managemnet company strategy managemanet How Do I Build My Network from Scratch?

How Do I Build My Network from Scratch?

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ELAINY MATA: Gael, please tell me what is the preferred way to pronounce your name?

GAEL AITOR: I feel like in Spanish, I would love if everyone would just say, “Gael.” Just how it is. But of course, just in the US, I’m always like, okay, “My name’s Gael. Gael Aitor.”

ELAINY MATA: Gael. Gael. Welcome to New Here, honest conversations and practical advice to help you play the game called work. I’m Elainy Mata. This week we’re going to look at networking, specifically when you’re starting from scratch and need to make all those awkward first reach outs and introductions. Wait, so now I’m curious. What’s everyone’s full name pronunciation in Spanish? Mine is Elainy Mata.

GAEL AITOR: Interesting. I’m just Gael Aitor.




GAEL AITOR: Yeah, Gael Aitor.

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: I am Eric Jonathan Rodriguez. My parents wanted me to fit in so fast in the ’80s.

ELAINY MATA: But you say like, “Eric.”

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: [foreign language 00:00:59].

ELAINY MATA: You might not buy into the idea that networking matters or you might think that It’ll always feel fake and inauthentic. You might even think, I have LinkedIn. Isn’t that enough? One thing I’ve learned is that networking is more about finding ways to support other people and building real relationships. And those relationships can help you in the future, even if you can’t see it right now. Reframing networking this way has also helped me get over some of the awkward first interactions that a lot of us dread. Another thing that’s helped me is thinking about building a professional network in the same way that I build friendships. Today, we’ll explore different ways to start these relationships in a way that feels authentic. And we’ll learn how to sustain those relationships over time. Let’s start with the first step. You just heard me making small talk with our guests before we started our taping, and usually we cut that part out of the episode, but we wanted to show it to you because we were actually finding connection within each other before we begin. And even though small talk may feel forced and uncomfortable, it is an important first step in building relationships. Another way to break the ice is a good old-fashioned elevator pitch. Before we begin anything deeper, I want each of you to tell me how you would introduce yourself to me as if we were meeting at an event.


ELAINY MATA: That’s the challenge. And then I’ll do it too. And I’ll do it too. I’ll do it too.

GAEL AITOR: That’s always difficult. It’s always changing. It’s like, how do you find the balance between not making it look like you’re overcompensating, but also getting the full grasp of what you do and so you’re taking seriously. And so for me, just the quick spiel, ten second introduction is, “Hi, I’m Gael. I am the host of a teenage therapy podcast, which is one of the largest youth mental health podcasts in the world. And recently, a couple months ago I started Astro Studios, which is a Gen Z podcast production company.”

ELAINY MATA: That’s perfect. And then you Eric, how do you introduce yourself?

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I introduce myself like, “Hi I’m, Eric Rodriguez. I’m a global keynote speaker and I speak on the power of embracing change and disruption.”

ELAINY MATA: See, oh, so I am hearing this theme of it’s good to just have this one … Like they say, the elevator pitch. Just this one sentence thing. I guess I would say, “Hi, my name is Elainy Mata. I’m a producer at Harvard Business Review and I like to make audio and video stuff.” That’s honestly what I say.

GAEL AITOR: I mean that’s what it is.

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: That’s great. It’s a great … Yeah.

ELAINY MATA: So now you’ve met our guests, who by the way, I met through networking. More on that later. Gael created his first podcast when he was in high school. Now at 20, he’s building his own production company. Eric is a former tech executive. He spent more than a decade at Intel and now He’s making a career pivot to become a public speaker. For both Gael and Eric, networking is a huge part of their work and they’ve both had a lot of practice doing it. We’ll hear what works for them and some of their horror stories about what has gone wrong. Plus, we’ll answer your questions about getting started with networking. Okay, let’s get into it. So I was listening to Gael’s episode of, “Am I Horrible at Making Friends,” this morning. And even one of your articles in Medium, Gael, you were saying network in the spirit of making friends. So what is the difference, then, between networking and making friends?

