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Why Networking Doesn’t Work (and What You Should Do Instead)

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presenting business card

Here’s the deal. Networking sucks, and you’re probably bad at it.

I say that because I believe it myself — I hate networking, and I’m bad at it. So I don’t do it. But that doesn’t stop me from meeting new people, in a business setting, who sometimes refer projects to my design firm.

Wait a minute… Isn’t that networking?

Not in my mind, and I’ll explain to you why. But first, a little story.

Beer and launching a new business

A while ago, I was out for a pint with a girl (we’ll call her Christy) who was looking to strike out on her own, into the legitimately terrifying world of freelance design. She had gotten my name from a friend in the industry, and wanted to pick my brain a bit about how we grew Paper Leaf from a two-person operation into (at the time of this writing) a five-person business whose revenue has doubled every year.

I absolutely love having these conversations, which happen every so often. I can talk business for days; I love hearing where people are coming from and what their plans are and seeing if I can help them out.

The beer doesn’t hurt, either.

Anyway, in this instance, Christy was an illustration-focused designer, aiming to build a client list in order to strike out on her own. However, she was having trouble finding clients and work, which is sort of required if you want to not live on the streets desperately using your Moleskin notebook as a blanket.

I mentioned to her a key point I always come back to in instances like these: go meet people and get involved in your local design/business community. The response from Christy was this:

I’ve been out trying to network at all sorts of events. I meet people, I give them my card, and I even follow up reminding them to contact me if they need any work. But I never get any work from them.

Seems like a totally logical thing, yeah? If you want business, you network. Networking means giving people your card and telling them what you do, right?

No, it doesn’t. It all comes back to a key misunderstanding of the term “networking.” Let me explain…

The problem with networking

Christy’s approach above wasn’t with ill intent or any of that. I used to do it, too. Her approach was just a little misguided, and it’s the problem many people who struggle with “networking” have.

The problem?

The general misunderstanding of “networking” as a selfish action.

I give someone my card. I follow up with them. I remind them that if they have work, they can contact me.

There’s a lot of “I” and “me” in those statements. Where’s the benefit to the person you’re meeting? Unless they have an immediate, unmet need for the services you provide–– which is a long shot — there’s likely little benefit to their connection with you.

How many of you approach a networking event (man, I hate that term) with that sort of mindset? “I’m going to meet people who I might be able to get some business from” or “There will be a lot of potential business opportunities at this event,” etc?

That mindset is wrong. It’s inherently selfish. That’s why your networking attempts are failing and fruitless.

Here’s how to fix it:

Stop networking and start helping

Stop thinking of your local business events as “networking opportunities” and start thinking of them as opportunities to help people. Be a giver, not a taker. Change your mindset from a selfish one to an unselfish one. It’ll come back around, trust me.

If you can provide a benefit or helping hand to someone, they’ll remember that down the road when they actually need your services. For example, who do you think the marketing manager will call when they need design services? Designer A, who gave them his card and talked about all the skills he has, or Designer B, who asked the marketing manager about their business and then followed up with a helpful article/lead/Web application that may be of interest to them?

My money’s on Designer B, all other things being equal. We refer a lot of business leads that aren’t good matches for us to other agencies and freelancers, and we send them to the people who helped us out in the past. They don’t go to the guy who wants to meet for coffee, then gives me an uninterrupted 20-minute-long sales pitch (yes, that’s happened).

So stop aiming to generate business. Aim to understand and help people. (Click here to tweet this thought.)

How to apply this mindset

Let’s bring our newfound mindset back to Christy and put it into practice.

Old Christy’s method went along like so: Gear up for “networking” — an opportunity to drum up some business. Approach, say, an owner of an online marketing firm. Shake hands, swap cards and talk about herself a bit. Then, a day or two later, follow up with an email along the lines of, “Don’t forget about me — I can design things! Pay me money to do that!”

New Christy’s method is more like this: Gear up for an opportunity to learn about other people’s interests and challenges — don’t even think of the word “networking.” Approach the owner of the online marketing firm — introduce herself, shake hands, ask for the owner’s card, then ask questions about their business and what they do. (It sort of goes without saying that you need to be genuinely interested, but I hope you are — there’s a lot of interesting stuff to learn out there.)

