Startup Life/Opinion/

How to build a meaningful network and stay authentic along the way

Networking is rarely a professional's favourite pastime — but it can be valuable if you know how to nail it

Miruna-Ioana Girtu

By Miruna-Ioana Girtu

What comes to mind when you picture someone who likes networking? 

If I were to place a bet, it would be on a rather unflattering profile. That person who comes up to you at a networking event and within one minute is selling you something. Someone who’s trying to aggressively maximise short-term transaction upside, not build long-term meaningful relationships.

But these few individuals shouldn’t make us all shy away from networking. Networking is key in any industry, but especially in startup world. There is no big list of all the startups and all the investors out there. A chance meeting can be the thing that helps a founder land their first customer. 

So here’s how to make potential new connections count — without being disingenuous.

Where can you find networking opportunities in European tech?

One thing that the European startup and VC ecosystem doesn’t lack is opportunities to meet and get together with your peers. From big buzzy conferences like Slush and Web Summit to experiences and intimate dinners, from Slack channels to WhatsApp groups, from Twitter to LinkedIn and everything in between. Over the past seven years, I’ve been to more than a fair share of these events and had to cut through the noise of online notifications.

How do you authentically connect to others? A good first step is to explore a wide range of event formats and channels. Then, figure out which ones work best for you and start curating. 

Unsurprisingly, I found that smaller events — and smaller online groups — tend to result in stronger connections. That doesn’t mean you should rule out bigger ones. Just make sure you also join some of the smaller side events that are happening or schedule 1:1 meetings for when you’re there. 

“Shared experiences can accelerate and enrich connection”

One of the most memorable events I went to this year was a smaller dinner within a big event. What made it so special was that everyone at the table allowed themselves to be vulnerable and shared meaningful stories about their challenges and hopes. More often than not, these side events are not publicly advertised — I was invited to this particular dinner because I had previously helped the host. Beyond having a give-first mindset, what you can do is ask your contacts about any such events that you might be able to join. You can also take initiative and organise your own.

If you’re thinking about organising an event, do also consider structuring it around an activity — playing a sport together, exploring a place or learning something new. Shared experiences can accelerate and enrich connection. I’ve been to a surprisingly wholesome Christmas cooking class with other investors, given new sports a go and learned more about the latest biodiversity efforts at Kew Gardens, just to name a few. Online events can work too, especially if people commit to being present and engaging.   

How to connect: know yourself and cultivate a genuine interest in others

Be prepared to succinctly articulate your mission and the key ways in which you’re attempting to make progress towards it. Keep it simple and avoid jargon, especially with audiences that span multiple industries. Hopefully, you’ll then dread that inevitable “let’s go around the table and introduce ourselves” moment less and avoid turning your initial intro into a rambling monologue. 

Once the conversation is underway, don’t spend too much time trying to show how interesting you are — show that you’re interested in the other person instead. Walking into a room full of strangers is like walking into a library full of books you can talk to. Everyone you meet knows something you don’t. If you stay curious and listen actively, a single conversation can bring a fresh perspective, spark new ideas and open up opportunities for collaboration. 

Some of the more accomplished people I met have an incredible quality of making everyone they speak with feel like they have their full undivided attention”

To better understand what they’re passionate about and how you might be able to help, here are three questions you could ask: 

  • If you found out you had to deliver a TED Talk in an hour, what topic would you choose? 
  • What excites you most about your work in the coming months? 
  • What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing?

Try to give whoever you’re speaking with your full attention. People sometimes forget what you said but remember how you made them feel. Some of the more accomplished people I met have an incredible quality of making everyone they speak with feel like they have their full undivided attention.

How to nurture connections: think long-term

Only starting to build a network when you need something is far from ideal. No one likes the person who starts selling before they even said a proper hello. Self-awareness is great, self-interest not so much. 

Meaningful networking isn’t about trying to quickly extract as much value as possible from as many people as possible. It’s about building relationships that can endure. I still collaborate with people I met years ago, even if they changed roles, companies or their careers entirely. Some founders have become funders and vice versa. Some professional contacts have also become my good friends.

Professional relationships — and trust — are built over time through multiple interactions and exchanges of value.

Find ways to engage with your network and stay top of mind  — from sharing relevant content to scheduling recurring catch-ups. While to some staying in touch comes naturally, others could benefit from having a network relationship management system of sorts with at least notes and reminders. Anything that will mitigate the risk of underinvesting in your relationships.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help but also take pride in your work and offer to contribute when you can. At a minimum, you have valuable insights derived from your own experience and expertise. You can also make a habit out of connecting people within your network to each other. When you meet someone new, try to think on behalf of your existing network. You might not be in a good position to collaborate on something straightaway but do you know someone who could? 

Miruna-Ioana Girtu is a partner at SyndicateRoom, investing in 50+ startups a year alongside top-performing angels.

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