TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter – February 2004

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Network Man CartoonThe New Way To Build Your Personal and Professional Network
(Are You Ready for Some Electronic Schmoozing?)

You've heard me say this before: THE most valuable asset you have is your Rolodex. Whether it's a real paper-based one, or the Outlook equivalent, the depth and breadth of your client list, contacts, and network of associations is the key determining factor of your ultimate success in business and happiness in life. Yet, most manage this precious asset crudely. Few people are capable of expanding their contact circle while simultaneously adding value to all members of their personal network. That's about to change. In a big way.

Computers have radically altered the way we work. Can you imagine how you'd get along without email, Google, and a word processor… at the very bare minimum? Just the thought of going back to carbons and Wite-Out gives me hives. Computers have assisted us in nearly all aspects of doing business – except the most important one: building your personal and professional network. Doing that traditionally required "getting out there," schmoozing and networking… Indeed, nearly everyone is still networking the old way, except perhaps for some emailed announcements and RSVP's by event organizers, and a bit of email correspondence to follow-up with the new contacts made. Of course, technology cannot replace the work of earning trust that builds real and sustainable relationships (i.e., keeping promises, maintaining confidences, and "giving"). But I'm about to show you some new powerful new tools that'll help initiate those relationships.

What's Wrong With Networking?
What's your concept of social networking? Many people have a pretty negative view of networking events, believing them to be filled with pushy insurance salesmen, desperate "consultants," unemployable job-seekers, Amway types, and miscellaneous people going nowhere in their lives. There are visions of drab Holiday Inn meeting rooms, rubber chicken luncheons, or big, noisy, overpriced, over-hyped events. True, a few networking events are like that, but many more are highly worthwhile, bringing together quality people in enjoyable settings. Still… what if there was a better way? One that was low pressure and highly efficient? One that would help you to map your existing relationships to discover new people and opportunities?

You may have heard of Friendster. Over three million people have become members of this online "social networking" service in just two years, generating enormous buzz about the concept of linking "friends" online. Friendster evolved from the online dating site Match.com, the alumni linking site Classmates.com, and the general sharing site Craigslist.com. But Friendster isn't a positioned as a business tool. Like its name indicates, it's for making friends.

There are new, business-oriented services that employ the same "six degrees of separation" concept as Friendster. They're providing warm introductions to new business prospects, leads on job openings, and connections to capital funding sources and joint venture partners. The best networks preserve what's good about real in-person one-to-one interaction, and effectively leverage your informal personal relationships for the benefit of all parties.

Sound interesting?

Degrees of Separation
If you are invited to join someone's network, you are one degree from him or her. You have a one-to-one relationship. Other people in that person's network are at most two degrees away from you (if you know them directly, they're first degree). The extension is clear: the direct contacts of those 2nd degree people are 3rd degree to you, and so forth. Your network circle expands exponentially as you progress through the rings. Even if you only have a dozen first degree people in your inner circle, by the 4th ring, there could be 20,000 or more possible contacts (by the sixth, it could be three million).

Network Diagram

When you spin your Rolodex (or scan your Outlook address book), you're merely seeing your first degree relationships. You probably have only a limited sense of who has connections to valuable second or third or more distant contacts, *and* would be willing to share those contacts with you. Instead of seeing this (relatively) short list of your direct contacts, imagine seeing everyone else they're also connected to… and… everyone else those people are connected to… and so on, in an ever-expanding web. Some "open" social networking sites work like this. Click on any name, and bring up a photo, biographical profile, list of first degree contacts, and more. A personal network can easily grow to tens of thousands this way. While that's far too large a group to browse, it can be narrowed considerably by searching by industry, alma mater, associations, past employers, etc.

That's how an open system works. The business-oriented systems impose limits to better preserve privacy. You may be able to search this list to identify a person you'd like to communicate with, but you cannot contact him or her directly yourself. Typically, the business networks go out to four rings, but introductions can only be requested via first degree relationships. This establishes and preserves a chain of trust. Because those introductions can only be made or passed along by first level contacts, anyone along the chain can break it, often anonymously.

