Rule 1: We shape our Network

Posted by on July 23rd, 2016

Humans deliberately make and remake their social networks all the time. The primary example of this is homophily, the conscious or unconscious tendency to associate with people who resemble us (the word literally means “love of being alike”). But we also choose the structure of our networks in three important ways.

In the previous post, I explained how in 2009 the Greek startup enthusiasts created a new network around entrepreneurship. Essentially, we practiced homophily, as described above. Through that network we met our cofounders, our investors.

So here is how I shaped my network. I presented my first venture, StayInAthens, at OpenCoffee IV. A few months later I attended an OpenCoffe event where a startup called Product Madness presented. A couple weeks later I joined them. There I met with Jon. Jon and I, joined some other people in failed startup endeavors till we decided to set our own shop. Shortly after we got started. Argyris sat on our board and introduced us to our advisors, who introduced us to investors who didn’t invest in us after all but they became part of our network. BugSense got acquired and my network filled in with IT professionals and people with deep expertise in data analysis and Enterprise sales. Few months later I saw the Resin.io team in the co-working space of Stavros Messinis, the place where we also started. I was impressed and decided to help them. I already knew to whom I should introduce them: the investors who didn’t invest in BugSense. Why? Simply because they were easily reached and my recent exit gave me extra credibility. Resin.io just raised a 9 million round from top tier VCs, something we never did.

First, we decide how many people we are connected to.

Quantity or quality? I think this is a false argument. We need large networks but we need to be a fit. There is only way to truly belong to a network: creare a win-win situation for both you and your contacts. Do you bring value to the network? A good product? Good connection to other members? Deep expertise in an area? Deep pockets? Are you also a reasonably sociable person? Then you may fit in. Don’t forget that connections != network. Perhaps all you have to do is to make your contact feel important or flattered and build a connection based on emotions. After all we are not rational agents but emotional agents as behavior science tells us.

Second, we influence how densely interconnected our friends and family are.

Connections are seeds and you need to be a gardener. When we were running BugSense we were pretty much outside of any network that would matter. What did we do?

  • We organized developer user groups in Athens. We need to be interconnected with all the developer community in our home town & further beyond. We needed to be the go to startup to work for and of course have developers use our developer focused service. We started the first GDG group in Greece. GDG was phenomenal for us. We found our first customers through the network and we created a relationship with Google that culminated in being invited to showcase at Google I/O 2013.
  • We frequented all the places — industry events, meetups, conferences- where we could meet with potential customers. When we couldn’t be there we faked it. We would schedule tweets at the time of the event using the event hashtag. We called it pirate tweeting. We were talking very often with our users on reddit and stackoverflow. We sponsored meetups & hackathons just by giving away our plans for free. Soon we were everywhere. We brought a valuable service to the network and in exchange our message was received and amplified. Win-win.

And third, we control how central we are to the social network

This is perhaps the hardest part of being a good networker. To an outsider this may seem like an impossible task. It is a rich gets richer world. The more central you the more easy for other people to connect with you. When you are not central in the network you have to try extremely hard to make the people you want to connect with see value in forming a connection with you. Nobody will connect because you deserve it. Forget entitlement. Always think of what value you can bring to the person you are talking to. Is it a VC? Show her how she can make top $$$. Is it a customer? Don’t show her a product! Show her you can solve her problem! Is it an employee? Show her how can she valuable in your team! Is it an advisor? Show her that advising you would be a rewarding experiencing for her. She will learn a lot, she will be able to make an impact and perhaps her ego will inflate. Try to help even when there is no immediate benefit for you. If you help others you grow connections. Help others to recruit or make intros or listen to their problems. Be a hub in the network is an art. Rational selfish reasons are not enough, you need to seek altruism, team playing, empathy, progress.

Seeing ourselves as part of a superorganism allows us to understand our actions, choices, and experiences in a new light. If we are affected by our embeddedness in social networks and influenced by others who are closely or distantly tied to us, we necessarily lose some power over our own decisions.

Never forget that you are part of a network. When we were running BugSense, we used to have frequent entrepreneur breakfast with fellow co-founders in Athens. Athens is not one of the greatest startup ecosystems. Not one where a lot of great companies exist, sophisticated investors and amazing mentors. However, by sticking together we would learn from each other, help with hiring, exchange notes on accounting and occasionally get an interesting intro. For example we partnered with Andreas Constantinou of VisionMobileon the Developer Economics survey, that was yielding hundreds of leads for us. Later, John Papadakis was seeking advise for his at the time startup. After a lot of discussions Pollfish was born. Did the local community help in defining Pollfish? I think it did. Oh he also hired one of the top BugSense engineers.

I have been lucky to get to know many successful Greek entrepreneurs in the Valley. They are not connected with the scene back in Greece. They have never been embedded in that ecosystem. Maybe because it didn’t exist back in their day. They can add tremendous value. They did it for us. Local networks in technology have low value because technology is global. There is no IoT DevOps platform for Germany neither Log Analysis for Portuguese IT. Forging the connection with the Silicon Valley or other network is the key to success. Nationality has helped us forge the first connections. But it is not enough. We need to show that besides national ties there is win-win reason to further grow it. We should never forget that what we do is not just for personal success. Our success will have a multiplier effect for the network were we are embedded.

Understanding why social networks exist and how they work requires that we understand certain rules regarding connection and contagion — the structure and function — of social networks. These principles explain how ties can cause the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts.

Unfortunately, LinkedIn doesn’t allow you to export your network anymore, just names & emails. From a quick scan you can see the following trends about me:

  • I am connected with a many Greeks (my roots)
  • I know more than a few Venture Capitals(through my efforts to fund raise & my entrepreneurial endeavors)
  • Well connected with Splunk employees (because I am employed there)
  • ❤ developers (my customers, my peers, my friends)
  • I have worked with many IT professionals (Splunk customers)
  • Tons of startup founders (homophily)

As you can see I might be a good resource if you are interested in forming a tech startup focusing on SaaS, Enterprise, Developer tools and it would be a bonus point if you were somehow related to Greece as I could further connect with you some of my many contacts there.

So, how can you shape your network to make you and your ecosystem stronger?

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