new startup
Behavioural change
Basics of selling your company