Networking. Learnings from 200 Cold Emails.
Dreadful word to many. Music to the ears of few. Extremely undervalued none-the-less.
The word itself defines different things as well. Some view it negatively because they construe the word as requiring a person to be fake and "try too hard to fit in". Some view it positively because it's the act of speaking with people whom you are genuinely interested in and want to get to know better. I believe in the latter, though this was not always my view.
Networking as a word has morphed throughout my own life from something extracurricular you did to get a job to something that is a necessity for growth in life.
There are those who may argue with me saying networking requires you to be "fake" and put on a "mask" to conceal who you are but let's be honest here; being fake is a choice. This whole "fake syndrome" is commonly referenced when people tie networking to job searching or interviewing. The idiocy lies in faking your way to get a job hoping you don't have to be fake anymore once you land the job. If you feel that you have to fake it, then you may actually not be talking to the right person/role. Ain't it common sense?
"Fake it till you make it" only works in the short term. In the long term you'd be mediocre at best and would never truly "make it". Everyone has different standards they are reaching for so I won't pass judgment on them but I think mediocrity is a terrible state to shoot for.
Humans being social creatures, I see networking as a necessity to thrive in society.
I too first approached networking as something I had to do to get people to like me so I could get a job. That worked well in helping me land my first job in audit. But the learning was that I knew nothing of what the life of an auditor would be like until I actually did it. I had never asked the right questions. The questions I should've asked to understand what accountants did, why they did it, how their performance was measured, and everything else.
After this, networking evolved to learning more about what each person actually did.
Some of the world's most valuable companies in the world are primarily information-based businesses like Google, Facebook and even Amazon. Companies like Google and Facebook use all the information they have on us (the users) and sell them via auction to marketers. The more information they collect the more they charge. Companies like Amazon will use our information to present other things we may be interested in purchasing to promote increased purchasing. Informational data is truly valuable. If it wasn't, those companies wouldn't be worth hundreds or billions... even a trillion dollars.
I went through my email inventory and in the past 3-4 years, I had cold-called/emailed 200+ professionals in all kinds of disciplines. From there, I've been blessed to receive the kindness of 85+ folks who gave me 30mins to 1hr+ of their time to share with me their journey. Some of these meetings morphed into relationships with individuals becoming friends and/or mentors. This doesn't even include any of the folks I've met from work, the gym, conferences, or school connections; all of whom had no reason to speak to me except they did just with the goodness of their heart.
Through such conversations I was able to explore and accumulate information in various professions like consulting, investment banking, equity research, sales and trading, data science, product management, design, marketing, public equity, private equity, venture capital, operations and HR. Each piece of information I collected made a material difference in the steps I took on my own journey as I continue to refine the design of my career.
B2B vs. B2C? It's all P2P.
People love acronyms. It's not efficient. That is not the primary reason. It's exclusive. It gives the speaker a false satisfaction of knowledge and exclusivity of being part of a group. It's the formation of a community that shares an "inside joke". Common acronyms are B2B and B2C. I get why they came about. The business models tend to be different for these businesses because of the customer base. However, fundamentally, all business is people to people. It's people buying and selling with other people. End of story.
Just like this, people also hire and fire people. With technology continuing to automate mundane tasks, humans will have to become "knowledge workers" where we utilize our creativity (Read my research report on culture and motivation for future workplaces here). With this, it matters less how fast Bob and Jill can screw on a light bulb but who they are, how they work, and what they're driven by are the more important factors that differentiate them. The individual person is getting more attention now. It should've been this way in the past as well but organizations were able to forego this. Now they can't. Most basic technical skill-based tasks are being automated. If someone lacks technical skills, it can be taught. But personality and character can't and those are what come out when you actually meet and talk to people.
FYI it's not easy and that's okay.
Self-awareness is an obsession of mine. If you've been an avid reader of my articles (thank you for that) you may have realized that already. One thing I know about myself is that I'm an extrovert. Not a hardcore extrovert that loves sales but just enough to be labeled as one in any personality test I've taken (check out my results in the home page and find out yours too!).
So you might think that sending the odd 200 emails was easy for me.
Well, surprise! It was not!
My first work experience was in sales for a media startup in Vancouver. The fancy title was business development but I practically spent the whole day cold calling magazine companies to get them onto my platform. Nothing like getting "no" and "fuck off" for 8 hours to build up even more anxiety when you call people.
