Getting Started with Networking

As an earlier article I wrote mentioned, I waded into the world of networking a week ago for the first time. However, based on how networking has been described by people who spend much of their life networking, I have in fact been networking for many years.

Any time I talk to a member of my family, a friend, or a coworker about what I do, I am networking. If I establish a relationship with someone, whether professional or personal, I am networking. In the book Make Your Contacts Count the authors describe 6 types of connections, from what they term Accident at one extreme, to Ally at the other. Using their descriptions as a base, I will explain why I can claim to have been networking for years, and so have you.

An Accident is someone you meet by chance, such as the person sitting next to you on an airplane as you fly to Aruba for a vacation. While you may chat with them for the duration of the flight, unless you establish some common ground and exchange contact information with a reason to follow up, you would be hard-pressed to locate that person again.

An Acquaintance is someone whom you could locate again if you needed to, for example, a friend of a friend. You’ve met them, you know their name, and you know how you are connected. However, your knowledge of who they are and what they do is limited, as is their knowledge about you.

An Actor is someone who knows a bit more about you, for example, a friend or a coworker. You could probably describe what they do in general terms, and you see and talk to each other on occassion.

An Associate knows what you do. They can give examples of your work. You talk to one another regularly, and are in touch with each other’s activities.

An Advocate not only knows what you do, but they will volunteer that information to others. They can describe in detail what you do to a third person, and can and do recommend you to others.

An Ally is one who is interested in you succeeding. They share in your successes and failures, they give you advice, they push you to move ahead and succeed.

Using these stages as a baseline, you have been networking for a long time, just like me, except, also like me, you probably didn’t realize it. If you were to write down the names of 100 people you know, you could group them using the 6 stages mentioned above. For example, your parents are your Allies, as they push you to succeed. A friend who you meet for coffee once a week would be an Associate or Advocate. The guy you ran into at a friend’s birthday party last week would be classified as an Accident.

Every time you talk to someone, you have the potential to move them closer to you in your network. As you approach the Ally stage, you have fewer and fewer people in your network. Your goal, when networking, is to gain Advocates and Allies. The way you do this is by gaining the trust of the people you meet, and helping them to be informed about what it is you do.

This, of course, will take time, since people will not advertise you unless they have a reason to trust you. That means that they need to see examples of your work, they need to know people whom you have worked for. They need to know about some of the more spectacular successes that you’ve had. They are gaining an appreciation for your competence. This is something that takes time, but you can speed it up if you pay attention.

When you speak to someone, whether they are already in your network or not, figure out which stage of your network they belong to. Then decide how you are going to move them one or two stages closer to being an Advocate. Can you demonstrate your competence in an area they can relate to? Use examples that pertain to their area of expertise. If they are in sales, and you write software, talk about a piece of work you did for someone in marketing. If information is confidential, find ways to obscure who you worked for, and any proprietary information.

People will assume that if you do one thing well, you do many things well. If you talk to Bill and promise to send him some information on your latest project, and then do so, Bill will assume you are reliable. If you tell Mary that can refer her a competent electrician who is cheap, and that referral works out, Mary and the electrician appreciate you because you gave one person work and saved another some money. However, Mary will now trust your referrals and opinions more, because the first one you gave worked out for her. As time goes on, you can reinforce this trust, but establishing it in the first place is key.

First impressions are the most lasting, so plan on making yours memorable in a way that shows you in the best light. Find an Ally to help you work on your image, go out an prepare a few variations of a personal introduction, get some examples to back up your competence, and meet new people and reconnect with people you “already know”.

New Computer from Dell

I was just sent an e-mail advertising a new computer system from Dell: the XPS One 24 Desktop. I’m looking for a new development computer, and I prefer to use Dell, as I have had very good experiences with them in the past. Does anyone have any feedback on this system?

One of the downsides to this system I am already aware of, and that is that you are limited in terms of the amount of customization that’s available. However, I’m not quite ready to buy, and it will likely be another 6 months before I do, so maybe by then, that issue will have been resolved, at least somewhat. But are there any other issues with this system I should be aware of?

Best Practices

I’ve been hearing a lot about best practices lately, and came to an interesting realization. I’m from an IT background, so I will focus on that area, but what I have to say can be extended to essentially any professional area.

