Let me begin with a few stories.
It’s the first day of high school. There isn’t a single familiar face around me. I see people coming in groups, and others alone—like me. There’s a guy who looks kinda attractive, and I think “What are the odds that he’s in my class?” The guy turns out to be in my class, but on closer inspection, not as hot as I thought. I probably need new glasses.
I don’t talk to a single soul that first day. I start regretting my decision. I should’ve gone into engineering, then at least I’d have one friend.
The next day, a cheerful blonde girl sits next to me in class. She introduces herself and we start talking. During recess, she takes me by the hand and says “Let’s go meet people!”
I follow her around as she breaks the ice. I met at least 15 people that day. If it hadn’t been for her, I probably never would’ve talked to some of them.
She’s still one of my best friends today.
I ride the bus to school every day. I get to meet a few interesting people as we randomly sit together. My ride is 45 minutes long, so we have plenty of time to talk.
One guy I’ve met is a smart and funny civil engineering student. We tease each other about our favorite music—I listen to rock and metal, and he likes techno—but we find a common ground with The Prodigy. We have all sorts of philosophical discussions. After he graduates from high school, we don’t get to see each other as often anymore.
I’m a member of an online forum of a local rock club. A few of my friends are there, but most of the members I’ve never met in person. After a few weeks of chatting online, we decide to meet up.
We continue to hang out for months to come. Some romantic relationships grow out of these connections. (Including some of mine, years later.)
One of the young women I’ve met over the forums becomes a close friend, and is still one of my best friends today. The man I’ve been in a relationship with for the past 8 years was a friend of the guys I’ve met through the forums. If I didn’t register on that forum, the two of them probably wouldn’t be in my life right now.
I start a personal blog. Then I start another blog that goes on to become one of top resources on web design in Croatia. I meet other bloggers and we maintain connections by commenting each other’s posts.
I'm a (paid) student teacher in the Computer Science and Programming courses at the university, since those are the only thing I'm really good at, and thankfully my professors have noticed. They know I designed and developed the website of a student organization, so they ask if I can build websites for their courses to share materials and updates with students. That was of my first paid web design and development gigs. It will be another 5 years before I realize I have no place at this school, and I'm better off committing to design full time.
A fellow blogger contacts me because she’s publishing a free digital fanzine and wants to put one of my illustrations on the cover. This cover wins the Sfera Award for best Croatian sci-fi illustration. I attend my first sci-fi convention ever to receive the award, and make contacts with some people in the publishing industry, which later turn into freelance illustration work. I’m pulled into the Croatian sci-fi fandom, and start helping out with a local convention, which turns into dozens of projects over the next decade.
A fellow blogger (now a known comedian and advertising wizard) invites me to meet him, because he has a business idea he wants to collaborate on. We meet with two of his friends—developers and 3D designers. We make a plan. The plan doesn’t go quite as we wanted, but we manage to work on a project together and bring in some cash to buy new computer equipment.
The developer guy I've collaborated with on that 2007 project calls me. The company he works at is looking for a designer. I agree to come in for an interview. They hire me. It’s my first full-time job as a designer.
A few years later, the same developer and the head of marketing start their own company and I move to work for them. Later on, after I’ve I started my own business, I collaborate with another one my former coworkers on a few projects.
I’m still employed full time, but I start to freelance on the side again. The friend from the bus (2000) is starting his own company and wants me to design their brand identity and website. The project is a success, and we continue to collaborate for years to come.
One of my Computer Science university professors gets in touch because they need a designer for a project. I do the project. I do another project for their client. And another project for the professor's own project. And another... At the end of the year, I've earned 43% of client work income thanks to their referrals. I guess university education really does pay off...
The point of these stories?
Fact 1: I’m not very good at meeting new people in person
My high school experience illustrates it very clearly. Without a wing-girl, I would be lost.