Here's a List of the Top Networks:

(With the email address I'm known by at each)

Business Networks

  • LinkedIn.com   linkedin@xemaps.com
  • Ryze.com   ryze@xemaps.com
  • Spoke.com   spoke@xemaps.com
  • Zerodegrees.com   zerodegrees@xemaps.com
  • ItsNotWhatYouKnow.com   itsnotwhatyouknow@xemaps.com
  • Tribe.com (Not reviewed in this article)

Friend-Maker Networks

  • Friendster.com   vufriendster@xemaps.com
  • Orkut.com
  • Match.com
  • Ringo.com
  • Classmates.com

Event Invitation Networks

  • Meetup.com
  • Evite.com
  • Tickle.com (Emode)

That's a pretty long list, isn't it? Don't worry, I'll tell you what you need to know in order to make an intelligent decision about which service will be of greatest benefit to you. I'll make specific recommendations, and give you a "paint by numbers" guide to getting signed up and happily networking online.

LinkedIn Logo

LinkedIn   www.LinkedIn.com
Considered by many to be the premier business networking service, LinkedIn has about 50,000 current members as of this writing. In November, it received a $4.7 million investment from Sequoia Capital (the venture capital firm behind Google, Yahoo, and PayPal). What do they expect to get for their money? There's great expectation that LinkedIn will become an essential part of the upper-echelon business culture. The service is geared to C-level executives, investors, influential managers, and other hard-to-reach people concerned about building contacts with others while tightly controlling access to themselves. LinkedIn exists solely as a service for people who want to receive "warm" introductions to other people. There are no discussion forums, event listings, or the extra content you'll find in other services. But it has an excellent access system. The names and profiles of other people up to four degrees of separation away are visible to you, but you can't get contact information unless it's explicitly given to you by the target person. Before it even reaches your target, every link in the chain must approve your introductory request. Like a firing squad, where each gunman aims at the victim's heart, but one gun contains a blank round, this system allows a person in the contact chain to break it anonymously, with a relatively clear conscience.

This strictly enforced chain of trust ensures that when connections are made, they're well-placed. The anonymous black ball turn-downs prevent "dilution" of the list by reducing the tendency to admit marginal players. However, it also means you won't necessarily grow your network as quickly as you can elsewhere. You'll need to receive an invitation, or be proactive in getting your top-shelf offline contacts to sign up. There's a bit of a Catch 22 here. To build a network, it helps if you've already got one to share. Again, human nature at work. If you want to get, you've got to give. Both parties must believe there's something to gain.

LinkedIn allows you to upload your address book (Outlook and others) to check which of your existing contacts are already on the service. It also facilitates emailing your non-member contacts invitations to join the service. Both of these features are important for jumpstarting your network.

By the way, LinkedIn has become a preferred source for journalists to make contacts with people who are authoritative and trustworthy.

Ryze Logo

Ryze   www.ryze.com
Ryze is the second service I highly recommend you join. It's a very full-featured service that combines the best of online and in-person networking. It's more "open" than Linked-in, yet still has good privacy controls. It attracts a good range of professionals and businesspeople. Ryze facilitates live networking events. The next one in New York City already has 250 RSVP's, with "profiles" listed for the attendees. You can click on names, and pre-select those whom you want to speak with at the event, or easily follow-up afterward. There are also threaded discussion lists, web links, forums, classifieds, and more. Because of these features, and its general approachability, the service is growing quickly, with about 60,000 members as of January 2004. However, Ryze confines your entire contact circle to 2nd degree people (friends of friends), which could be limiting; but that raises an issue that Ryze helps address.

Regardless of which service you join, building a large, vibrant, quality personal network is imperative, whether it's for seeking a new opportunity or becoming more successful in your current job or business. But how do you grow your network? The best way is to join the network of someone who is already very well connected. These folks are known as "hubs," and if you're invited to join them, you'll gain access to a large group of new 2nd degree contacts. (More on this later.) However, you can't sit around and wait for invitations to trickle in. You need to be proactive, inviting your friends, associates, and valued contacts to sign up for the service and join your network. Human nature being what it is (lazy), this can be a challenge. Most people happily take the "do nothing" option. It could take some gentle reminders on your part.