In IT, there are two kinds of Best Practices: those that apply to how we operate, and those that apply to our code. When I hear the term Best Practice, I tend to think of a new coding standard, or a particular step in our development life cycle, such as how we do peer code review. I’ve worked on writing some of these practices, and I agree that they are needed. However, there is something missing.

When you have a best practice, be it process-oriented, or task-oriented, make sure your customers know the practice. If your testing process includes 4 levels of testing, advertise it! If you use the Super Special Coding Standards, advertise it (and include a link so that your customers can find out more about that standard)!

While I’ve heard much about Best Practices at work, I only hear about them internally. As a consumer, I cannot remember the last time I saw a company advertise its Best Practices. As a supplier of a a product or service, you choose to use some practices because of some benefit you think it will have, whether it be improving the quality of your product, or make it simply easier to maintain, or some other reason. However, if you tell your customers what you are doing, what standards you use, they can appreciate the effort you are putting forward for them. Why are you wasting an easy opportunity to brag about your high-quality product?

Why I would pay when there's a free alternative

A friend of mine posted yesterday on How to Compete With Free. I would like to address the same topic, but from the perspective of a consumer, as opposed to the perspective of a distributor. After all, to understand how to distribute, you need to first understand how the consumer thinks.

When I look at options for a service or product, I will start with the free options. However, I tend to approach it with a cynical twist, that is, you get what you pay for. So my first reviews are looking for flaws, trying to figure out what the catch is, and why it’s free. Once I have determined that the free alternatives won’t work, I move up the price line, until I find a solution that will work.

What this means is that if you are trying to get me to use your product, and to pay for your service, you have to meet one of two criteria:

  1. Your product is free, and does what I need
  2. Your product is cheap, and does what I need and there are no free alternatives.

Unfortunately, both these models mean you won’t make very much money from me. However, you can take this approach, and apply Craig’s List approach from Jeremy’s article, in which you start charging more for the advanced features.

Like many people I know, once I start using your system, I will continue to use your system if it can meet my needs, even if it costs more than an alternative. Of course, eventually you will hit an upper limit, where if you charge too much for the product or service, I will go elsewhere. That’s why you work with marketing people to figure out what that number is. But if you design your sales model based on giving away or charging a minimal amount for a product that does most of what most users want, and then charge extra to use the advanced features, you will be able to compete with the free alternatives. After all, your product is mostly free too.

Post-Networking

I’ve just come back from a networking event, the first formal such event I’ve ever attended. I drove out through unplowed roads, which made a 20 minute drive take closer to 60 minutes. I wasn’t the only one, however, as about 60 people attended, although some did arrive late.

I had been briefed as to what format these events tend to follow, and so I had my “elevator speech” prepared, a small infomercial rehearsed, and plenty of business cards to hand out. I wasn’t coming to buy anything, but neither was I coming to sell. I was there to meet people, make connections, and hopefully, in a while, once we’ve established some sort of relationship, exchange contracts and clients.

When I arrived, I was given a card with 3 numbers on it. I picked up a cup of coffee and headed over to the table with the appropriate number on it. There was no one sitting there, but then again, I was still about 20 minutes early. A few minutes later, a couple other people sat down at my table, and we started chatting about our work. The formal program had not yet begun, and I was connecting to 2 other people already.

The program kicked off with the room almost filled (10 tables with 6 seats at each) with an introduction by the chair of the Jewish Chamber of Commerce Toronto, Daniel Sonshine, about the purpose of the event, and a small tribute to UJA, with which the Jewish Chamber of Commerce is affiliated. Sarah Lambersky picked up the introduction with our instructions: each person would have 2 minutes to introduce themselves to their table. At the end of 12 minutes, everyone would get up, move to their next table, and we would repeat, and then again for a third table.

In my preparations for this event, I read that before you trade business cards, have a reason to trade. Apparently, I was the only one in the room to have read that advice, because before I could blink, I had 5 business cards sitting in front of me. Oh well, I guess I’ll hand out mine, and hope that people don’t just toss it in the recycling.

The event went well, with my meeting 13 other people during the round table portion of the event (2 people were at my table twice). But in my opinion, the best part of the event started when we stopped the round table, and began to mingle.