Then there’s the other thing that we don’t often talk about, but it needs to be said: my polite and warm behavior was often misinterpreted as romantic advances, so I became more careful of whom I approach, and under what circumstances. That’s the reality of being a woman in this culture, and #YesAllWomen are forced to consider how they behave in unfamiliar settings to reduce the risk of unwanted attention. (Not that we should, and not that it always helps, but that’s a story for another day.)
I’m getting better about approaching people I don’t know, but only in situations where I feel safe.
Fact 2: The Internet is awesome
One of my most closest friendships, my current relationship, my previous relationship, as well as a connection that had led to my first full-time job and several subsequent jobs, have all started out from a random online encounter.
I didn’t expect anything, and I never dreamed that this sort of thing is possible. I have many more stories like this, and it’s certainly more of a rule for me than an exception.
There are several reasons why the Internet is great for networking:
- You get to meet a wider pool of people, not being limited by your physical location.
- You can get to know people first, and then seek them out in person if the opportunity arises.
- You can meet more people at once if you broadcast media regularly (like a blog, podcast, videos etc.)
But no matter how wonderful meeting people online is, it’s better if you can also meet them in person.
Fact 3: Networking doesn’t have to look like networking
When we hear the word “networking”, we imagine a room full of people, walking up to strangers and handing business cards. I have done this maybe once or twice in my life. It’s not something I enjoy.
You can see from my examples that client relationships can arise from all kinds of circumstances, and most of them have nothing to do with networking events.
Two of my current repeat clients are people I’ve met through sci-fi conventions. None of us went there to find a business opportunity, but it just happened organically over the years.
You can find potential partners and clients at cultural and sports events, in your gym or yoga studio, through a common friend. And you can absolutely go meet them in places where you expect to find them, like conferences, seminars etc. (Here’s a few tips on how to prepare for events.)
Networking doesn’t have to look like networking. Go out, have fun!
Connections make business better
In Croatia, the word “connection” has a terrible reputation. We associate it with people in leadership positions who hire members of their family, or colleagues from a political party, most of whom are unqualified for the job. At the same time, people with no political or family connections wait at the unemployment bureau.
The term “through a connection” implies you’ve had the luck to be connected to a person who was in a position to hire you, and that your education and experience don’t matter. You’ve gotten there at the expense of someone else who might have been more qualified.
This makes people bitter and cynical. They don’t believe that you can find a job without a connection “in this country”. What they don’t understand is that it’s not just this country—it’s how the world works.
Connections build trust
Let’s say for the sake of example that you own a company and are looking for a new in-house designer. You publish a job advertisement on your website, on the industry job portals, on your Facebook page and Facebook groups for designers. Your friends share the ad on their own social media profiles.
A ton of people apply. Some just don’t have a good enough portfolio. Some lack the experience. Those who remain are invited to a job interview. This part is a matter of subjective impression most of all. You’re looking for someone who will fit into your company culture, and shape the culture onward.
I was once in charge of a hiring process for a designer. During our conversations, one candidate sounded bitter, like it was everyone else’s fault that he couldn’t find a job. He criticized the style of graphics our company used because apparently they weren’t utilizing enough Photoshop filters. Now, his skills weren’t at the required level, but even if he was in the shortlist, I would have voted against him on the basis of the behavior he displayed. Nobody wants a grumpy person in their vicinity for 8 hours a day.
Let’s say that several potential new hires give off a good impression, and have an equal level of professional skill. How do you decide?
You do your research.
You call or email their previous employers or teachers. You look up your mutual friends on Facebook and ask them if they know how they behave in a professional setting. You rely on the answers you get from your network to judge whether hiring this person is a good decision.
If the person doesn’t have any connections that you know of, they’re a wildcard.
Taking a chance on them poses a huge risk. Will they perform? Will they get along with the rest of the team? Will they act responsible toward your company’s intellectual property?
The more you can answer these questions in advance, the safer it feels to hire the person.
People hire those they know well, because it’s safer than betting on someone they’ve never heard of.
Connections can damage you, as well.