GAEL AITOR: I think it varies because some people see it as one and the same, but we also have to acknowledge that not everything is a friendship. And there is a clear distinction between business friends and your professional circle and your actual social circle. And to call it all friendship would be doing a disservice to the actual connections that are your friends. That’s the big distinction between what a friendship is, which is an intentional reach out versus, oh, it’s nice to see you again at the same conference.

ELAINY MATA: Do you agree, Eric, the difference between? And do you approach it in that same way? Networking versus making friends?

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I think one of the things that shifted my mindset on this particular question was, a few years ago someone asked me, said, “Hey Eric, how big is your network?” And so immediately my response was, “All right, let me check my phone.” So I checked my phone and I either go to LinkedIn and I check my contact and I’m like, “Oh, this is the number.” And they’re like, “No, who’s in your network?” And I was like, “I don’t understand your question.” And basically their answer was, the people that are in your network are the people you’re willing to call and ask for their time in the next 24 hours and say, “Hey, I need 15 minutes of your time because this is happening to me. Can you give me 15 minutes of your time?” And they’re willing to move everything for you, that is who your immediate and your most trusted network is. This is a long game. You will not have someone on that list in 24 hours that I just met yesterday and say, “Hey, I need your help tomorrow.” No, this takes time. It takes time to build that list. And so that was a personal reflection that I had is like, who is on my list of folks that, one, I would call? But then, two, who am I willing to answer that call that says, “Eric, I need put some minutes of your time tomorrow.” And so also appreciating those relationships as well. And so am I taking my time in my day-to-day or in my week to continue to build these relationships that you never know when you might need them. It might be in a spirit of a friendship, something might be happening that’s more personal, but it might also be in the spirit of business.

ELAINY MATA: So I wonder, how have y’all been able to start conversations, cold conversations, in a setting like this? Or even on social, if you want to message somebody or DM somebody? Because I think that’s a really hard task to find that commonality and how do you start that convo?

GAEL AITOR: Yeah, that’s when it becomes a lot harder to network in the way that you might want to view networking as. Which, I think for both of us, is friendship over exploitative, what can we get out of each other? I realize when I’m networking with people as young as me I think It’s a lot easier and natural and networking just happens. You become friends, you see each other, you’re co-working, and then you think of each other when there’s projects to work on. But, now when you’re approaching people significantly older than you, I think what has helped me a lot is being mission-driven and having a very clear mission and an impact that you want to see. Because I think a lot of older folks resonate with young people doing something to make an impact in the world. And for me that has always been about youth mental health and helping young people feel less alone. And so even though age isn’t necessarily a commonality, I think a lot of people subscribe to the mission and the impact and the work that I’m doing throughout it. And more than anything, they’re willing to be mentors, they’re willing to help, they’re willing to expand my network, my social circle. And if they like the work, lift you up.

ELAINY MATA: What other different ways of networking have y’all been finding that are beneficial to you, other than just going to an event?

GAEL AITOR: Well, for me, I think events are not how I prefer to network. I think maybe I should do more of them. I think that would probably really get me into new circles. For me, networking has always been about cold DMing, actually, and warm intros and stuff like that. It’s very casual. I think it’s kind like, hey, I love what you’re doing. We’re in the same circle, we have mutuals, we’re in the same community spaces, we’re in the same projects, whatever it might be. And then reaching out to them. And I think, especially for young people, maybe this is more relevant, when you have a lot of mutuals on Twitter, Twitter has been incredible for networking. If you have a lot of mutuals, if you reply to people’s tweets often, if you interact with them, that’s what I find unlocks so many doors. Because if someone that’s been replying to your tweets over and over and engaging with you in meaningful conversation, eventually reaches over and actually DMs you, you’re more likely to respond. And so stuff like that has been incredible for meeting new people.

ELAINY MATA: We’re talking about networking as if it’s so simple, but it could still be hard. Which leads to my next question, have y’all had some networking fails where it didn’t work out the way that you thought it was going to?

GAEL AITOR: Oh, yeah.

ELAINY MATA: Based on both of your faces, yes.

GAEL AITOR: Oh, yeah. I’ve had a couple. I had one pretty recently, actually.

ELAINY MATA: Oh, what is it?