Fortunately, you have other ways to make new connections. Services like Ryze allow you to search for people in your industry or your local area. If you have time to contribute, Ryze has industry and city-specific bulletin boards where you can post and make contacts. You also have control over how accessible you make yourself to others. On Ryze, you can choose from three levels of accessibility. If you set it to a high level of privacy, you won't receive many invitations from "strangers." If you lower it, you'll build your network faster. It's a personal choice.

You should know, however, that Ryze has a paid membership level in addition to a basic membership. None of the other networking sites currently charge fees, but most are planning to in the near future. $10 seems to be the magic number. Whether it's a monthly access charge (what Ryze charges for premium service), or on a per-successful-introduction basis.

Ryze is still usable on the basic level, especially for learning about live networking events, although searching for new contacts is quite limited unless you pay.

Spoke Logo

Spoke   www.spoke.com
$9.2M in venture capital has poured into this company recently. Why would top-tier VC firms like US Venture Partners and Sierra Ventures invest in Spoke when LinkedIn seems to be further along? Spoke goes deeper and wider than other programs in helping to build a contact database. In addition to scanning your address book, Spoke mines your email flow to compile a list of contacts. It also scours the web and other sources of public data for connections. It'll also search beyond the "customary" four degrees of separation. It claims over 5 million people in that extended network (although far fewer actual users of course).

Spoke also has a different target market. They primarily sell into mid-size and larger firms, providing an in-house program to foster contact sharing among employees. At up to $75,000, this installation isn't cheap, but for high transaction value sales, it can easily pay for itself. That's what the VC's believe will deliver a 10x return on their investment. Unlike its main corporate-target competitor, Visible Path, Spoke also provides no-charge access to individuals and small businesses who wish to use it like LinkedIn. This is very smart in my opinion. They expand their greater network, adding value and variety for their corporate customers while offering a high-quality service at no cost to those unlikely to pay for it anyway. As an aside, Visible Path is an enterprise-only solution geared to sales teams, and is therefore not reviewed here.

If you take the time to visit the Spoke.com web site, you'll immediately see that the service is well capitalized and professional. It is the third service I highly recommend you join. While both Spoke and Visible Path extract contact info from your address book, Spoke takes an additional step and also mines individual email messages for additional contact info and to assign relationship strength. That's a very interesting feature. Spoke provides a no-charge download of an Outlook plug-in that automatically synchs your local contact database with the private one you build on their server. Based on the frequency and recency and type of your contacts with others, Spoke estimates the strength of your relationship. It's quite interesting to let it do this (I'm comfortable enough with their privacy policy to permit it), and then view a ranking of your contacts, from strongest to weakest. Spoke showed me that I have 3,600 first-degree contacts, although I consider about a thousand of these to be "junk," mostly mined from my emails, or listing people I don't consider having a relationship with. Still, I was pretty surprised at the size of my Spoke network, right out of the gate.

There's unique feature in Spoke that I hope other services copy soon: the ability to include a list of all your different email addresses, having each one contribute to building your contact universe, yet keeping them all confidential. This is important to us who use different email addresses for different purposes. Most people have a personal AOL-type email account in addition to a work email, at a minimum. To fight spam, more and more people are starting to use "disposable" email addresses*. Most Urbach Letter subscribers know me as victor@urbachletter.com. If that's how you look for me on most networking services, you won't find me. For example, on LinkedIn, my email address is linkedin@xemaps.com (xemaps is spamex spelled backwards). However, Spoke is smart enough to know that victor@urbachletter.com should refer to my sign-up address on that service: spoke@xemaps.com. You don't have to set up "disposable" email addresses as I have, but having done so already, I can tell you with some degree of confidence that you won't receive unsolicited commercial email from any of the services mentioned in this letter. To help you keep things straight, I've provided a printable checklist in the yellow sidebar to the right, showing you, step-by-step, how to sign up for the various services and how link to me on each.

*An update to my August, 2002 spam fighting article is way overdue. (I'm working on it.) For now, I highly recommend the Spamex.com service. With Spamex and similar services, you can create new, unique email addresses on the fly, and associate them with different web sites. If you start to receive spam, it's easy to identify the source and quickly shut it down.

