How to make connections with people you don’t know

Matt Van Horn from Digg gave a talk I wasn't expecting last night; the practical side of networking. The whole mission of Mailana is "You guys should talk", I love it when I can connect two people who can help each other. To make that happen, you have to be able to build bridges with strangers; Matt revealed his personal toolkit for reaching the right people.

Matt started off with the LOLCAT picture because if you're not used to networking it can feel creepy and exploitative. What I've realized, and Matt emphasized, is that you need to approach it as a way of helping other people, not just be a taker. It's a long-term project, not something you desperately turn to at the last minute when you need a job.

Having said that, the story of how Matt got to be business development manager at Digg is an example of how chutzpah pays off. He targeted Digg as a company he really wanted to work for, and queued for 2 hours at a trade show to get a business card from Jay Adelson, their CEO. After that he emailed him repeatedly trying to set up a meeting, as well as sending on relevant newspaper articles to the Digg offices. Then he guessed a couple of email addresses for their recruiter and CRO, and eventually landed an interview. They asked him to write a detailed description of the position he wanted to create in the company and how it would help Digg. Finally that landed him the job! Wouldn't you hire somebody who showed that much determination and resourcefulness?

Here's a few of the tips Matt gave out for getting in touch with people you want to talk to, but can't get a 'warm' introduction for:

Guess email addresses. Most companies have a fixed format, eg,, Figure it out from public examples or just guess and fire off a message.

Call at odd hours. Receptionists are usually only there 9-5, but most of us work before and after, so there's a good chance somebody helpful will pick up if you ring 7:00am to 9:00am or 5:00pm to 7:00pm.

Contact them through random social networks. and other common sites with a social element have ways of sending their users messages. If you can find the account of the person you're looking for, send them a message and it will most likely show up in their regular inbox.

Send an 'I've worked with you' connect request on LinkedIn. Even if you haven't been a colleague, you've got a chance to explain in the note why you want to talk to them. I have a 'pro' account on LinkedIn which lets me send a limited number of messages to people outside my connections, but a sparing use of this approach is much cheaper!

I have a few more ideas I've found effective:

Blog about people or companies you like. I'll often spend time researching  companies or entrepreneurs I think are really cool so I can learn something, and then share it as a blog post. An awesome side-effect of that is that I often hear back from the people I've written about, that's how some of my best collaborations have come about. As I wrote in Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, just saying someone's name on the internet is often the best way to get in touch.

Comment on their blogs or Twitter streams. I find myself doing this naturally with interesting people I'm following, but it's also a great way to build a relationship and demonstrate a sustained commitment.

The key to all of these is thoughtfulness and sincerity. If you really don't care about what they're doing it will come across and you'll just be wasting time. Be natural, be passionate. Follow up, and show you're listening by referencing previous conversations when you do. Spend more time figuring out how you can help them than how they can help you.

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