Networking tips for startup founders

Events and networking can be a force multiplier for your startup

"Networking events are for notworking people." I read this and just shook my head. I have seen many of these sentiments shared lately. For me however, networking saved my life!

Let me explain. When I had my startup, I felt every moment was precious and could not be sacrificed in non-core activities. That included networking and attending events.

I was more of an introvert back then and viewed networking as wasteful. The experience of attending events was more exhausting than inspiring. Finding the right people to connect with at events seemed nearly impossible.

After my startup, I was completely burned out. Mentally and emotionally, I ping-ponged between bouts of despair and loneliness. That was when I realized I had no one to talk to about what I was feeling.

I started attending a few events, meeting new people, and building relationships. I met ex-founders that had gone through the same experiences as I had. I was finally stepping out of my depression and finding opportunities to move forward with new ideas and projects!

That was when I decided to attend a startup or tech event in NYC every weekday for a year. I did not reach my goal, but I did attend over 200 events that year, from large conferences to local meetups. I learned through iteration how to be a better networker and identify events worth attending.

There are people that will tell you being a better networker is a waste of time. I saw this tweet recently:

Terrible advice: be a better "networker."

You want a better network?

Build something cool and watch how quickly a network comes to you.

Contrary to what this person wrote, I observed that founders that were actively networking became much better operators. Everything from fund raising to hiring to sales to learning from other founders was so much easier when they had a network and community to rely upon.

Of course, there can be too much networking. Some founders seem to be perpetually on the networking circuit like it’s one long party. It can be intoxicating because it feels productive while being fun, when it’s just avoiding the actual hard work of building a startup.

Networking can be a force multiplier for your startup!

So how do you strike a balance of the right amount of networking? Until you have a product generally available for customers, the vast majority of time is better spent on product and customers. Once traction builds, then networking can be a force multiplier for finding talent, connecting with investors, and growing sales.

Often founders tell me they would network more if it was not so inefficient. This is a valid point as we have all had those painful conversations at events with people that waste our time. However, I would flip this around and ask how you are making networking better for you and others.

Over the many events I have attended or hosted over the past decade, I found a few things to make the networking experience more valuable, and in turn more productive for everyone:

  • Have A Goal – Ask yourself what you are looking to accomplish whether fund raising, hiring, awareness building, educating yourself, etc.

  • Listen with Interest – As Dale Carnegie said, "To be interesting, be interested." Don’t scan the room for someone else to talk to, truly listen to the people you are with.

  • Ask More Questions – The best way to get a conversation going is to ask open-ended questions that tap into people’s willingness to talk about themselves.

  • Bring Your Passion – Don’t be boring! People do not want facts, they crave stories, therefore hone the story of why you do what you do.

  • Be More Giving – Most networking feels quid pro quo, so instead become the person that gives and helps first, so that you became a trusted member of the community.

  • Embrace Serendipity – It is said that “you make your own luck”. Often it is the unexpected and random connections you make that can be the most helpful over time.

  • Remain Engaged – Have a system to stay in touch after an event whether through social media, newsletter, quick emails, etc., so that your network can help you.

Once you decide to make time to network, how do you find worthwhile events to attend? I created a quick mental checklist to better structure which events I attend:

  • Do you have a purpose? Don’t just attend an event, know what you are looking to get out of attending before committing your time.

  • What is the topic? Sometimes an event sounds interesting, but dig deeper into the agenda and speakers to ensure it aligns with your purpose.

  • Who are the organizers? Check if the organizers have a solid reputation and have hosted events in the past with success.

  • Will it be diverse? Many events merely pay diversity lip-service, but those with diverse speakers and attendees often bring better ideas and networking.

  •  Is it open or exclusive? Open events provide more serendipity, but invite-only events tend to be better curated, thus more relevant to your needs.

  • How many people are attending? Large events optimize for meeting many people, but can be chaotic, while smaller events have the benefit of fostering deeper interactions.

  • Is it a paid or free event? This can depend on region, but paid events can signal that attendees value the event, whereas free events do not have committed attendees.

  • Who else is going? Sometimes you can see who else is attending, so view the list to see if there are people you want to meet.

  • Is it only networking? Most purely networking events tend to attract people that are all about networking for the sake of networking.

  • What else to watch out for? Some events scream “low value” like charging an obscene amount to attend, speed-meeting events, or incessantly sending spammy messages.

What are your thoughts on networking and events? What have been some tips and tricks to help you get the most out of the time put into networking?

In a previous newsletter, we shared how startups ecosystems are launching everywhere around the globe. One thing though that our recent travels across Asia highlighted however was the strong impact government has in fostering a strong and vibrant startup ecosystem.

Revising our previous thinking, we look at these six pillars when evaluating the strengths and challenges of a particular startup hub:

  1. Government support & policy

  2. Education & talent pipeline

  3. Startup capital & funding

  4. Resources helping startups

  5. Market access & customers

  6. Committed visionaries rallying startups

As an example, Singapore is the leader for startup activity in the Southeast Asia. They have had some notable exits such as Grab, GoTo, and Sea. There are over 4,000 startups, 600 investors, and 225 accelerators & incubators in Singapore. And they currently lead the region with 14 unicorns including Moglix, Coda Payments, Carro, Kredivo & Ninja Van.

Why has Singapore had such success? Because the government has made an intentional and pragmatic investment into tech innovation. The best way to foster innovation is by supporting STEM education, making it easy to set up and run businesses, and providing resources and grants to startups in order to give them the best chance to succeed.

Government can also be an inhibitor of startup growth. How? Through difficult to navigate regulations, lack of investment into the tech talent pipeline, heavy taxes, onerous immigration policies, excessive bureaucracy, political instability, trade restrictions, lack of IP protections, and an opaque legal system.

The good news is that governments around the world are starting to acknowledge their hand in helping and hurting startups in their countries. In Africa, many nations have enacted “Startup Acts” to address their bureaucratic roadblocks to provide tax breaks, IP protections, funding access, and other incentives, most notably in places like Congo, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia.

As more countries look to their neighbors success in fostering vibrant startup hubs, we predict many more nations will adopt similar strategies to boost startup innovation as a way to grow their economy.

There are two upcoming programs that we are super exicted to share. The first is the launch of our AWS Global Fintech Accelerator, an equity-free online program to support AI-driven Fintech startups with technical, business, and investment guidance. Learn more here and apply before August 31st!

The second program is our AWS GenAI Day, launching on September 14 around the globe with content geared for startups using Generative AI. We cover topics from data and machine learning, to Amazon Bedrock and LLM’s, to applying AI to optimize your startup. Sign up here to join this virtual event.

Thanks to everyone that took time to meet up in Singapore earlier this week, it was so great to chat about community building, fund raising, and the new and innovative stuff we are doing in the cloud at AWS. Look forward to returning to region in a few months time for the Tech in Asia event.

Mark in Singapore networking and attending events.