Networking Syndrome

Note: This post was originally published on TechCrunch.

This email landed in my inbox today:

Hi Geoff! I’m organizing an exclusive dinner on March 9 or 10 at SXSW for a few close friends. @Garyvee might attend and I’d love for you to join. Please RSVP by March 5.

 “Wow! I’m wanted!” I thought to myself upon receipt. But after basking in narcissistic glory for a few seconds, my pride gave way to bemusement. For one, I’ve never met the sender – we’ve exchanged a couple of LinkedIn messages, but I don’t think that qualifies me as a close friend. And on balance the @Garyvee namedrop as a hook to entice the invitee felt more sad than enticing. But most striking, to me, was that this sender is not a PR person or event planner who trades in building social connections, but rather an entrepreneur whose startup I respect. I won’t be attending the dinner, but I hope it goes great and that @Garyvee shows up (I’ve heard he is a fantastic de facto sommelier). I haven’t lost any respect for the entrepreneur who invited me, but I do have some newfound sympathy for him: He’s caught a prolific bug circulating Silicon Valley this SXSW-esque time of year: Networking Syndrome.

Ever had repeated requests to “grab coffee and catch up” from people you once had a mediocre interaction with at some random event? How about unsolicited email introductions to folks who you’re sure are super but you have no interest in meeting? Much like second hand smoke, Networking Syndrome harms even those who aren’t afflicted. Yet it’s far more harmful for the infected – namely, entrepreneurs and VCs who should spend less time networking, and more time actually, well… working. Whether it’s the entrepreneur who is organizing exclusive dinners that most likely won’t help his company while his team is back at the office, the VC who aimlessly attends confabs and grabs coffees without ever thinking deeply about the world and what types of investments she ought to proactively seek out, or the founder that cares more about dropping the name of his highest profile investor than he does about building something people actually want.

Building connections with other human beings is inherently good. The relationships I’ve built over a number of years with a handful of friends and mentors in technology have been invaluable. But they’re not transactional. Sufferers of Networking Syndrome pursue a short-term, tit-for-tat, borderline manic approach to connecting with others. Instead of building genuine, nurturing, reciprocal bridges with people they care about, networking becomes the the end in and of itself, exemplified by the rabid trading of favors in blind pursuit of more influence, more contacts, more invites, more twitter followers (btw, follow me please).

What airplanes and elementary schools are to flu transmission, events like SXSW are to Networking Syndrome. SXSW is a fantastic thing at its core – An opportunity for talented, dynamic people from all facets of the technology industry to come together in a cool city, learn from one another, listen to great music, meet new people, and have a ton of fun (shameless plug: I’m speaking at it this year – please come!). The problem is the hundreds of explicitly “Networking Event” branded get-togethers on the docket. The smart, interesting people one would actually want to network with abhor “Networking Events” and have learned to never be caught dead at one. At SXSW they’ll be giving talks, checking out Austin nightlife with friends, hosting parties, and yes, indulging in the occasional “exclusive dinner.” But they won’t be wearing smiley face name tags and balancing handshakes with flipcups of Two Buck Chuck in an overly air conditioned Radisson conference room. So the attendance of any given Networking Event is invariably comprised of the organizers, strays or newbies who don’t know any better (yet), and those with Networking Syndrome. If you accidentally stumble into a networking event, prepare yourself for stilted conversation and the self-conscious inauthenticity of lonely people speed dating through a room, desperately in search of some psychic ROI for their attendance. The problem with SXSW is that so many networking events compressed into so few days and a few blocks of downtown Austin act as an insane accelerant for the transmission of Networking Syndrome. When in Rome!

There is only one breed of individual in Silicon Valley who is immune to Networking Syndrome: The Networking Person. “Networking People” is my blanket term to describe anyone who’s primary vocation is building their network, which they either directly or indirectly monetize. There can never be too much networking for these people, because they’ve opted to orient their entire career around it. Personally, I’d rather be forcibly confined to a Teletubbie Fan Meet & Greet Mixer for a month than be a Networking Person, but unlike “Networking Syndrome”, it’s not meant as a derogatory term. As with any vocation, there are great Networking People, bad Networking People, and just plain unhinged Networking People.

Networking People know that being explicitly branded as a “Networking Person” is the kiss of death. So the smart ones ensconce themselves in occupations that allow them to monetize their network in a slightly veiled way – Be it PR, event planning, or the ever-treasured “consulting” and “advising”. And their networks fall into line: VC firms don’t talk about the fact they pay so-and-so quite a bit of money to introduce them to interesting people, and entrepreneurs don’t talk about the fact that their company was acquired by Tech Giant X in large part because that company’s CEO owed a favor to their PR person (whom Tech Giant X’s CEO may or may not have slept with). One can argue over whether it’s sad that a non-trivial portion of business in Silicon Valley gets done this way. The fact remains: It does.

Just as one must avoid those with Networking Syndrome, one must be excruciatingly careful when dealing with Networking People. Above all else, they exist to build their personal network, not yours. So to them, you’re either the product, the customer, or the supply chain. If you’re the product, congratulations – a lot of people want to meet you. The Networking Person will shower you with attention, and all you have to do is show up and eat a canapé every now and then. If you’re the customer, the Networking Person is somehow monetizing you, whether you’re explicitly paying for their services as a PR person or consultant, or in some other, more hidden manner. But being the supply chain is by far the worst. The Networking Person needs you to gain access to either the customer or product, and beyond that, you have no value to them. Being part of a networking person’s supply chain is kinda sorta like being a pipe carrying water from a reservoir to a toilet.

Yet the reason Networking People exist in Silicon Valley at all is because we need them. Many great technologists are not very social, and some are downright afraid of people. At the same time, building a relevant and supportive network is critical to scaling a startup. The best Networking People separate the wheat from the chaff and route the right people in their networks to one another at precisely the right time without asking for anything in return. They have a sixth sense about people, are always empathetic, never manipulative, and they aggressively seek out great new people to bring into their fold in a way that feels entirely un-aggressive. The best Networking People inspire tremendous loyalty, and some of them can even make a damn good bloody mary.

So if you live to network, fantastic! Become a Networking Person! The world needs them, and if you’re exceptional at networking, you’ll be well served by building your livelihood around it. But if you’re trying to build a technology startup – or invest in them – Don’t catch the Syndrome. Soullessly networking sans a concrete plan and mission will leave you feeling as empty as a fleeting one night stand. Not that there’s anything wrong with those… In fact, I hear The Driskill is a great place for them.

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