From The Urbach Letter –
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?
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.
Degrees of Separation
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 email@example.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 firstname.lastname@example.org (xemaps is spamex spelled backwards). However, Spoke is smart enough to know that email@example.com should refer to my sign-up address on that service: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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' 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.
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.
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
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.