“What the hell am I doing here?” was my immediate thought upon arriving. I am a nobody who does digital marketing for plumbers and air conditioning contractors in Jacksonville, Florida. Impostor syndrome was not only real, it overwhelmed me to the point I wanted to immediately get back on a plane and bail. I didn’t belong here. The event was with a group called Summit Series where a bunch of young kids put on events/conferences for some of the biggest entrepreneurs, creatives, celebrities, and corporate leaders in the world. They eventually bought a mountain in Utah called Power Mountain (yes you read that right, they didn’t just buy a home or venue space to host, they bought a whole damn mountain). And here I was attending if I could get the courage to actually get out of my car that is.
That was over 7 years ago and yes I did finally get the nerve to get out of the car.
Now I smile thinking about my palms being so sweaty that the idea of shaking anyone’s hand had me stuffing them deep in my jeans pocket to dry them before anyone approached. Fast forward to today and not only did I become “involved” in Summit but they became a client of mine, I’ve traveled all over the world for their events, from a conservation trip protecting elephants in Kenya to the white sand beaches of Tulum. Not to mention the friendships and working relationships I’ve developed. I can point to most of my success coming from that one anxiety-ridden day on a beautiful mountain in Utah.
It wasn’t easy building my network and I learned a lot along the way that I want to share as a blueprint for others to do the same. You can replace Summit with other communities or my particular skill with something you’re passionate about but I know the success I’ve had in my life wouldn’t be remotely the same if I didn’t apply what I’m about to share.
1. Develop a Skill
Naval Ravikant talks a lot about this, he calls it specific knowledge.
“So, specific knowledge is found much more by pursuing your innate talents, your genuine curiosity, and your passion. It’s not by going to school for whatever is the hottest job, it’s not for going into whatever field investors say is the hottest.” – Naval Ravikant
I remember the advice my dad gave me when I told him I hated my business classes. “Pick Psychology, no matter your profession you’re more than likely going to have to deal with people.” I loved it. Understanding human behavior and what motivates them captivated me. I found an easy way to pursue that by starting my own digital marketing agency. To be fair, it was mostly me working from my couch at home after reading “SEO for Dummies” (version 2 that is) and selling anyone that would listen to monthly packages for a few hundred bucks a month. This helped check the box of dealing with people and psychology through sales,and my knowledge of human influence to help my clients with persuasive marketing. Felt like a win-win.
As I got to learn more and more about digital it was an easy way to help others where there wasn’t much knowledge available at the time. Equipped with my knowledge when I met new people I would offer to look at their Google Analytics or Facebook accounts for free. I would talk to everyone about things I had learned that they could apply to their business. It was of value to them is the key message.
Too many people think “I need a mentor” and go about cold emailing everyone asking for advice or can you counsel me? Think about it from their point of view, “yes person I’ve never met. I would love to dedicate free time in my already busy schedule to help you and not receive anything in return.” Figure out your unique blend of skills and passions and become so good at it that others look to you for advice. Even though I was helping plumbers sell more services I had developed knowledge that was unique that I could apply to most of those I met.
What is something you’re passionate about and were as a kid? Is there a way to channel that interest into something of value for others?
2. For God’s Sake, listen.
During a few of my first encounters at Summit, I was speaking as fast as humanly possible and trying to inflate my importance within the first 30 seconds of meeting someone. When the individual I was speaking to glazed over and hurriedly made an excuse to leave I realized this might not be the best approach. One of my dad’s pieces of advice (thanks again pops) is that people love to talk about themselves and so I course-corrected and got really good at asking questions. I love this quote that was recently shared with me by the poet David Whyte.
“The ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very un-beautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it, as it does by having it answered. You just have to keep asking it. And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.” – David Whyte
There would be many 20-30 minute conversations where the person I just met might have gotten my name and that was about it. Otherwise, I would learn as much as I could about them, which with a group like Summit I learned a ton. I still remember they would leave and be like you seem like a great guy, I have no idea who you are or what you do but if you’re ever in “insert city” I’d love to continue the conversation. It’s a really easy way to start out to differentiate yourself when you have that impostor syndrome of what can you even talk about. And frankly, most people are shitty at listening or even knowing good questions to ask.
Get good at listening and get great at asking the right questions.
3. Take Action
When I told most people I was from Jacksonville a lot of people misheard and said “Jackson Hole, I love skiing there”. Needless to say, most people didn’t stop through Jacksonville on any of their travels. So when people I met at the events would say if you’re ever in let me know it would be great to meet up for lunch or a drink. I would immediately respond “that’s great I’m going to be there for work in 2-3 weeks. I’ll send some open days I have and it would be great to connect when I’m there.” The funny thing was I didn’t have a trip booked/planned. All my clients were local service providers so I definitely didn’t have business there. But building these connections/relationships felt so important to me that I wanted to make it happen regardless. They were achieving what I wanted to and I knew I could learn so much for developing a friendship with these people I looked up to.
One of my first trips was to NYC, visiting for the first time at 27. I had recently met someone who was running a large creative agency and I told him I’d be in town and we should grab lunch. Lunch was scheduled and off I went to the big city. Unfortunately, he had to move our lunch which resulted in me staying in the city with little to no money hoping lunch would still happen for an extra few days. Well it did happen and he ended becoming a really close friend, we co-pitched a client together years later that resulted in a multi-million contract for us both.
The action can be traveling or can be putting yourself out there with a phone call or taking a chance on a conference. I think too many of us are in our heads about why it’s not a good idea as opposed to prioritizing the action/fail feedback loop that can help shape our future in a more impactful way.