ZeroDegrees Logo

ZeroDegrees   www.zerodegrees.com
A relative newcomer among newcomers, ZeroDegrees shows promise. It has a nice Outlook plug-in that makes searching for new contacts easy and natural. As with LinkedIn, ZeroDegrees requires both parties to explicitly opt-in before a contact is made or passed along. I haven't been able to evaluate it, but ZeroDegrees claims an "engine" that is one generation more advanced than its competitors. That could be an advantage, since some services seem to get somewhat laggy at certain busy times (especially Friendster). ZeroDegrees can also import contacts from Eudora, Goldmine, ACT!, Outlook Express, and Yahoo. That's a big plus for non-Outlook people.

ZeroDegrees' software not only scans through your contact manager program to create a list of contacts, but also recommends which contacts should be invited into the network. You can then select your network and sort contacts into three categories of familiarity. People in the "Inner Circle," (the highest level), can access full contact information of everyone in each other's networks, bypassing the intermediary. Outside of the Inner Circle, users must request an introduction through the originator of the contact, and that gatekeeper's identity is kept secret. Jaz Dhillon, the president of ZeroDegrees explains the rationale: "Our connectors are senior business people who value relationships much more than people who just want to get introductions"

I may or may not invite you to join ZeroDegrees. On one hand, there's no current cost or any obligation to join, and you should explore as many services as you can. However if you're only going to join one or two, I'd recommend going with the leaders LinkedIn and/or Ryze right now.


ItsNotWhatYouKnow   www.itsnotwhatyouknow.com
ItsNotWhatYouKnow, or INWYK (pronounced "In-Week") for short, is listed here for completeness, although it's not yet on my A-list. My sense is that INWYK has promise but needs to attain a larger membership base before it's considered in the same peer group as Ryze or LinkedIn. Still, it has a good feature set and an attractive interface. Some cool features are a world map, graphically displaying where your contacts are concentrated, and other visual ways of scanning your personal network. It's important to realize that all of the services mentioned in this article are rapidly evolving and adding new features. Frankly, it's impossible to know which one will come out on top. I'm hedging my bets by semi-passively signing up for the likely candidates. I'll continue to watch what develops and allocate my time and attention accordingly. I believe these new services will become "mission critical" for business quite soon, and recommend being in at an early stage to take full advantage.

Friendster Logo

Friendster   www.friendster.com
You should join Friendster. Even if you don't need any more friends. Here's why: Friendster is a free-for-all. You have the ability to freely search among its 3 million members, although you can only make contact with "friends" (that is, along a chain of contacts, which can extend many degrees away). Even though it's not business-oriented, you should still sign up. Just like going to a real life social event, you don't know where your friends will take you in your business or career...

Friendster's best for cultivating after-work relationships, dating, and finding groups for social activities. Some singles believe dates referred by "friends" are more palatable than the quasi-anonymous hook-ups arranged by a true "dating service" like Match.com. Not that there's anything wrong with Match.com. Most singles have no qualms using it to find dates. The taboo has long since lifted. However, some have remarked on the "creepy factor," where "people pretend to be someone they're not." However, that happens on the phone too…

Nonetheless, you should know about "Friendster Fraudsters," people pretending to be someone they're not. In an open system like Friendster, there can be random craziness, but still it's difficult to pretend to be a member of a social network for personal gain. There *is* vigilante justice, as some have discovered. (In LinkedIn, by contrast, it's impossible to blast out messages to people. Because of the contact chain, a third party must vouch for you, and therefore confirm you are who you say you are.) Spoofing and other disruptive behavior is sure to diminish when the services start charging. It's one thing to sign up anonymously to a free site, and another to cough up a credit card number. The money people behind all Friendster have little doubt you'll do that once you discover the good things about it down the line. Super-heavyweights Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Benchmark Capital have already invested $10 million in Friendster. Tim Koogle (co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo) is on the board and invested $1 million in personal funds.

