How to Break in and Build A Network in the Startup Scene from Scratch

by Scott - 7 Comments

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“I want to break into the startup scene…but I can’t code”

If I had a nickle for every time I’ve heard that…I’d probably have like $3.20. But seriously, I don’t know if its because the tech scene is hot right now or that the composition of my personal network is changing, but it seems like a lot of people I talk to who aren’t already in the startup scene want to break in to it. I feel that the common misconception many people have is that they have to be a developer or designer to do this. Although these qualifications help, its a far cry from a necessity.

This post serves as a personal case study of my journey to what I call really breaking in. If your looking to be just “a guy who works at a startup” that’s fine.  But if you want to build a solid network of people that you can call on, connect, and add value to you’ve come to the right place. In my opinion, having this type of network makes becoming a successful entrepreneur infinitely easier.

Step 1: Find someone you know and dropkick the door down.

If you have no technical experience or your Uncle isn’t Ron Conway look for people you know that are currently working in startups and see how you can get involved. I broke in by cold calling a guy I had class with 4 years earlier in college. Let me preface this by saying we weren’t really friends as undergraduates. I just saw a NYT article on his site, found his number on the press kit and called him in the parking lot during my lunch break to tell him how excited I was about what he was doing. A conversation or two later, I offered to work for free and eventually got the nod prompting me to quit my job the next day. Moving from a lofty two bedroom apartment in Chicago to back home with Mom and Dad wasn’t easy. Especially when you’re making no money (they covered my travel/lunch) and commuting over an hour by train. But if you really want to immerse yourself into this world full force, you can’t expect to be handed an opportunity. Once you have a window and a chance to get your foot in the door you need to do whatever it takes to seize the opportunity.

Step 2: Once there, drink out of a firehouse 

Ok you’re now a guy who semi-“works at a startup”. I could write a whole post on just this stage of the game, but I’ll stick to the general themes for the sake of time and what sounds like a good episode of Tosh.O.

At work: Try to get involved in as many different facets off the business as you can so that you can learn as much as possible. Ask a ton of questions about not only what is going on right now, but also the past and future to learn about how they got from point A to point B.

During your commute: Listen to podcasts/audio books about entrepreneurship, startups, VC. I really enjoy Standford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders http://ecorner.stanford.edu/podcasts.html and VentureVoice

Step 3: Socialize and get used to buying other people  coffee and lunch.

Right from the get go its really important to start getting to know other people in the scene. Start out with people in your office, even co-workers if you’re shy.  A great way to do this is to offer to take them out for a coffee or lunch during your free time so you can hear a bit more about their experience working in the startup world. Once you’ve exhausted your co-working space just cold email people in your region who are doing cool things saying you’d love to buy them lunch to hear more about their project. I’m copying a cold facebook message below I used that worked many times:

“Hey RICKY BOBBY,

I just came across BESTSTARTUPEVER.COM on techcrunch and thought it was totally awesome. I’m working over at LESSAWESOME.COM down the street and would love to take you out for lunch or a coffee sometime to hear a bit more about what you guys are doing to see if I can help out in any way. I’m kind of new to this whole startup thing and would really appreciate any insight on your experience thus far. If you’re too busy, no worries just means I get to use the product sooner! Take care”

You have nothing to lose and startup guys rarely say no to a free meal…trust me. I was able to learn so much from these early interactions which is just one of many reasons why they’re so important.

Step 4: Look to provide value and seek nothing in return

 This philosophy should be the focal point of all of your interactions not only at this point of your journey, but throughout your entire life (in my opinion). When your talking with these people learn about their challenges and see if there is any way you can help. Common ways include feedback, pinging relevant articles, and connecting them with people who can help/their business has synergy with.

Connecting people is huge and something that comes naturally once you have met enough people. Think about who from your growing network could help someone out and then make an introduction (if they give you the okay). This goes a long way and helps you establish yourself as a connector.

STEP 5: Start getting people together by hosting events

Okay so at this point, you’ve got a pretty solid group of people in your corner. Now its time to ramp it up by getting together people who don’t know each other together in a group setting which can be really fun. Again, I like to focus these events on providing value for others. I have three events I host at different frequencies with a partner(s).

Startup breakfast: Once every 2 weeks we get 6 new people together early in the morning to discuss their challenges and get feedback from each other on how they can overcome them. INCREDIBLE

Peer Mentorship Group (NAME IS SECRET!): I put together a group of 8 entrepreneurs who meets monthly to see whats going on, offer feedback, and share resources.

Poor Man’s Dinner: Either every other Thursday/Weds night myself and a friend get 8 new people together to shoot the breeze over some cheap eats. Really fun.

These steps have helped me to grow a pretty decent network in the NY startup scene. Also, don’t think you have to have some incredible skin on your wall like starting a successful company to validate putting events on. Remember you’re just facilitating the interaction of others, not lecturing on your accomplishments or what you know.

I also recommend going to multiple meetups and events each week and developing an active online presence (blogs/twitter with a splash of facebook). There’s a ton of other ways to grow your network, like build foursquare, but this is just how I did it. Now go out there and get it done!

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