Then, in a day or two, she follows up with an email with something actually helpful to the online marketing owner’s business. Perhaps that’s an article on lead conversion optimization she stumbled upon; maybe it’s an ebook on managing employees her old boss swore by; maybe it’s a potential lead that the online marketing firm is a better fit for. She repeats this last step here and there, and importantly, she doesn’t have any expectations from her actions.

The key takeaways

Meet people and look for ways you can help them. Understand their business, their pain points and their challenges — keep them in mind. Then, when you come across a helpful article, ebook, application, referral or so forth, send it to them. Don’t expect anything back in return. Be genuine.

That’s why I don’t network. I try to meet and help people. If you genuinely do the same thing, the business will follow.

Trust me.

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

Jeff Archibald is co-founder of a design firm in Edmonton called Paper Leaf, an award-winning shop focused on brand identities, websites and interfaces. If he’s not learning, creating, speaking or herding cats, he’s partaking in one of his many other loves: coffee, typography, whiskey, cycling and the mountains.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

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  • http://internetdreams.com/ Samuel

    This post made me think a little differently about the word “networking”.

    I love this approach much better than the traditional networking that many have screwed up.

    Be a helpful person first and show the others your opportunity to help.

    Become a giver first.

    Thanks for the article Jeff.

    - Sam

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  • Jeremiah Berry

    Hey Jeff,

    Thanks for this article man! Love the content! It sounds pretty close to what I’ve read in Keith Ferazzi’s book “Never Eat Alone”. Have you read it? And, if so, is that where you gleaned some of these ideas from?

  • Rajul

    Great post, Jeff. I thought your point about understanding people’s pain points, helping them, and not expecting anything in return was really insightful. We’ve done some research on networking at conferences and it’d be interesting to get your thoughts on which tips would be most relevant in that environment.

  • Jaleesa Smith

    I am still fairly early in my career. How do you do this when you haven’t had a lot of experiences to offer?

  • kiwik6

    Przybyłem do Polski z Budapesztu, do którego teraz oferuję wycieczki. Moją propozycję wyszukacie na stronie internetowej wycieczki do budapesztu. Oprócz tego jestem fanem motoryzacji i koszykówki.

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  • suzanne urban

    Finally someone brings this to light. I’ve been the recipient of many tossing tons of their business cards at me and not ONCE requesting mine in return. At this is usually when I haven’t requested their card. This is when I recycle theirs to the circular file as I find the brashness so rude. Secondly, how about those who approach you to “pick your brain” and offer nothing in return not even to buy you a cup of coffee for taking the time out.

  • Sonia

    WOW! This article confirms my long-held disdain for the words “networking” and “schmoozing.” Whenever I expressed that disdain in a business setting, I would always add one of our mother’s instructions growing up: “this world is made of givers and takers; be a giver and don’t keep score” Thanks for this. I immediately e-mailed it to colleagues.

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  • Iris B.

    Meeting people and helping them IS ‘networking’ LOL … Words are powerful and so are our associations with them ………. just because you feel you are bad a it and make yourself think it doesn’t work for you …. doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea … I have had a thriving business career just by networking globally – so for me, it works AND I made some amazing friends on the way …. so after all …. YOU create your reality by what you think and focus on … every step of the way … maybe re-framing your networking issue to a more positive attitude (and word that causes less resistance in you) ….. would get you the success you desire … just sayin’ ;) ….. Wishing you a splendid, inspiring and productive week, best, Iris B.

  • Alessandro

    “Here’s the deal. Networking sucks, and you’re probably bad at it.

    I say that because I believe it myself”… Oh well, if YOU believe it yourself then your article is probably worth reading..

  • John

    One of the worst frustrations in networking is when you show genuine interest in someone else and he/she seems sincerely interested, contact info is exchanged, but afterwards once you follow up with a thanks and show interest in building a relationship you never hear back. It feels very unprofessional and shot to one’s credibility when even a seasoned professional goes out of his/her way to encourage one at an event to send the resume, but then doesn’t reply back to the person who follows up and thanks. Why such? Also, it seems unprofessional when one shows interest in meeting up and mentions to the other party, but then when that other party follows up 3 different times with interest, there is not one reply!! Why aren’t scenarios described more like this in networking and how to combat them with nipping anything in the bud on no flakiness from the other person?