In the startup world, “pitching” is only half the battle, the last half. The first is finding the right person to pitch to. This battle is won by people who are adept networkers and have developed an ability to get in front of decision makers. Large corporations have dedicated Innovation Managers to deal with startups and these people can make or break a startup. Their default mode, however, is defensive — weeding out startups they want to connect with, and ones that don’t stand out.
When done right, strategic networking can be the deciding factor in getting funded, purchased, or pitching a startup. While there’s a lot of information out there on how to pitch, networking still remains an awkward and difficult challenge for many.
Networking demands a unique set of soft skills that often taps into emotional intelligence, whereas being a product manager, for example, requires hard skills and a certain cognitive intelligence. Similar to dating, picking someone up doesn’t reflect exactly how you’ll be as a partner. Pick up skills don’t help you long term, but it gives you an edge over the guy in the corner staring at his phone, who is sure to receive only rejection phone numbers. Many times technical startup founders don’t have the experience or skills necessary to influence and persuade others socially.
According to research curated by GreatBusinessSchools.org, 77% of people prefer in-person meetings because it allows them to read body language and facial expressions. This is especially important for startup founders in investing, since 95% of people say in person meetings are essential for long term business relationships.
Both social and technical skills are needed to hack networking. Which points us to the top five hacks you need to learn to get face time and increase your success with Innovation Managers. (For those wanting additional resources, there’s a bonus networking hack list at the bottom of this piece.)
What Do Innovation Managers Do?
Innovation managers are responsible for many of the same tasks as traditional managers. These tasks include setting goals and laying out future plans, motivating and aligning business efforts, coordinating and managing functions and activities, defining and managing resource allocation and much more. Innovation managers complete these same tasks with an emphasis on future development. These managers innovate management processes to improve the future for an organization as a whole.
Hack 1: Know Who and Where They Are
Disclaimer: This hack requires a well optimized LinkedIn profile.
Most Innovation Managers have profiles on LinkedIn. First, upgrade your account to the professional edition of LinkedIn and use the advanced search criteria to find them.
Make sure you include “Innovation Manager” in the title, and also select the specific geographic area you’re looking for. In this case, we’ll do San Francisco — startup mecca.
There’s a list of 3,545 within 100 miles of San Francisco. LinkedIn connections are much more likely to open a conversation with someone they’re already connected to, so take your optimized LinkedIn profile and send a request to connect with them. If you’ve got a large number of people you want to connect with — e.g., a few hundred people in your industry — automation tools can do it for you.
Now that you’re connected you have an opportunity to reach out and introduce yourself, or at least see what kind of events they may be attending, like the conference hosted by the Akamai class (this is a hack within the hack!). In person networking is much more effective that virtual, which we’ll get more into later.
Online Prospectors are another great tool you can use to scrape specific niches of the web for Innovation Managers. You can use it to scrape websites for contact information when you are trying to find a specific person.
Hack 2: How to Get in Touch with Them
Let’s stop thinking about them as targets, these are people — human beings not chatterbots! Getting to actually know people as you’re networking is the most important step in making a valuable connection go both ways. These people need to get as much (if not more) value from you as you get from them, this is the key. Always be helping and adding value, whether in person or via email.
Choosing which networking events to go to can be tough, but you can begin by creating a list of the ones to avoid. For example, there are three different levels of networking you can access in the Bay Area, California. Here’s how they work.
Level 1 – Events That Have Only One Type Of Attendee
You should generally avoid these unless it’s an entire group of Innovation Managers (doubtful), or you’re networking with others in a similar role for a different reason. These events typically attract amateur startup founders that usually don’t know where else to go for the best access to the techworld. These kinds of events are only good for practicing networking.
Level 2 – Events With Representatives From Big Brands
These can be a positive use of time and sometimes require a fee to attend. Depending on the type of representative they have present, there may be interesting people there for you to meet and connect with. For example, you could later use them as a reference for connecting with an Innovation Manager.
Level 3 – Highly Exclusive Private Events
These typically happen behind closed doors and aren’t advertised to the public. Sometimes they are informal gatherings without networking as a theme. These are mostly for people who are already well-connected people in Silicon Valley. Use any opportunity to get into these events if you get the chance.
You can almost always tell which events probably would not be a good use of time for meeting an Innovation Manager. If you see events on MeetUp.com or EventBrite with only a few attendees listed — pass. Instead, look for events where someone with an extensive or relevant experience is speaking. Look into sponsored events by big brands.
Investing in these larger types of conferences can often prove worthwhile if you make an effort to meet the right people. Find out where Innovation Managers will be and go directly to those conferences. Generally, the best person to know at conferences is the organizer. This person knows all the influential attendees and if you befriend them or add value they might be able to introduce you to someone for a future whiteboarding session.
If these events are too big, with thousands of people and one innovation manager, your chances of making a lasting connection with him or her are low.