Orkut Logo

Orkut   www.orkut.com
For a hint where Google's headed in the future (especially in light of the expected "Mother of All IPO's" this year), consider Orkut. Like many "advanced" Google features, Orkut is the side project of a Google engineer/programmer. However, it's strictly invitation-only. You can't even get past the home page without an invite from somebody who's already in.

Meetup Logo

Meetup.com   www.meetup.com
This isn't a social networking service per se. It belongs in a category by itself. This service exists (at present) to facilitate "Meetups," live assemblies of people who share something in common. Presidential candidates have discovered Meetup.com and are using it to build grass-roots organizations in cities across the country. If nothing else, a visit to Meetup.com provides an interesting sociological window. On the day I'm writing this article, there were over 182,300 members in the "Dean in 2004" group, as well as 3,800 Harry Potter fans, 6,500 Bill O'Reilly watchers, and 4,700 "Stay At Home Moms." Lest you think this to be just a frivolous web site, please be aware that some very savvy people have invested big venture dollars in Meetup.com. eBay founder Pierre Omidyar joined the board and invested several million in personal funds. Obviously, there are plans in the works to dramatically expand the charter and scope of this service. If you're interested in this concept, then also check out similar sites Evite.com and Tickle.com (formerly known as Emode). Both are worth at least a lunchtime visit.

Job Seeking
As you'd expect, job seekers find this environment especially appealing. The "personal profile" in these systems can look a lot like a resume. It can include listings of past employers, educational background, testimonials, interests and objectives, etc. However, you don't need to come right out and declare you're looking for a new job. If you're currently employed, having a visible profile can allow you to prospect for job leads without tipping off your current employer that's what you're really after. Plus, you get to engage in the fun and challenge of writing a profile. It's been fourteen years since I've considered myself an "employee" and needed to update a resumé (I hung out my consultant shingle in February of 1990), yet the process of crafting an honest yet engaging profile/resume is a worthwhile one.

So, what do you think about all this so far? Are you excited or skeptical? You may be wondering if joining these online social networking services is only appropriate for techies and "early adopters." You may have fears about giving up some privacy. Perhaps you're worried about protocol (inadvertently committing an online faux pas). More likely though, you're apprehensive about sharing your contacts, and uncomfortable "brokering" introductions. Those are valid concerns. But let me give you my thoughts.

Our personal networks, both business and social, are inherently private. Many people are understandably hesitant to share relationships they've carefully built over the years. Even a good friend may hesitate to make an introduction to a valued business associate, knowing that an unsatisfactory exchange could be a poor reflection on him or her, or that all their "relationship capital" with that associate will get used up.

Thinking about your own personal (offline) network, I'm sure you agree there are many factors to weigh before making a new introduction to one of your contacts, or a direct connection between two people already in your network. The first consideration is whether both parties will actually benefit from the introduction you're making. Secondly, will they each respect your relationship with the other person? Thirdly, as the introducer, will you be viewed as a valuable link or a bothersome opportunist? There's a fourth consideration for some people: will they personally benefit by making the connection?

Nonetheless, a large personal network is also a measure of social status. People want to be plugged in, and want you to know they are – but – may not want you to know who specifically they're plugged into… The better online business networking systems give you considerable control over this aspect.

Regarding privacy, I've written a lot on this subject (How to Keep Your Private Life Private), and consider myself a "realistic" privacy advocate. However, as Sun Computer's Scott McNealy quipped, "You have zero privacy anyway, so get over it." Even privacy advocates use social networking services to link up and collaborate, which goes to show that communication is often valued higher than privacy. You can strike an acceptable balance. For me that means not disclosing home address, exact date of birth, and the like.

The Next Step
Online networking may be over-hyped by the media, but will, ultimately, result in something very powerful. In some circles, it's already become part of the business and social culture. It directly relates to the *permission-based* marketing environment in which we now reside.

If you're a subscriber, you may receive an invitation to join my network. Whether you accept my invitation or not is totally up to you. Nonetheless, I believe it will serve your best interest to at least sign up on the recommended no-charge services and join my network. There's no cost and no obligation. If you later decide it's not for you, just bail out. It's more likely that you'll find numerous reasons to stay connected.

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(c) Copyright 2002-2010 Victor Urbach
This article
may be reprinted with permission and attribution