They say things get better with practice. It does get better but doesn't mean it'll ever get easier. Even to this day, I procrastinate heavily with reaching out to people. Whether it's to meet more interesting people or ask someone to come onto my podcast as a guest; it's excruciating for me. Some may be able to relate but I get hit with a wave of anxiety at how the other person may respond and whether I may come off negatively. Logically, the worst that can happen is that the individual ignores me or rejects me. Most of the time this won't damage my career or life in any material way. This is indefinitely true because I'm not special. Most of us are not special. Society likes to make us think we are all above-average but the facts are that we are not. I always have to go through a sequence of telling this to myself to accept it and get past the anxiety.
Once I've finally scheduled a meeting, I'm golden. I'm pumped to meet the person and I'm in flow state when I'm in the discussions, "queue the extrovert in me". But god, that initial period of writing that email to reach out to that person sucks. It's honestly a very miserable process for me. Sometimes it's just 8 or so lines but it feels like I'm running a marathon at times. I've thought about automating this process as well. I remember seeing an article where a guy wrote a code to automate an application process to apply to hundreds of jobs automatically and he eventually found a job as a software engineer at Google or something.
It may be my "old fashioned" nature but that was extremely unappealing to me. I felt it was selecting efficiency over effectiveness. I like to meet people in person rather than have a phone call, which is why I record all my podcast interviews in person instead of on Skype. I also believe that reaching out to people for their time should be an intimate process of actually thinking about who you want to speak to and reaching out with a purpose for establishing a relationship. You are asking for someone else's time, which is extremely valuable, but don't forget that you are also investing your own time. Don't discount your time thinking someone else's is worth more than yours. It's not.
When I reach out to people I've gone through their backgrounds and I've come to the conclusion that a discussion with them could provide me with the information to either support or kill a hypothesis I hold. A hypothesis could be as simple as, "I think investment banking is what I want to do". I went to two finance conferences and spoke with dozens of bankers and killed that idea.
Developing your own hypothesis should incorporate some self-awareness of what you're interested/excited/passionate in and/or what you are good at but I'll save that for another article all together. Regardless, every conversation should have a key purpose of why you want to speak to the person and how you would evaluate whether the conversation was valuable to you and was an effective use of both your and your guest's time.
What I learned.
So, here's what I learned from my experience:
1) Get a warm Introduction
A warm introduction connecting you to someone goes a long way. I've had people tell me during the coffee that they would not have replied to my cold email if they didn't receive a warm intro first. The warm intro signifies that you've been vetted and won't be a waste of time to the other person. With time being a finite resource and you asking for it for free, you want the other party to know it won't be wasted.
2) Find somebody like you
Try to point out something you and the person who you want to connect with have in common. I've had materially higher response rates when I reached out to people of similar backgrounds like ex-auditors, ex-KPMG or Deloitte, ex-buyside, University of Waterloo alumni, Koreans, or even people who grew up in Vancouver.
3) Give something of value first
When I reached out to hedge fund folks, attaching my own investment reports was valuable. Attaching links to my blog, specific articles I've written or even my podcast have been effective as well. Showing something that demonstrates more talk than just walk helps mitigate the risk of you being a waste of time to the other person.
Something new I implemented as of 2018 has been to send thank you cards to people kind enough to meet with me. It's something I did in my buy-side role and I personally think it is a material gesture of gratitude you can show to the person. I've had someone send me a book as thanks for my time and believe me, I probably won't forget that person. Being memorable for genuine gratitude goes a long way. I went to visit someone I previously spoke with at his office and when I saw my "thank you" card displayed on his desk, it only confirmed the power of small acts of gratitude.
5) Write it down
I used to think taking notes during the conversation was rude but what's more rude is not remembering the valuable information the other party provided you with. That is just a waste of their time. So now I just bring my laptop with me and open up my Evernote and tell my guest that I've prepared a list of questions and if they don't mind that I type our conversation so that I don't forget. I've never had someone say no.
Pay it Forward.
My grandmother once told me a man's worth is in his relationships.
Like all things in life, even your relationship will compound. Everyone is obsessed with money compounding but money can't buy you exceptional long-term relationships. In his book, "Givers and Takers", Adam Grant talks about how the individuals who are truly successful are those who give in areas under their circle of competence while the individuals who are the least successful are also the givers but ones who have no boundaries and just act to please everyone.
Every individual you build a relationship with and speak to is a giver and compounding of such relationships can only work if you can give back. It doesn't have to be to that individual, it can be someone else who may reach out to you for advice. There really doesn't seem to be a formula for this. It's just a holistic system where a process of just always being thankful and giving seems to play out eventually.
With this, I leave you to go about creating your own network of valuable relationships.