The Red or Blue Pill
Networking is one of those skills it takes time to master, and it can be a tough journey. Being able to put yourself out there and connect with other people you don’t know is intimidating but necessary.
It's critical for designers and all creative types to know that your soft skills are more important than your hard skills. Being creative isn’t enough. And while this comes from my background as a graphic designer, networking is relevant to everyone.
Before we dive in, let’s define networking. It’s not about selling you or your services.
It is about creating genuine relationships and grow them over time. If you want to know how deep the rabbit hole goes, keep reading. I can only show you the truth.
How Networking Changed my Career
The unintentional Tweet
I’ve only held one full-time job in my field of study after graduating in 2014, while occasionally picking up freelance work on the weekends. Before that, my first paid gig after finishing school at The Illinois Institute of Art was a freelance web project for a company called Eight Bit Studios.
It started with this tweet.
I vividly remember looking at Eight Bit Studio’s website and being excited by their work. They looked like a great group of smart and talented people (which they are) and had some awesome work (which they did).
I was in the process of emailing Steve Polacek, co-founder and Principal of Design, when my inbox “dinged.” Steve beat me to the send button by 15 minutes to schedule a time to connect and, to my surprise, discuss a potential freelance project. I ended up working on a few digital projects with him and the team at Eight Bit and we are still in touch to this day.
Tweet → Introduction → First Paid Freelance Gig → Mentor → Referrals → Continued Friendship
Over the years, I have received numerous work referrals from Steve and consider him a mentor. Whenever I need advice or am struggling with something, I know always reach out to him.
How Networking Creates Opportunity
While working freelance for Eight Bit Studios, I went through rounds of interviews for several other companies. I ultimately received three offers and decided to go with Futureman. It turned out to be one of the most fulfilling roles I could have asked for as a design graduate. I learned quickly, wore many hats, worked with some amazing people, and my skills in both design and business grew tremendously.
However, all good things come to an end, and after 6.5 years, it was time to move on and try something new. I decided in the wake of a pandemic and uncertainty to accept a new position as Creative Lead for a startup called Radius Agent.
As I reflect on my career change, I realize that continuously networking with people and growing relationships led to this opportunity. Here’s out it played out over the years.
I worked with Sam in college. He created a short film and I worked as a photographer on set to capture the process. This is where I met Ryan.
While on break for the set I was photography I started chatting with Ryan during a break. We ultimately collaborated on a variety of projects together, from designing a logo for his comic book series and helping build out his personal website.
I was introduced to Kristina through Ryan, where I worked with both of them on creative work. A couple of years later, I helped Kristina launch her website for her eco-focused hair/health studio Wabi Sabi Beauty based out of San Francisco. I’m currently working with her to launch her personal branding website.
Kelly / Amber
Kelly was a client at Kristina's hair studio. She recommended me to Kelly, who reached out to me about a branding project and introduced me to Radius. Their company had just renamed and needed a branding expert to come in and help design a new logo. I worked closely with Kelly and Amber and designed the logo for Radius Agent.
The CEO and co-founder of Radius, who I had initially had conversations with before the re-branding project started. I didn’t work directly with him, but two years later, he reached out to see how things were going. This is what ultimately turned into my now, full-time position.
Networking Isn’t About Instant Gratification
This didn’t happen instantly. It took over 6 years to develop these relationships. And while it was never the intended goal, it shows how powerful networking can be and how it can help grow and change your career unexpectedly. I knew my career would shift at some point, and I would have the itch to try something new, but I never knew when it would come, and I certainly didn’t know where that next opportunity would come from.
As a result, I’ve made it an even higher priority to consistently meet new designers, entrepreneurs, design studios, and whoever may be interested in connecting in 2021.
But getting started can be frightening and uncomfortable.
Overcoming the Networking Fear
Almost everyone experiences fear at some point in their life when it comes to networking. I personally still struggle to this day. It’s important to recognize your fears so you can control them rather than them controlling you. Here are some common fears that might stop you from wanting to network.
Fear One: Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is real. It’s that deep feeling that you’re a fraud and you’re not good enough. You might doubt your skills or expertise, but on the upside, it’s not just you. Imposter Syndrome affects people at all stages of their career. If your career is getting started, you might be in a learning mindset. If you’re further along and have expertise in a particular area, you might feel as if you’re not truly an expert.
Networking is not about you. You’re meeting a stranger. That stranger you’re meeting, well, they are also meeting a stranger. The feeling is mutual. Go in with as much confidence as you can muster and an open mind. Write down a few things you are very passionate about for talking points. Turn them into tactical questions to create conversation. You’ll find that people won’t doubt you if you speak passionately about a particular subject and they are often intrigued.
Fear Two: Rejection
This one haunted me for a while. The idea of rejection is tough, and it can get into the back of your head. Ask yourself, what is the worst-case scenario?
