How To Do Networking When You Are a Nobody

Tips on how to approach online and face-to-face networking
How To Do Networking When You Are a Nobody
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In: Career

I can still vividly remember the feeling.

My hands were shaking, getting as wet as an oyster freshly plucked from the ocean.

I was panting like a marathon runner, despite having been stationary for the past ten minutes, strategizing on how to join a conversation on the networking floor.

Eventually, I worked up the courage to make the first move, approaching a guy casually snacking at the buffet. Despite my throat feeling tighter than a knot, I managed to swallow a petit four to seem somewhat interested in the food.

I simply said “Hi!” and he responded, asking what I was doing. I froze, a long "uhhh" escaping my lips.

Just kidding—I actually explained that I was a student working on a biotech blog, and the conversation flowed wonderfully from there.

That’s often how it goes. Networking is a subtle art where the first step can feel like climbing a mountain, but once you open the discussion and act like any other human being, the conversation just goes on.

I have to say, I started networking quite early compared to most people I know, despite finding it challenging as a somewhat introverted person. But I’ve learned to deal with it, not by forcing myself to be extroverted (trust me, that doesn’t work), but by networking more strategically.

Starting from knowing absolutely no one, I quickly learned how to build a network in any industry and on any topic with relative ease.

Today, I’ll share some tips I've picked up along the way, which I’ll divide into online and event networking. But first, let's discuss why networking is so important.

Why should you do networking anyway?

For once, I won't delve into studies to prove my point. I think it’s just obvious that having a professional network will help you in your career.

What many beginners may not realize is that the benefits of networking often don't materialize immediately. A contact made today may not be useful until much later.

And that’s hard to swallow, because the effort you put into connecting might not yield immediate results. But trust me, it’s worth it.

Here are two examples from my own experience:

  • I got my first internship abroad thanks to a networking event I organized.
  • Half of the investors in my first startup were referred by people I'd met in previous years. Some had no direct connection to my company's field but knew the right people. The other half came from recent networking.
  • The clients I currently work with were introduced or influenced by contacts from my past networking efforts. Some of these relationships go back nearly a decade but remain valuable.

Networking impacts everything you do in your career. It can assist you in everything from landing your first job to securing a new client. It’s also an excellent way to learn, as engaging with others can be incredibly enlightening. So in order to get started, let’s take a look at how to network online.

How to easily approach online networking

Online networking can mean anything from using emails for cold outreach to connecting with individuals on social media. These days, you can figure out a way to contact almost anyone online. That doesn't mean you'll be successful, but you can at least try.

Here are some strategies to keep in mind when reaching out online:

1. Don’t apologize

When you’re just starting out in your career and don’t have much experience, it’s easy to feel like you’re asking for a favor every time you reach out to someone. Don’t! You have value in your own right, and if you make that clear to others, anyone might be interested in talking to you.

An easy way to quickly expand your network is to start a project, such as a blog, podcast, or research paper. This not only gives you a reason to network, but also provides value to those you reach out to.

It's the technique I used to get started myself.

In 2012, my co-founder and I went on a mission to interview 26 biotech companies in France for a documentary about the industry. At the time, we were still students, with barely any connections in the industry, but having this project was a great reason to reach out to over 200 companies and try to convince them to let two random guys in shorts (we were cycling around France) come and interview their CEO.

Well, it worked more than 10% of the time, not so bad, right?

I’m not saying that you should do the same, but this is just to show how having your own project can create a valuable asset in your networking journey.

2. Target your peers first

People often prefer to connect with those they can relate to. A CEO wants to talk to other CEOs because they share similar challenges. So, start by reaching out to your peers, ideally those slightly more experienced, who can potentially become mentors.

This is how I quickly learned in the early years of my first startup. I was regularly talking to people with similar businesses who were one or two years ahead of me. And guess what? Each discussion saved me months of lonely struggle. These people had already overcome the challenges I was facing and had the insights I desperately needed.

It's also easy to reach out to your peers because it's not surprising to be contacted by someone in a similar position. Don’t worry about the competitive nature of the job market. If someone refuses to speak with you fearing you might someday take their job, they're probably not someone you'd want in your network anyway.

3. Give more than you take

As your network grows, take the initiative to make introductions yourself. Don’t keep your network to yourself like Gollum with his precious ring. People remember a good introduction and will feel like they owe you one. Plus, you will come across as a wise person if you are able to connect the dots in the network.

Giving as much as you can enhances your reputation and strengthens your connections. Remember, the people you know have their networks too, and using strategic introductions to expand your circle is far more effective than aimless networking.

A good practice is to always ask the people you engage with if they can recommend someone else you should meet. In return, offer to open up your own network to them. This reciprocal approach is the essence of good networking.

4. Join the conversation

The internet is vast, and there are many places where you can meet people online. Of course, LinkedIn is the go-to network for business interactions these days. But other platforms like Reddit also provide valuable networking opportunities, with its own unique community and discussion style.