There are at least two people in the world right now that I’ve previously done business with, that would never recommend me to their friends. In fact, they would probably discourage anyone they know from working with me. As I would do for them—they were the “clients from Hell” in every sense of the word, and I would rather save my colleagues the trouble of going through a horrible experience like the one I had.
I will not publicly disclose who these people are, but rest assured—if anyone asks me anything about them in private, I will share my story with them.
Connections work both ways.
I recommend people a lot. Every now and then a project appears in my inbox that is either not my type of thing, or I don’t have an opening at the moment. I’ll decline the project and forward the contact details of fellow designers and developers I trust.
I did that a few times for a person I had no basis for trusting, besides their own word. That was my mistake. When I recommended this person to a friend, he told me that he had already worked with them, and they proved to be unreliable. I deleted this person from my recommendations list immediately.
My friend would not call someone “unreliable” if he didn’t have a good reason. He’s always on the lookout for potential partners as his business is growing. Of course I would trust him, over the person I’ve just talked to online a few times, and have no other recommendations in their favor.
That’s how connections work. The trust towards one person extends onto all the people they recommend. If people recommend someone who then messes up, their own reputation is at stake. I don’t recommend people lightly because I can't afford having my reputation tainted by other people's unprofessionalism.
The trust towards one person extends onto all the people they recommend.
People who can’t find a job and blame their lack of “connections” for it think that connections are inherently evil.
Connections are good—they’re a safety mechanism for the hiring person or company. All things being equal, a person you have a prior connection with (or a mutual friend who vouches for them) is a better choice than one you don’t know anything about. The problem arises when people disregard professional standards and put a person in a job position they’re unfit for.
The key difference is motive. People who use connections to lower the risk of making the wrong decision for their organization are doing the right thing. People who use connections to benefit people they care about, knowing this decision will harm the organization they work for, are abusing them.
Your lack of “connections” is your problem
In the creative industries, it’s not the politically appropriate or those with important relatives who get the job—it’s the people who constantly show up.
Showing up can take different forms:
- Working on pro-bono projects that get great PR.
- Going to industry conferences, meetups and workshops and talking to people.
- Speaking at industry conferences and meetups, or hosting free workshops.
- Regularly publishing an independent publication like a blog, podcast, video show etc.
- Offering help with no strings attached to people you want to meet.
- Approaching people on Twitter (in a non-spammy way).
- Interviewing people for your publication.
- Answering people’s questions in Facebook or LinkedIn groups.
This helps you build the connections you need, to make your chances of employment or finding clients better.
I’m all for making things more fair so that people who weren’t born into class privilege can have higher chances of success. But I wouldn’t go as far as to blame class privilege as the main reason why someone hasn’t been able to get a job in IT, design or marketing for years. These industries often don’t even require a university degree—just skills and experience, which you can attain for the cost of a laptop and some free time.
If you have a computer and an internet connection, you have what you need to build a good career.
You have access to free education.
You have access to social media to make industry connections.
You have access to online job boards and freelance marketplaces that enable you to find work around the globe.
There’s no secret club you need an invite for.
The "dirty secret" of business: it's all about making personal connections.
If you recognize that not having enough industry connections is your main problem, then focus on solving that problem.
Don’t sit around complaining how people with connections are getting all the jobs. Those connections were not handed down to them. They’ve built them, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places.
Maybe they were in a gaming guild together with the employer. Maybe they’ve met in a book club. Maybe someone’s sister went to the university with someone else’s girlfriend, they’ve all met at a party, and lo and behold—connection made. It's not just high-class people playing golf in country clubs.
Try tracing back how you’ve met certain people—who introduced you to them, where you’ve met that mutual friend, and what decision you’ve made that got you in the same room where you could get acquainted. It’s an eye-opening exercise.
After a bit of digging, you might realize how small moments—the ones you never bother to think about—shaped the course of your life.
I hope this inspires you to seek out connections that will shape your future.