At Events/In Person
- They might not be interested in you or what you have to say
- They don’t want to talk/zoom with you
- They won’t respond at all
Those aren’t so bad. Your reputation isn’t going to be damaged. You didn’t lose anything out of it, because as Chris Do would say, “you can’t lose something you never had.”
At an event, it’s easy to walk away. Nobody will think much of it, and the reality is they are too distracted with other things on their mind to care.
When it comes to digital networking, you will reach out to many people, and plenty of them won’t respond. They might just be extremely busy, and you’re catching them at a bad time. They also might have no interest. Either way, those worst-case scenarios aren’t really that bad in retrospect.
Fear Three: Nothing To Say / Valuable to Say
Not sure what to say? That’s okay. A great way to start any conversation is to listen. Sometimes we say the most by not saying much if anything at all. Most of the time, people love to talk. The key is to start with simply making it about them. Who are they? What do they do, what’s their story?
A simple yet effective technique is Mirroring. Mirroring is where you repeat, typically, the last few words someone said. This does two things.
- It shows that you’re listening.
- Signify to them that you heard them and that you want more information.
Here’s an example
Them → “I’ve been working in Marketing for 4 years”
You → “For 4 years?” Then don’t say anything else.
What this will do is invite them to elaborate more about what they’ve been doing for 4 years. It’s that simple, and you’d be surprised just how well it works. As a bonus, you can use this in all of your daily conversations. If you want more info from someone or want them to elaborate, mirror them. If you want to learn more about this and other useful techniques, check out the book Never Split the Difference.
Stop and Reflect
We are all different. Maybe these don’t apply to you, or maybe different fears are holding you back. Stop and think about what your fear that holds you back from reaching out to anyone. Write it down and ask yourself how you can overcome that fear. As a first step, pick one person you would be interested in chatting with and reach out to them now. No intentions. No motives. Just progress.
Networking Has Many Benefits
View each connection you make not as a connection but as ways to add value to your professional and personal life. My story was one example of a benefit. The truth is there are many benefits of networking. Learning something new is a benefit. Gaining advice is also useful. So what are some more?
Putting yourself out there will ask a lot from you. Your confidence will grow from each conversation you have. You will start to feel more empowered in your speaking, conversational skills, and expertise.
You should go in with a mindset to learn something in every first meeting. Don’t try to be specific. It can be anything from a new recommended book to read, another way of thinking about a particular subject, or general business knowledge. If you want to know something that you feel the other person has experience in, ask. People love to give their knowledge away. And it’s free.
Support and Advice
People who feel you are interested in them will more likely be interested in you. They will be happy to give you advice and support you in any way they can. While this may not transpire from the first meeting, it can certainly come from the second or third meeting. Looking for help? Ask if they will mentor you. Struggling with something? Shoot over a question a few days later via email. There will always be someone willing to support you and provide advice from their perspective.
The bigger your network grows, the bigger the opportunity pool grows. Whenever you feel it’s time to look for new opportunities, put your resume to the side, and start having conversations with people, you’ve kept in touch with. It’s the professional “pass go” card. You can skip ahead of the resume line with a personal introduction from someone in your network.
Disclaimer: You still should apply to places with a resume at the same time.
Yes. Friendships. Having good people to talk to over drinks both in person or digitally is a great way to relax and put business aside.
Simple Starting Tips to Digital Networking
Remember that your goal is not to sell or get anything out of the person you want to talk to. Each first meeting is a small investment that you compound over time. Someone might reach out with some potential work for you in the future. You might open up job opportunities. You might learn something valuable that will aid your career. Keep an open mind because you never know what might come your way.
So where do you get started? It’s simple ーengage, organize, and get personal.
- Follow and converse with people you admire on Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, etc.
- Join Facebook, Slack, LinkedIn, and Discord groups
- Follow topics on Reddit, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.
- Stay active. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
- Create a personal CRM using a tool like Coda. You can use this doc as a great boilerplate. I’ve added and customized this doc to my own personal preferences but this is a great starting point and you can customize it to your own personal liking.
- Keep notes of all your interactions and follow up in the future to keep conversations going. You’re not being rude by typing notes. You’re actively listening and engaging.
It’s important to start that first interaction on a good note. If anyone senses you are trying to sell anything or want something out of them, you will have inbox zero. Start the conversation with a more personal touch with something that you find interesting about them such as:
- An article or post they shared that you enjoyed reading
- A tweet that they shared that you liked
- A tweet of yours that they liked/shared/quoted
- Their advice/professional opinion
- Their story
You don’t need a key to open the door; you need to knock on the door without an ulterior motive.
I’m currently putting together a Network Roadmap Guide. This guide will outline how to get started, sample messages, and more tips for networking in detailed ways. If you’re interested in this guide, sign up here.
Keep the conversation going!
I’d love to hear about what fears you have of networking or how it’s benefited you. Share your story, thoughts and opinions with me on Twitter @nmarketti