Hugh Weber founded OTA, a for-purpose organization focused on sparking transformation through creative connections and collisions in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Follow him @HughWeber.
Recently, YEC spoke with Weber about his experiences networking and her advice for others aspiring to improve their own experience. His best advice is below.
What is one practical tip you’d give a young entrepreneur who is just setting out to build a professional network?
Slow down and pay attention. If you’re counting on speed networking events to grow your business, you’re likely to end up very disappointed. Instead you should try to map your relationships, real and aspirational, and determine who you need to meet or which skills you need to connect with to get where you hope to go. Mapping a network can be as simple as drawing dots and lines on paper or as complex as advanced software applications. Either way, you just need to do the hard work to get started.
Describe one situation in which a casual networking connection ended up later having a big impact on your business. What was the key to making this connection a lasting one?
One of the most meaningful connections of my life came through a response to a Twitter request. A journalist with Fast Company, Ellen McGirt, who I had followed for years, asked her social following to share what they thought of the FC brand. My response sparked a series of messages, emails and an invitation for her to visit an event in South Dakota.
The connection developed and sustained because it was human, reciprocal and without an agenda. It followed a natural progression and I would now do absolutely anything to help Ellen and I believe she would do the same.
What is the no. 1 quality a successful networker/connector needs to have, and why?
Empathy and curiosity. Unless you’re sincerely invested in the well-being of the other person and willing to engage through sincere questions, you’re likely just building an email list and a transactional connection with limited value long-term.
Which venues or events do you recommend other entrepreneurs use to make solid business connections?
I’m a big believer in the power of the old school potluck as the best way to build connection and community. By its definition, it requires invitation, contribution, conversation and often celebration. I recently spoke at a TEDx event about this and I believe may have inspired a new wave of potlucks in the region.
What systems, practices, or even apps/tools do you use to simplify networking and follow-ups?
I utilize a signature question to spark connection. Rather than asking, “What do you do?” or talking about the weather, I believe we should ask questions that we’re genuinely curious or passionate about and willing to listen to the answer to hundreds or thousands of times. My question right now? “What are you so excited by or interested in right now that it’s keeping you up at night?” This simplifies follow-up because you listen closely enough to actually remember something about the person you’ve met.
How can entrepreneurs introduce themselves memorably to a potentially important contact? What should they avoid?
I think anything that isn’t genuine or distinctly human is a gimmick. Don’t be a gimmick. Instead, you can invest the time in learning something about the potential contact that will be meaningful to them. This shouldn’t be too aggressive or overly personal, but may be enough to open a door.
What was your biggest networking faux pas?
I can’t count the number of times early in my career that I would pretend to remember someone only to be called out on it. I thought part of the game was to remember every name and fake it until you make it. I now believe that approach is dishonest and insincere. If you don’t remember someone, reintroduce yourself or just ask for a reminder. Faking it will make you look, and likely feel, foolish.