How to Make Contacts—The Right Way

It's not always about you. To find your place in the local startup community, you need to give, not take.
Director, Columbia University Entrepreneurship
June 20, 2013

I get emails from entrepreneurs all the time, asking me, “How do I access the New York City tech scene so I can do x, y, or z?" (Usually x, y or z is a specific need like “find tech talent” or “network successfully.”)

Notice the transactional nature of the language. What they're essentially saying is, “How can you get me quick access there so I can get what I need?”

This kind of request is almost as clichéd as “Can you help me find a technical co-founder?” which I wrote about recently. This is probably more annoying, though, because the person asking doesn’t have a clue about “giving” and “sharing”—it’s all about their own needs.

Recently, a guy who works as a consultant with a very prominent firm wanted me to strategize with him on how he could “access the community” so he could get a job at a startup. He was already trying to line up some paid consulting gigs at startups, I assume so he could impress them with his “big brain.” I asked him, “Why don’t you help some startups, but do it for free?” He looked at me like I had three heads and I resisted the urge to physically throw him out of my office. Instead, I spent about 20 tedious minutes explaining the importance of giving to the community without the expectation of reward, and not approaching the community in such a transactional way. The result? He was tripping over himself to thank me for my “tremendous advice.” He acknowledged that he’d been operating under a “transactional paradigm” for all his adult life and that my initial suggestion just went right over his head. Sigh…

This is a real problem. So many of us in business are in it for the short term, thinking “What are next steps?” and working in cultures where “the transaction” is everything. In my view, successful folks in business are all about the long term, all about building meaningful relationships and helping each other out.

Consider another example, with a different approach. I have a friend who loves the technology community and is always helping people out. She’s a local chapter leader of a prominent international tech group for entrepreneurs under 30, she hosts monthly dinners for women who are part of or just getting into the technology world, and is well known as a go-to person who is all about helping others. Last year, the startup she was working for started to run out of money and ultimately was unable to raise its next round. At that point, she realized that she was out of a job. In her case, the issue was even more serious because, for visa reasons, she actually needed to find a job or she would have to leave the country. She sent a now-legendary email, bcc-ing  her hundreds of friends and acquaintances in the startup community, describing her predicament. Given all that she had done for them in the past, what do you think happened?

She found an incredible job at one of the most prominent startups in New York—two hours later.

At the core of any entrepreneurial community is the entrepreneur layer. It is populated by a lot of hard-working people who have avoided the primrose path of corporate America and have made a lot of sacrifices to pursue their alternate route. As a consequence, they are part of tight-knit local startup communities in cities in which they live and work. They’re always getting together, socializing, comparing notes about strategy, tactics, angels, VCs, and lawyers, and generally have each others’ backs.

If you want to really be a part of your local startup ecosystem, here are some quick rules of thumb: 

  • Have something to offer, whether it’s specific knowledge, insight, or expertise—and share it freely
  • Always, always, give more than you get and have the long-haul in mind. Build real relationships and friendships.
  • Go in looking to help as a true member and participant, not as an interloper just looking to get something out of it.

When I look back on anything good that’s happened in my professional life, I can trace it back in every instance to the relationships I’ve cultivated in the startup community. When I first got invited to Columbia University almost a decade ago, I became a mentor to the entrepreneurship program at the business school and started helping students. I care deeply about student entrepreneurship because I had no mentor or guidance when I was a student myself and haven’t forgotten it. Two years later, Columbia asked me to run the Venture Lab and I’ve since spun-out more than 70 technology companies and have been able to help hundreds of fledgling entrepreneurs. Eventually I was asked to teach entrepreneurship as a professor at the business school and have found it to be as rewarding an activity as I could ever imagine.

I launched the Startup Genome a few years ago exactly for this reason. I wanted people in any entrepreneurial ecosystem to be able to quickly learn everything they needed to learn about any entrepreneurial ecosystem in the world. We started mapping ecosystems in New York, then Boston, then Silicon Valley—then the rest of the world. We didn’t ask for anything, we just offered value and help. Since then we’ve been honored by partnerships with Endeavor and the Kauffman Foundation to deepen these networks globally and have been joined by nearly 300 curators in almost every city in the world.

But remember, build real relationships, keep showing up, and share what you know. Before you know it you’ll be amazed by the power of these startup communities and you’ll receive more help than you could have dreamed of.

Photos: Thinkstock