If you’re at a conference never bombard the person you want to meet, especially if there’s a queue of people waiting to speak with them. An interaction during a Q&A session is when they’re least likely remember you.
Hack – if you are bold enough, you can try to organize an informal after party for the event. Talk you people and ask them “Are you going to the after party?” If it goes viral, you can network with all the best people from the conference without spending money on a sponsorship.
Note – you need to have a good hotel suite or bar or room to go to already picked out.
Hack 3: Vet Your Candidates
If you want to choose the best innovation manager for your business, you are going to need to make sure that candidates fulfill certain areas of requirement. You want to be sure that all qualified innovation managers will help to foster diversity no matter where they are, as well as be sure that they have their their own network that they utilize well. In addition, you want to be sure that your innovation manager prospect enjoys and encourages network and market competition. Those that meet these requirements are sure to be true masterminds of innovation.
These candidates should not ever try to make predictions for your company, instead they should be open to chance. Ideally, an innovation manager should also connect with as many people as possible to break down imaginary boundaries and update the work environment. Remember to vet your candidates to see if they meet these requirements.
Innovation Manager Characteristics
In order to vet your candidates, you should also be looking for certain qualities of innovation managers that will help you succeed. Innovation managers, above all, require one specific characteristics – the ability to embrace risk. The best innovation manager will embrace risk, because innovation requires risk. Make sure that your innovation management candidates are able to embrace risk and change to find backdoors for problem solving. This is crucial for hiring an innovation manager that is likely to succeed.
Hack 4: Reaching Out To An Innovation Manager
Let’s say you’ve met an Innovation Manager at a networking event and engaged in some small talk. Don’t start asking for a meeting right away. Don’t “monopolize” the conversation. Tim Ferriss talks about not rushing, and this is great advice. Play the long game. It’s unconventional, and that’s what will make you stand out.
After you’ve met an Innovation Manager whom you want to be involved with. Shoot them a follow up email the same day saying:
Hey <<First Name>>,
It was great meeting you today, I appreciate you taking the time.
By the way, the one thing that surprised me was XYZ. (Here make a specific reference to something he/she talked about. That way they know you’re not sending a templated letter).
One week later, you send them another note. This time, the note is totally focused on them.
Hey <<First Name>>,
Based on what we talked about the other day, I thought you might like seeing this. (link to something supporting what they were talking about).
The great thing about this message is that it gives you an opportunity to show you were paying attention to details during your initial conversation with them, and that you’re someone who gives value and may be worth keeping around. This is the method used by Wigo creators, and, clearly, it worked. It is also the perfect tool to use prior to a webcam test interview, as well.
Now, one week later, send another message.
Hey <<First Name>>,
Just wanted to give you a quick update. When we met you mentioned A, and I went out and did that. You also mentioned B and I went out and did that too. The results were <insert the results>. I’m going to keep following up on your advice!
By the way, as you know I’m looking for an innovation team to partner with for the project I’m working on. If you happen to know anyone I should talk to, I’d love to speak to them.
It works because most people never follow up, and even more people don’t do anything with advice. Busy people, the kind of people who have offshore accounts, love when they meet people who listen to their advice, follow it, and provide value. This immediately puts you at the top of their mind in a position of respect. If they think you’re a good match they’ll give you a shot, or refer you to a friend who may be a better match.
Hack 5: Exact Ways to Add Value to Their World
Here’s how you can add value and increase your social credibility without asking for anything. Anytime you’re going to meet someone and have time to prepare, take a few minutes to do some customer research and find out exactly how you uniquely can do something for them.
Often times startups sit in awe of a decision maker that they think is the one who can “decide their fate”. Don’t do that. Always be in a mindset of creating and adding value. It could be on a specific topic, it could even just be listening. The better you get to know the individual, the more you’ll know precisely how to provide value.
Here Are 4 Key Ways You Can Add Value:
- Connect people who can directly benefit from knowing each other.
- Take the opportunity to help someone when it’s appropriate.
- Give what you have when asked.
- Give them a client referral. Nothing is better than helping someone grow their business.
Hack 6: Use These Little Known Resources
Here’s a collection of wisdom that we use for our own networking skill development. You should probably benefit from them as well. All of these are truly awesome. When it comes to building a team or meeting innovation managers, you will need a resource that encompasses all of networking in the area. To learn more, read this resource: The ultimate white paper for networking in Silicon Valley. It contains everything you need to get going in the start up city. Before you know it, you’ll have all the little known tips and tricks to get your start up off the ground.
About The Author: Pavel Cherkashin
I find good ideas and people in internet and technology and help them grow into $100m companies that make customers, employees and investors happy. Sometimes I do this myself, somethings I help other people do this better than me. I serve as Director at GVA Capital – early-stage VC firm, helping great startups successfully go global.
Image from http://www.trojanischeinnovation.at/supervision-innovation/