The Asocial Network(ing Event)

“There’s a slight distinction between networking and prostituting yourself. One is legal and risky, the other is illegal and a good source of income. They both leave you feeling dirty.”

Jacob found himself in a button down shirt and blazer at the Entrepreneurship Club’s sponsored networking event in downtown Palo Alto, still wondering how his roommate convinced him to come. “My roommate claimed I wasn’t going to create the next big thing staring at my Macbook while chain-eating Jack in the Box burgers in my underwear. I disagreed, but I was bored and didn’t have much to lose.”

It was July of 2008, and Jacob had been spending his internshipless month brushing up on mobile application development. With his prior engineering experience, he was a quick study, and he (rather presciently) identified iPhone app development as a potentially lucrative market. Apple had just released the iPhone 3g and started allowing third party developers to submit their own apps. Jacob had a gut feeling iPhone apps were going to be huge, but which apps he couldn’t say. His gut could only predict so much, and recently it had been preoccupied digesting Jack in the Box (to be fair to his gut, that’s a full time job).

Beyond boredom and his roommate’s pleas, Jacob had other reasons for attending. While he was liked well enough in entrepreneurship circles at business school, he tended to piss off everyone else. “When I’m cynical, I tend to be vocal about it,” he admitted. Many of the notes on his so-called “80% list” he purposefully leaked to other students, and it was not as well received as he hoped. “Apparently, you can really piss people off if you call 80% of their $150,000 investment worthless. In hindsight, that kind of makes sense.”

Consequently, Jacob needed to meet new people. He was still looking for that “perfect co-founder.” He was also sick of being viewed as an outcast and was desperate for some kind of camaraderie beyond his roommate’s gentle nudging. His first attempts to branch out included attending other graduate schools’ mixers, starting with the computer science department. “Honestly, that didn’t go well. When people learned I was from the business school they got pretty cold. I’m guessing some of my classmates left a lasting impression when they hired CS students as codemonkeys instead of treating them as peers.” Jacob tried other departments with little luck; though through sedulous schmoozing was cast as an extra in the drama departments’ summer showing of Candide. “A minor victory, but their love of Voltaire didn’t parlay into any entrepreneurial desire. I wasn't exactly in the best of all possible worlds.”

Without a strong social circle, Jacob slowly descended into his own personal state of nature: half-nakedly staring at computer screens while violently inhaling $4 cheeseburgers. He finally yielded to his roommate’s suggestion that this was unhealthy, if only grudgingly, by attending the Entrepreneurship Club’s summer networking event.

Networking Events

Ostensibly a venue to meet new business connections, a networking event is actually where second or third-degree connections do their best to hide their personality and emulate their resumes in real life. Some will even vocalize their resume’s bullet points without prompt or warning. Imagine browsing LinkedIn, but without the convenience of ignoring irrelevant or annoying communication. You’ll collect hundreds of business cards that will become out-of-date in a year. Worst, you’ll rarely (if ever) feel comfortable enough to be yourself.

Jacob hated networking events almost as much as he hated dressing up. He was hopeful that this one would be different, given the event’s sponsoring group, but his initial impressions were not favorable. His first conversation was with a consultant trying to make entrepreneurs feel poor to compel them to interview with his firm. Like most consultants, his attempted subtlety was laughably crude and reeked of false humility. Jacob snapped after hearing how “he was in the poor house with his BMW repairs” and decided to tell his lightbulb joke. The consultant politely excused himself from conversation.

Next, Jacob was chatted up by a tall, pants-suit wearing woman who must have been a second-tier venture capitalist. When she handed him her business card, he read an unrecognizable company name and felt an exquisitely expensive paper stock; a clear sign of insecurity about her place in the pecking order. He was, however, pleasantly surprised by how straightforward she seemed. He recalled the conversation.

“You’re working on your own project? In what field?” she asked.

“iPhone app development. Just started a month ago.”

She seemed slightly intrigued. “Any funding yet? Give me your elevator pitch.”

Jacob was uneasy at this point. “No funding really, just getting started. I don’t have an elevator pitch.”

“You need an elevator pitch. How else will you get funded? At least you have a rough draft, right? What are you planning on building anyway?”

Jacob realized this wasn’t going well. “Still figuring that out.”

“Ah. Well. When you do, let me know. We’ve been fielding a large number of requests for mobile companies with our latest fund. Would be tough to find a spot for you, especially without any idea what you’re actually building.” She left him there to mull on that thought, not unkindly, though he wondered whether she had money to dole out. Second-tier venture capitalists had a tendency to speak with greater confidence than their top-tier peers, in spite of being one bad investment away from insolvency.

Several conversations later, Jacob was convinced he wouldn’t find his co-founder here. Outside of the refreshing chat with the venture capitalist, all he saw were “empty suits and emptier minds.” He decided to wait out the remainder of the evening hovering around the appetizer table; in addition to being far from the networkers’ bleating, the table was conveniently refilled with cheeseburger sliders, which made Jacob feel far more comfortable. As he was about to chomp down on his eighth slider, a bearded, resigned looking man drifted to the table and appeared ready to start his own cheeseburger marathon. He looked just as uncomfortable as Jacob in his french cuff shirt and tie, and had already unbuttoned his collar.

Jacob’s hope returned with his heartburn, and after recovering and setting down his slider, decided to try being himself. “I remember asking him ‘Do you hate this as much as I do?’ He laughed, and replied, ‘More. It probably took me longer to put this damn shirt on. I never get cuffs right.’ I then noticed he had safety pins in lieu of cuff links.”

He knew immediately they’d get along. They left University Cafe and went to the cozier confines of Coupa to continue their commiseration, sharing the evening’s conversations like war stories. Before long, he knew he had found a co-founder. Jacob still can’t believe they found each other at a networking event. “I had misjudged networking. Now I know networking is worth 99% of the crap to find the 1% that proves worthwhile. You could call it an extreme application of Pareto’s Law. Pareto was pretty astute for being so lazy.”

Copyleft MMXIV Josh Cincinnati