Updated: Feb 6
My second job out of college I was the Art Director for 1928 Jewelry Co. The company is still alive and vital today, quite a monument to startup lore. My boss, Fred Burglass, was the best boss I’ve ever had. Funny. Kind. Patient. Smart. I really loved that man. He was like a father to me, taught me many things about marketing, business, and people. Yet I still struggle to adhere to possibly his greatest lesson.
I’d been working there over a year and had neglected to attend any of the executive parties the company threw in their beach house in Malibu. Fred called me into his office one afternoon and insisted I come to the upcoming holiday party, as it was part of my job to schmooze with our current and potential new buyers, and my executive co-workers.
The Friday night before the Saturday party I called my assistant into my office. She’d wanted to go to the party, so I suggested she pretend that she’d come with me. I asked her if anyone was looking for me there, like our boss, Fred, to tell them she just saw me on the beach, or on the deck, or downstairs talking with the Macy’s buyer. I thought I was being clever, outsmarting Fred by telling him I’d be there, and then setting up my assistant to lie for me so he’d never know I wasn’t. The Malibu property was an estate home and easy to get lost in. My assistant was charming and smart and would have no problem pulling it off.
Monday morning Fred called me in his office. I know you weren’t there on Saturday night, he began. But the truth is, you’re just screwing yourself. You want to build your career, maybe your own company down the line, or even write novels full-time? Business success, in whatever you choose to do, requires networking, he assured me.
Sadly, I’d pretty much tuned him out. Network. Network. Network. Building relationships is the only way you’ll propel your career forward, Fred consistently preached, so I’d heard all this before.
Problem was, I’ve always been a recluse. An artist by nature and trade, I likely landed in the arts because I have a hard time being with people. I suck at small talk. And I’ve learned getting too personal with questions or opinions is a fast way to shut down dialog. It’s exhausting walking the line of popular decorum, putting on that public face and pretending I believe the guy, or am even interested in how successful he thinks his startup is going to be when he doesn’t even know the SaaS he’s built is already being done by someone else. Ever hear of Competitive Analysis? I want to ask him, but don’t. I used to, but it wasn’t received well.
I give myself all kinds of excuses for not networking. I’m just not good with people. I’m better at creating than chatting. I’m an empath—get too much input around people so I need to limit my contact. But I know it’s all bullshit. You are a brilliant creator, Fred used to tell me. But no one will know that if you don’t meet the right people who recognize your talent and connect you with others to help you exploit it. You must network!
He was right, of course. Digital advertising—Facebook to Google to TikTok—has a very low ROI, generally between .05 – 1.5%. Print is usually higher, but not by a lot, assuming the targeting and messaging are equally tight. Building relationships in-person or online can yield far greater ROI, if done right. Amazon built an empire on exceptional customer service, eliminating the risk of online purchasing by making returns easy, garnering staunch brand advocates. Shark Tank candidates aren’t on the show just for VC money. They’re there for Lori Greiner’s connection to the shopping channel, QVC. The tech entrepreneurs want Mark Cuban’s contacts in the Silicon Valley community.
While networking ROI may seem harder to quantify than digital ads or even direct mail, consistently talking with people in your industry [and related industries] at meetups, SIG meetings, trade shows, webinars, conferences, biz and tech talks, and even office parties, over time will yield better ROI—broader brand recognition and more sales—than any other form of marketing/advertising.
Starting a startup, or finding a job or getting clients, the more you network with your industry and target markets, the greater your odds of building a thriving business. After all, it’s not what you know, but who you know that will help you pave your path to success.