This article was originally published here on June 4, 2018.
What is it that you have to offer the people you meet? Not what you can sell them, rather what can you offer them that will not cost them anything? Something that will make it valuable for them to get to know you, and make you someone they want to introduce to their friends. Everyone has something to offer, no matter how insignificant it may seem to you. The most extreme example I have of this is when I was on a bus from Aswan to Luxor in Egypt in the early 90s with my Egyptian friend, Omar. We met a self-described peasant named Ali Gad during the ride. As Omar translated for him, Omar cautioned me not to laugh when he gave the next translation because he said this man is offering you all he has to give. Ali Gad invited me to his hut along the Nile River to drink milk from his cow. While I was not able to stop to take him up on his gracious offer, it had a lifelong impact on me. I remember the man’s name over 25 years later and sent him a letter when I got back home to the US.
Ali Gad is the perfect example of offering what you have to give. It might be knowledge, contacts, conference room space you can lend out, information on a hobby the other person is interested in, access to capital, a referral for a job opportunity or milk from your cow! Whatever it is you have to offer, offer it up. Most people will not be able to take you up on your generous offer, but the fact you offered it and presented yourself as a giver rather than a taker, will set you apart from the vast majority of people in the marketplace. The individuals you meet will be left with a good impression about you, and likely will be more willing to make an introduction or do a favor for you later if you ask for it. They may also send you a referral years from now because of the lasting, positive impression you have made.
When I joined PwC with the job of selling audits, I needed to figure out how to make buying an audit sound sexy. A financial audit is one of the least sexy services I could ever imagine selling. However, all successful companies, especially those that raise external financing, will require one at some point. So early on, I figured out that it was PwC’s access to knowledge, and to an unbelievably interesting client base, that made it a sexy firm with which to be affiliated. We represented some of the biggest, most successful companies in the world. While I didn’t know any of these companies personally, I figured out that it was completely acceptable to talk about them as clients that we had access to. Additionally, we audited the majority of the world’s venture capital firms, who loved to receive deal referrals from us. We also had no shortage of conference room space available in virtually any office across the world. By offering to try to connect emerging companies with prospective customers, partners, investors and space to meet in, I quickly became one of the most popular guys in town to get to know by emerging company CEOs. Even if I was only able to deliver on 20% of what I promised, it was 20% more than the next guy. During the two years I did this, we owned the market.
What is your personal value proposition? You really need to think about this and get it down. You may refine it over time after you see what does and does not resonate. You should boil it down to a quick “elevator pitch.” This is a very brief pitch that you could quickly give if you had to travel a few floors on an elevator with someone you really wanted to get to know. During that elevator pitch, you would let the other person know why it would be personally beneficial to them to connect with you. Give them your business card and ask for theirs. After that, you may follow up and offer to swing by their office for a quick meeting. Do not be too overbearing as this could push the other person away. Imagine yourself as the other person and what you would want to hear if you were them.
The most vivid memory I have of knowing that I needed my elevator pitch down pat was when I walked into my first TechCrunch Disrupt event in NYC. Mind you, I had been to hundreds of events throughout my career where I would meet and interact with CEOs of startup companies and the investors who invest in them. However, this one was different. When I walked in, there were at least 100 CEOs lined up side-by-side in mini booths to meet and talk with rapid fire. It looked so intimidating — even to a veteran networker. I had to walk back out, close the door and gather my thoughts. Most of the CEOs in that gauntlet probably want to hear from investors. They at least wanted my vote for a “Battleground Competition” they were competing in for $50K. However, the last thing they want to do is be pitched by a law firm, I thought. What could I say to make them eager to want to get to know me?
I decided to start by making the conversation all about them, so I could consider who to cast my vote for. “Please tell me about your company.” I would start. If they asked me what I did, I would tell them that my firm represents…(I would rattle off a quick list of the largest, most prestigious tech companies in the world)…and then would let them know that I led a team that was connected to the entire venture capital community that backs these types of companies in their early stages. I would say, “We are kind of talent scouts out looking for those success stories of the future today to help plug them into our network.”
There was not a CEO I met who did not want to get to know me and exchange business cards. Many of them wanted to introduce me to their friends. I even had a few of them chase me down and ask me why I skipped their booths, insisting that I come back to hear their pitch. The key here was to think about what the other person wanted to hear and tailoring my elevator pitch to the audience. This event and future ones, were some of the most successful networking events I have ever attended. I would literally leave with about 100 business cards of CEOS who were eagerly awaiting my follow up on what I told them I would do for them when I got back to the office.
When you start out your networking journey, you may not have the prestigious firm or the connections, but you have something to offer that makes you unique from the next person. Figure out what it is that you have to offer and offer it. Remember, Ali Gad offered me to drink milk from his cow on a bus over 25 years ago, and I still remember his name. If I ever returned to his village, I would seek him out and see what I could do for him. As you figure out your approach to the market, be sure to take a long-term relational approach rather than a short-term transactional approach to developing relationships. As you do this, you will be building up an extended network of friends, supporters and fans. If done right, they will become your extended salesforce in the market you serve.
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