What's important is that no matter which platform you choose to hang out on, you should try to participate in the discussion if you want to build your network. Commenting on LinkedIn, for instance, is an excellent way to connect with others and help warm up potential connections before sending an inquiry or direct message.

If you don’t want to post publicly, look into private LinkedIn groups. These can be a less intimidating way to start conversations and build relationships within specific interest areas or industries.

5. Follow up, a lot

Your first messages will most likely end up without any reply, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people don’t want to talk to you. People are busy, they get a ton of emails, and very often they just forget about them as they get buried in their inbox. If you want to build a network, you need to learn how to follow up.

For example, if you're reaching out via email, it's perfectly acceptable to send two to three follow-ups, spacing them about a week apart (more than that and you’re entering spam territory, so please don’t).

Most of the successful networking connections I make, especially cold ones, come after several emails. If you keep pushing a few times, people will start to take your message more seriously, and in the worst case, they will just reply with a rejection, but you have to get used to that too.

Rejection is a natural part of networking, especially in face-to-face scenarios, which require a different approach and a thicker skin, so let’s explore this now.

How to do event networking like a pro

Attending events to network is a fantastic strategy when you're kickstarting your career. It’s great to meet fellow job seekers, learn from seasoned professionals, or just hang out with like-minded folks.

But networking at events can be nerve-wracking, and sometimes, totally awkward. So let's explore some tips that can help you navigate these situations more effectively:

1. Don’t force it

When it comes to face-to-face networking, extroverts have a natural advantage. If talking to complete strangers doesn't make you break a sweat, then please move on, you don't need my advice.

But if you’re like me and sit in the introvert corner, pushing your way into a group that’s already engaged in a conversation will just feel like someone’s pulling your guts out of your body for everyone to see.

Don’t force it, you’re just not built for it. And anyway, forcing your way in might feel awkward or even annoying to some people. You don’t know what the conversation is about and it might be that the group wants to keep some privacy.

Instead, play to your strengths and seek out areas where making connections might feel more comfortable. There is always an “introvert corner,” you know, this place where people are “working” on their laptops or sitting on the comfy sofa away from the main hustle. This could be your ideal spot, as the people you find here are likely to be introverts themselves.

When you spot someone taking a break from the crowd, simply invite them to sit with you and initiate some light conversation. You'll find that this can quickly lead to a series of relaxed and meaningful exchanges.

2. Ready your business card

This might sound old-fashioned, but business cards work. Handing out a piece of paper with your name on it ensures that the person has a physical reminder that you exist.

Here's a tip to take your business card game to the next level: include your headshot on the card. People may not always remember names, but they're more likely to recall faces. Another trick is to add a QR code that links directly to your LinkedIn profile. It’s an easy way to invite them to connect with you after the event without having to write any email.

3. Use a partnering platform

If you've ever been to a biotech conference, you've probably come across something called a partnering platform. These platforms are a way to reach out to other attendees to pre-schedule a meeting at the event, usually at randomly assigned times and locations.

Personally, I only swear by these platforms nowadays. It’s so much more convenient to check the attendee list, send them a message, and let the platform find a time that works for both parties. It’s also a reason to prioritize events that offer such tools if networking is your priority.

4. Check the speaker list

Another trick you can use at events is to talk to the speakers at the end of their session. This is an ideal time to engage them because they're already in the mindset of answering questions.

Speakers are often people who would otherwise be hard to reach, so this can be a great opportunity to meet with them. But make sure you come prepared with specific questions to make a meaningful impression; otherwise, you'll just come across as annoying.

Some sessions, like the keynotes, may be packed with attendees lining up to talk to the speakers. If that's the case, unless everyone is well-behaved and waiting for their turn to speak, I usually prefer to wait for another chance. However, at most large conferences, the rooms aren't even half full, so it's usually easy to be the only one talking to the speakers.

What not to do in networking

The essence of networking isn't just to accumulate contacts or meet quotas because some guru told you to. Networking to hit personal metrics is bullshit and can only lead to shallow relationships.

If I take the time to talk to someone for 30 minutes, it's because I really want to get to know them and find a way to work together. I don't have to meet a certain number of new people a week.

Anyway, there's only so many stable relationships you can maintain before your network starts to degrade (according to Dunbar's number, it's 150 people).

So my final piece of advice is this: take your time and build a smart network instead of shooting at everyone who happens to cross your path. Focus on building a quality network, by providing value and creating deep connections with people. Quality over quantity.

And don't confuse your LinkedIn connections with your real network. You may have thousands of connections on LinkedIn, but how many of those people do you actually know?

Your network is an invaluable asset in your career development, and it takes a lifetime to build. Start small and weave your connections like a spider web, gradually expanding and strengthening it over time. No rush.

Written by
Joachim Eeckhout
Over the past decade, I have specialized in science communication and marketing while building a successful biotech media company. Now, I'm sharing what I've learned with you on The Science Marketer.
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