GAEL AITOR: There was this person that I had been trying to meet for the longest time, and it was someone in my industry that has been really successful and they’ve just been great at everything they’ve done. And so I connected with them on LinkedIn and I asked if they would like to get on a call. To my surprise, they responded and they added me on an email thread with their assistant. And so I was able to start scheduling a call. And this was maybe beginning of June and the call didn’t get scheduled until August. Turns out that I ended up having to attend this conference on the same day that I was going to have this call. But I thought, okay, it’ll be okay. I could take some minutes, go to a room, find some time to take this call and it’ll be fine. And so the time comes, the call’s at 1:30 and it’s like 1:28, I’m scrambling to finish lunch and get started on this. I’m trying to find a room now. I join a random room when someone else is also on a call. And then I realized, I’m opening my computer with two minutes to set up. I realized I don’t have internet, I don’t have the wifi password yet. And I’m like, oh my gosh, let me set up my hotspot. And I’m trying to set up my hotspot and now there’s a minute left. And as I’m trying to set it up, now it’s 1:30 so the call is supposed to be starting, my computer’s just lagging. So I get on the call two minutes late at 1:32 and I’m like, “Hey, I’m so sorry. Thank you so much for waiting for me.” And then the first thing I hear is, “Oh, I think you’re delayed. There’s a pretty big delay. I see you speaking, but I don’t hear you for another five, 10 seconds.” And I’m like, oh no, Let me see if I can fix this. Of course there was no fixing it, and so I scrambled for a minute being like, hold on. And she’s like, “You know what? It’s fine. Let’s just continue. I think It’s better now.” I’m like, “Okay, great. How are you?” And there’s a big delay, so it’s like small talk doesn’t even work. And so when there’s a delay, you just can’t have any small talk because it’s like, that energy isn’t there. The connection isn’t going to work. So I was like, okay, well I guess We’ll just get right to it. And so I started maybe asking for some help and some feedback. And long story short, the call goes on for maybe 10, 11 minutes, connection issues throughout it. And at that point I was also already thinking, you know what? At this point I should just be like, “Hey, I’m so sorry, it’s clearly not working out. I feel bad. I feel like I’m wasting your time.” But before I could say it, she was like, “Okay, you know what? Let’s just end the call, email me with any questions, we’ll figure it out.” And I was like, “Yeah, I agree. Thank you so much for being patient. Sorry it turned out like this.” And they were like, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.” I remember thinking after this moment, wow, that went terrible. I hope they don’t hate me. I hope I am not … Because it’s like, once that happens, you’re left in this weird spot of where does this connection leave us? And is it a dead connection? And so I decided to just, I was like, you know what? I’ll just send a nice email thanking them for their time, apologizing for the connection issues. And if they really hated me, hated my first introduction, they don’t want to respond, that’s okay, but at least it’ll be out there. Just to never burn a bridge. And I guess it does have a happy ending because they did respond very well and they said, “You know what? It was okay. Don’t worry about it, happens. Just stay in touch.” But still, not the greatest first introduction so I’m hoping eventually I can offer maybe some value to make up for what I feel like was wasted time.

ELAINY MATA: Kudos to you for keeping calm, though.

GAEL AITOR: Yeah, it was tough.

ELAINY MATA: [inaudible 00:13:12].

GAEL AITOR: It was definitely tough, but it was like, you know what? That’s all you can do.

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. That has happened to me several times, especially when you’re speaking with someone that is a industry leader or a senior executive or what have you. What I try to do, I give them a heads-up on who I am. Because more than likely, you know more about that person than they know about you. And if they’re just giving you 15 minutes, 30 minutes of their time, you want to get straight to the point of what do you need from them to a certain extent. Because that’s authentically why y’all are connecting in these types of situations, by saying, “Hey, [inaudible 00:13:45], I’ll give you 10 minutes of my time, 15 minutes of my time, because you seem to be an up-and-coming. I’ll give it to you.” But if you spend the first 10 minutes just catching up on the state of your business, the last five minutes is the ask and you don’t have an opportunity to go in depth. And so what I try to do, I try to just create a one pager and just send that to them. A little bit about my background. The likelihood of them reading that is very low, but the likelihood of them skimming through it two minutes before your meeting is actually very high because they want to be helpful. Again, they don’t want to meet with you just for the sake of meeting. They want to be of service. And so if you take it from that spirit, prepare them, give them, equip them for them to be of service to you. So that’s my quick tip on that.

