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May 6, 2024

Principles of Curious Networking (Part 1)

John Kim
Co-founder @ Paraform

Building a first-class contact list is daunting. It requires a lot of rubbing elbows and bumping shoulders. A systematic approach to making friends can feel artificial, if not slimy. But for a startup recruiter, more than any other profession, your network is your net worth. You have to know a lot of people and know them well enough to make crisp, timely connections.

This post covers the first half of a list of principles for networking organically – and therefore sustainably. If your heart isn’t in it, people will feel that. Being a great recruiter isn’t about feigning interest in certain people or topics. It’s about growing your innate curiosity and directing it in a way that’s helpful.

The principles

  1. Show up consistently
  2. Grow your curiosity
  3. Pay attention to attention
  4. Offer value first
  5. Be candid (about tradeoffs)
  6. Show support publicly

Principle 1: Show up consistently

People over-index on how to show up. They should worry more about simply being present. Whatever your niche is, there are many ways to participate. In-person networking events, discussion forums, social media, newsletters, 1:1 calls, etc. These all count.

That’s a big deal. It’s easy to get tired of one format, especially if you’re always under pressure to produce stuff. Reacting and commenting and forwarding and sharing – these are all valid forms of showing up. They aren’t as legible, but they all add value to a community.

And that’s the difference between networking that feels slimy vs. positive-sum networking. You’re not just trying to drum up business – of course, that’s important. Strictly optimizing for that will leave you feeling hollow and burnt out.

Supporting other people in their networking is how you recharge your own batteries while continuing to make progress. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Principle 2: Grow your curiosity

Working as a recruiter for startups means that you’re constantly facing weird, new, exciting businesses. Some might be really technical. Some might be outlandish.

It’s unrealistic to do a brute force study on every company you work with or industry you work in. There’s only so much time in a day, and you have multiple clients. A full-time freelance recruiter doesn’t have the bandwidth to analyze everything.

So, rather than taking an academic, calculated approach and memorizing details, here’s what you should strive for. A well-developed curiosity that will supply you with the quick learning reflexes you need to move fast.

When you start in a new niche, start chasing whatever interests you. If it’s the technical details, great. Business models, great. Even if it’s a seed-stage AI startup’s CFO’s cycling hobby that catches your eye, great. The topic is far less important than you being energetic about it.

People connect over things they care about – and it gets pretty tiring to fake caring about something. So you might as well skip that part, since your goal as a startup recruiter is to build a long-term network.

The most common mistake that undermines this principle is confusing interest for importance. What’s important in recruiting is knowing:

  • Who is good at X, and
  • Who needs someone that is good at X.

While you’re waiting to spot these potential matches, there needs to be a reason to keep up with your connections. And to forge those connections in the first place. It’s much easier to connect with people on things that you’re excited about.

Principle 3: Pay attention to attention

If you want to add value, you need to know what others want. The easiest rule of thumb for assessing that is: people want what they pay attention to. This applies to individuals, companies, and industries. The way they pay attention is different – individuals look and listen, companies measure, and industries regulate – but the principle is the same.

When you’re networking, strike up connections based on your curiosity. Then follow up by listening and observing. What’s that CEO talking about regularly? What metrics does this startup track? Does this hiring manager speak about a certain person positively or negatively?

If two people are attending to the same thing, it’s easy to connect them. There doesn’t even need to be a personal motivation for this sort of relationship building. Simply introducing two people who are watching the same thing is a powerful thing to do, because it’s so low-cost and there’s a ton of upside potential.

So pay attention to the attention of others. This principle is also the foundation for the next principle, adding value first, which we’ll cover in the sequel to this post.

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