First, I went over to someone who had introduced herself to me at the table as a graphic artist. I got her website so that I could see a sample of her work, and will be forwarding her contact information to a few people I know who might be hiring. I then ran into someone I had seen around, and found out what he does. Turns out, he has a need for custom software from time to time, but he usually outsources it to India. He knows one of my current clients fairly well, and is going to be in touch with them for a referral. I then met another IT consultant, who focuses on web design and search engine optimization, which was another card to go into the special to follow up on pocket.

Another person came up to me, looking to strike conversation. He’s in sales, marketing advertising space in a trade magazine. While I don’t think the two of us had much in common, although we did chat for a while, he introduced me to someone he had met earlier in the evening, who has connections to a large number of small and medium sized businesses. I chatted with David for a while, though, and gave him some tips on improving his introduction, as he had mentioned that some people got confused as to what he does. I also gave him the title of the book I had been reading on networking, Make Your Contacts Count, as it may help him with future events.

At the end of the evening, I left with about 20 cards, due to the desire on the part of most participants to hand out as many as possible. Of those, about half will likely end up in the recycling, but 10 contacts for 2 hours of effort is a pretty good return on my time, as long as I remember to follow up on them, which is my task for the next few days.

How Best to Comment on a Corporate Blog

This is #7 on Chris Brogan’s list of 100 Blog Topics I Hope YOU Write.

First of all, I am aware that I skipped #6 on the list. Thank you for noticing.

I personally do not have a corporate blog, and know of only 1 company which does. However, were I to want to post on a corporate blog, I would be sure to use the following as a basic guideline:

  1. Stay on topic, and stay interesting. While a blog gives you room for some freedom in terms of what to say, and a way to informally interact with a company, it is not an open door to say anything to the company. If the post you are commenting on is about a new product being marketed, don’t comment about their stock performance unless you are posting along the lines of “How will this new product affect your stock performance in the near future” or something similar.
  2. Ask questions, post feedback, let other people know what you think. Writing “Great post!” does not tell anyone anything.
  3. If you wouldn’t write it in a letter to the company, think twice before you post it on their blog.
  4. The entire world will see your post, as far as you’re concerned. Check it for spelling and basic grammar before you click post.
  5. Be polite. While you may think this is a license to complain about the company or one of their products for the whole world to see, if you are rude and crass, your post is more likely to be deleted.

The Home Office

As a follow-up to an earlier article I wrote about working at home, this article focuses on what it takes to set up your home office to maximize your productivity. No, not everything I say here will apply to everyone, but think about the ideas, and perhaps you will find a few good points that will help you be successful at home.

  1. Get dressed to go to work every day. Working at home provides the opportunity for more distractions than you would have at the office. To help you counter that, pick a style that you think represents what you and your business stand for, and stick to it. Whether it is strictly formal, or business casual, dress yourself each day as though you were going to be meeting your clients. You never know, they may need to drop by.
  2. Set aside space to work. This means that you need a place that is called your office. With a door. When you go into your office, you are at work. This helps you to block out the distractions from around the house, and tells the people you live with that when the office door is closed, it means you are not to be disturbed.
  3. Set up a “disturb policy”. If you were at the office, your wife would not interrupt your work to ask you for help with the dishes. The same should apply while you are working at home. If the door is closed (see the previous point) then for all intents and purposes, you are not home. The only reason for opening that door would be for an emergency that would make your spouse call you home from your downtown office.
  4. Keep your space clean. It’s a distinct possibility that a client may see your office. Your reputation can gain or lose standing as a result of the cleanliness of your office space.
  5. Set aside some space for meeting clients. While you may feel comfortable curling up on the couch while you write a report on the pros and cons of using a certain piece of software, your clients won’t. It comes across as unprofessional, so set aside some space, keep it clear of your baby’s toys, and make sure it includes a table and space for meeting with several people. If you are tight on space, you can use your dining room table as your conference area, as long as you keep the area clean.

Let me know if you have any other ideas that would help make your home office successful, I would love to hear from you.

Company Launch

As of this morning, I am now the owner of Optimal Upgrade Consulting, registered as a sole-proprietorship in Ontario. I have put up a quick website (www.optimalupgrades.com) and will be making changes to the site in the near future.