Nothing beats a good beverage. Coffee, beer, whiskey, chocolate milk, a well placed drink can make an entire experience not only by providing delicious flavor and palette-pleasing goodness, but because they can be the enabler for great conversation and connection.
Networking early in your career is nerve-wracking, awkward, and pressure-packed. Whether it’s someone pretending to be interested in you while unconsciously looking over your shoulder or making a joke that doesn’t land, it can be downright painful.
As I’ve progressed through internships and my first jobs out of college, I’ve picked up one way to network that I love above all others. And it’s all about beverages.
If there is someone I want to get to know or want to learn from, I’ll reach out to them and politely ask if I can buy them a drink and discuss whatever I have in mind. You’d be surprised at how many people are willing to meet.
I have some tips to share based on my experience with this type of networking, also known as getting to know people, including who to network with, the ask, the meeting, and follow-up.
Who to network with
Don’t meet with people for no reason. Please don’t waste their time, or you’ll become another Medium or LinkedIn post about how crappy us millennials are. We don’t need to feed that beast, so have a specific goal in meeting with them.
Here are a few reasons I’ve met with people in the past.
- I’m interested in their line of work as a career path, and I want to learn about what it’s like
- They work in my discipline, and I hope to learn from their experience
- I love their work and want to discuss it
- I want to be friends with them
Usually you’ll know who you want to meet because they’ll be well known, or you follow their work. But if you fall into the first two bullets above, then you should seek out people you don’t know.
I recently took on a new role at work, one I haven’t done before, so I’ve been trying to find ways to get myself up to speed quickly. So I went to LinkedIn and did a search for “product marketing” and focused it on Indianapolis, where I live. Boom, I had a list of product marketers in town I could reach out to, connect with, and possibly learn from. It’s that easy to find people.
Once you know who you want to connect with, you’ve got to actually reach out.
First, show a familiarity with their work or something else that connects you. If their work is available online, you’d better know it and be able to speak to it. If they don’t, give an honest reason why you want to chat with them. For example, I want to learn about product marketing so I reached out to a few people very honestly explaining that I wanted to learn how they view their role, what makes a good product marketer, and talk shop about the role.
Second, use connections if you have them. Ask your co-workers, boss, or friends if they know a specific person you want to meet or anyone in the space you are looking to learn about. See if they’ll be willing to connect you, and if they provide contact info always ask if it’s okay to mention them in your outreach.
Third, make it as easy for them as possible. Offer to meet at a coffee shop near their work, or even offer to come to their office if it’s appropriate. Be flexible with when you can meet, but still propose two or three meeting times with a location so they don’t have to do the work themselves.
The ask should be personal, respectful of their time, and state clearly why you want to meet with them and what you hope to come of it. As long as you’re polite, the worst that will happen is a denial. No big deal. But the other way around could be a meeting that creates a huge opportunity.
Please come prepared. Have specific questions researched and ready to go and topics to discuss. If it’s a 30 minute meeting prepare enough to cover at least an hour of conversation, then prioritize. If it’s someone you’re actually interested in talking to or learning from this should be no problem. Asking great questions will get you far, people notice it, but it takes work to be informed and curious enough to ask them.
Feel free to ask if they have a hard stop after you greet each other, it’s just another way to show respect for their time. You’ll notice a theme of being courteous and respectful, it applies to everything.
Always pay. Be adamant and proactive about this. Some people will simply not let you, so don’t be a pain about it. But always offer and push back at least once if they try to cover the bill. If you have to, make a separate little piece of your budget for coffee meetings or networking. It’s worth the investment, and I don’t need to convince you of that. One more point on this from above, if you do meet at their office always offer to bring coffee, breakfast, beer, or whatever is appropriate to the meeting.
Be yourself and be honest. Don’t try to be something you’re not, don’t pretend to understand something if you really don’t. Willingness to ask questions, even basic ones, shows you really do want to understand. Some people you’ll vibe well with, some you won’t, and that’s okay. I’ve had plenty of awkward meetings, it happens.
Enjoy it! I’ve had some of my favorite conversations ever in these types of meetings. I’ve come away inspired, energized, and full of new ideas. It’s invigorating to talk to someone about similar interests.
Follow-up is critical and I have absolutely failed here before. Of course, always follow up with a thank you. Handwritten notes are great, email is fine too usually. Reference a part of your talk you enjoyed or held onto, discuss how you’re acting on a piece of advice, actually read a book they recommended and comment on it. Show interest through action, it speaks volumes. And if you commit to an extra follow-up action, then you have to follow through.
I’ve not done this before and it feels terrible. Part of you says “I’m nobody, they won’t remember.” Get that out of your head because it’s a terrible excuse and way to live. Just don’t do it.
Follow-up is really about showing them their time wasn’t wasted, thanking them, and creating a basis for future connection if applicable. So put time into it.
I worry I’ve focused too much on the meta of these meetings, and not on another important, possibly the most important, aspect of them. Having a great conversation and human connection is uplifting for your spirit.
I’ve gone through periods of funk and unproductivity, and when I look at what I’m doing during those times grabbing coffee with people usually isn’t on the list. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people and having a stimulating conversation is like a triple espresso. It brings you up. So create a regular cadence, it can help you get out of your own head. It doesn’t always have to be networking either, grab a coworker and get to know them personally, find a peer who works in a similar role in town and commiserate. Find a small group of people and have a coffee group, go to meetups, just make it a part of your routine.
If you have social anxiety find an event, group, or space where there is a specific reason to be chatting, topic of conversation, or even structure. Ice breakers get a bad rap for being corny (they are), but they get people to start talking and it makes it easier if you’re nervous.
Set five meetings today
If you’re struggling to find ways to network around town, and especially if you don’t do well at big events, I can’t recommend this enough. Hopefully the tips above help reduce any anxiety you have around reaching out, but more than anything I hope it gets you out there.
I’ve met some incredible people and had incredible conversations over a drink, in fact many of the most important conversations in my life have been in such a setting.
And you get to drink delicious beverages too.
Set up five meetings right now. Choose three people you’d like to meet professionally, one coworker you haven’t gotten to know well yet, and one old friend you haven’t caught up with in awhile. Save $40-50, don’t go out next weekend, and have these five meetings instead.
You won’t regret it.