4. Community is a Shortcut
You’ve now heard me talk enough about Summit and its impact but I’ve replicated a similar process with other communities. Identifying where the people you want to meet spend their time can help accelerate this in meaningful ways. I loved Summit for the diversity of people but the same thing can apply to industry-specific communities as well. I’ve done this in digital marketing with HubSpot and their partner agencies which led to me speaking at their annual conference. Or even booking a creative writing course in Paris because I heard Rolf Potts speak about the course on Tim Ferriss’ podcast because I wanted to meet other writers and hope the osmosis would rub off on me (unfortunately it didn’t). This has been such an easy way for me to build great relationships.
Make yourself invaluable. Volunteer. Reach out to the organizers of the communities or events and figure out where you can help. The time invested pays off 100 fold. That’s how Summit became a client of mine. I reached out and offered to look at their digital marketing and figure out ways to help. I offered free advice for a few years and then eventually we began a formal engagement. This allowed me to go to their events as a guest and know the events to attend and get introduced to other members through the Summit team. It was a great way to establish credibility in a community I wanted to be a part of.
Now a lot of these communities live online through private Slack communities or Facebook groups. Saving the expense of travel, the same advice and model applies. Figure out where your interests lie, identify the people you’d like to connect and where they spend their time and add a shit ton of value.
5. Broad vs. Narrow
I think too many people hang out with the same group of friends all doing something similar because it can feel somewhat safe and easy. The thing that fills me with the most joy is learning and specifically learning about others. I have friends in music, food, science, and marketing that are from all over the world and it’s always so fascinating when we get together because I am always learning something new about their culture, industry, or hobbies/interest. I really enjoyed Judy Robbinet’s book on this topic “How to be a Power Connector”. She talks a lot about how we really can only maintain 150 relationships in our life (7 years ago I had more like 5 so that was easy lol) and how important it was to actually look at those relationships and see where everyone was from and where they worked. The common adage is most of the introductions or connections come from our secondary connections not our core group of friends. The more diverse your network the more I believe you grow and also get to experience cool things.
Go through your own list, I keep my 5-50-100 list in a google sheet that I reference every week. It helped at first to see if I had a lot of friendships concentrated in one area and now allows me to stay in touch much easier with friends/connections. Being able to learn about different aspects of my friend’s job and what they are working on, what interest or hobby they’ve been pursuing or what’s happening in their city/state/country makes every conversation so much more exciting.
6. Connect with the Connectors
After reading all this you might think I’m the guy at the party talking to everyone and telling funny stories or jokes but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Don’t get me wrong I love a good party and I love connecting with friends but the reason for my anxiety in the car at Powder Mountain is I have a huge fear of rejection and I want everyone to like me. That tends to lead to not striking up very many conversations and pretending to go to the bathroom every 5-10 minutes so I wasn’t caught alone staring at my phone at the party or event. One thing I started to do is find those “life of the party” people and become best friends with them. This was something really easy to do because they were incredibly fun to be around and would then introduce me as their friend and build my credibility from the get-go without having to prove myself.
I remember going on Yacht Week in Croatia and there was this one boat that everyone wanted to be on and was having the most fun by far. I worked up the courage to walk over and introduce myself, being more nervous than I care to admit. One guy on the boat ended up becoming one of my closest friends. He happened to be one of the head fundraisers for the DNC and a few months later called me and asked if I wanted to attend the White House Christmas party. My response was “Does anyone say no to that?” Seeing the lights lit up and hearing Obama speak is definitely an experience I will never forget. Take a chance. What’s the worst that can happen? They say no. I’m working on the whole fear of rejection thing in therapy but until that happens this makes it much easier for me to meet new people.
7. Following up is Paramount
This is one of those pieces of advice that shouldn’t need to be said but I’ll state it anyway because a majority of people are bad at basic follow-up. I took this pretty far where I would meet so many different people that at the end of the night I would log my notes in an excel spreadsheet while the conversations were still fresh in my mind. It helped me with the follow-up to add anecdotes around the conversation. I would always follow up within 24 hours of meeting the person. Otherwise, they might not recall if you wait a few days or a few weeks.
My method of connecting with them would vary based on the conversation, if it was really casual and light-hearted then we would exchange numbers, and sometimes I’d follow on Instagram. If it was more business-related then I’d follow up with email and connect with them on LinkedIn. There is a blend of passive follow-up (following on social media) that I find useful and intentional follow-up (email, text, phone call) to schedule a meeting. As I mentioned before, depending on the strength of the connection I would schedule a call or even fly to their city to meet up to help further deepen the relationship. I would usually ping them a few times more if there wasn’t a response but not chase the relationship if there isn’t mutual interest. If you are going to spend the time, energy, and money to go to these events or be connected and not have basic follow up it all seems for naught.
There you have it, I can attest that a lot of these tips/tactics have enormously helped me build my network and something I still practice to this day. It can be really daunting and overwhelming thinking of putting yourself out there but what this opens up in the form of new friendships, experiences, and job opportunities makes it infinitely worth it.
My network has opened up more doors to clients, trips, friendships, and experiences than I wouldn’t have believed possible 7 years ago. When I think back to the experiences I’ve had whether it be partying on July 4th at Leonardo DiCaprio’s house, watching the McGregor fight at Laurence Fishbourne’s (swear to god he was wearing a black kimono when I showed up and I almost called him Morpheus, or Ashley Tisdale coming to my house to talk about her beauty brand and my little brother completely losing his shit to meet his childhood idol). I went from working with plumbers to helping the Chargers launch in Los Angeles, working with Dr. Joe Dispenza on his digital strategy, to Lyft and their fight against the immigration policy enacted by Trump. I hadn’t been out of the country until I was 25 and now have traveled all over the world due to connections or friendships I’ve made. I don’t say all this to brag but to help guide those who are looking to expand their network and find success. It’s also fun to have friends that know me whose jaws drop when I tell them about what I was doing less than a decade ago…