GAEL AITOR: That’s a great tip because I think, that’s another thing about networking that I have to learn to get comfortable with, is understanding that, like I said earlier, it’s not just a friendship. That you’re just catching up. It really is an ask and you both have to be comfortable with that. And that’s been something that’s been tough to navigate, because with these people that are obviously much more senior, yes, I’m connecting with them to learn from them. And I think I have to switch my approach from thinking, oh maybe let’s catch up for a bit, learn about each other. What’s your life like? What’s my life like? It’s like no, they’re giving me time. Even if it feels a little unnatural to just be like, “Okay, here’s what I want to learn from you. I need to know about this and this.” That’s what they’re there for and that’s just a different dynamic that you don’t do in your day-to-day life. Which is a shocker for younger professionals who are finally entering networking and searching for people that can help them.

ELAINY MATA: Yeah. Wait, so Eric, what was the lineup of the one-pager? Break it down.

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: Sure. I mean mean some people could be one PowerPoint slide. So it just has who I am, a picture of myself, what I’m working on, what my mission is. Maybe some of my biggest accomplishments. Again, related to the person you’re talking to. So it’s not just one document that you send to the rest of the world. There’s a template, but then you work through it depending on who you’re talking with. And then the final thing, which is in big bold, is what I am looking for. And so that could be, I’m looking for a mentor in the spaces of X, Y, Z. Or I’m looking for a sponsorship in this. Or I’m looking to collaborate on this idea that I have. Or I’m looking to connect with someone in this industry because of X, Y, Z. If you’re able to be that specific with that, and then connect that to what your brand is, I think that’s a great start.

ELAINY MATA: I like that, but I’m going to pin you because you haven’t shared your network fail.

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: Sorry. Okay, so a network fail, and a very common fail that I have, is that I struggle with names. And if you ask anyone, it’s like, what is the most beautiful sound that anyone would ever hear in their life? It’s their name. And so you need to respect that and honor that. And so when I get introduced to individuals, I try to make sure I repeat their names. So that’s one of the tricks that I have. But I’ve been in situations where people recognize me, because either they saw me at a conference or they see me somewhere else, they say, “Hey Eric, how’s it going?” And I’m like, hi. And they know me and they know what I’ve been talking about, so I’m like, did I meet you somewhere else? Did you just see me on stage? Is this just a random … did you see a badge? How do you know me? And all this stuff is going through my head. And so I’ve had these opportunities to say, “Hey, you know what? I’m sorry, can you remind me again of your name.” And that’s completely okay. But the other trick that I built was, when you’re with someone else, say if I was with Gael and we’re having this conversation, someone else approaches me and they say, “Hey Eric, man, great to see you again. How are things going?” And I forgot their name. The first thing I do is I introduce them to Gael. And I’m like, “Hey let me introduce you to my friend Gael.” And then they immediately, automatically will probably say, “Hi, my name is …”

ELAINY MATA: Well hey, Gael, name is …

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: And I’m like a-ha. It immediately just clicks and I’m like, now I remember you.

ELAINY MATA: Coming up after the break we answer your networking questions and we’ll learn some ways to keep these relationships lasting over time. Be right back. Okay, we’re back. Let’s get into some questions about networking that we’ve collected from listeners and our HBR interns. So here’s the first question, it’s from one of our former interns, Beatrice.

BEATRICE GAUTHIER: Let’s say you want to work in an industry. If you search up on LinkedIn, there’s so many different people who work in that industry, how do you know who to connect with? Personally, I want to work in the film industry and there’s so many different people, but who should I go to?

GAEL AITOR: For me it becomes, again, using Twitter. I think figuring out first, following the brands, and then seeing who are the people commenting on this? Who are the people retweeting this? So you go down this rabbit hole of mutuals on mutuals on mutuals. The challenge is finding the people, and again, that just comes with finding the super connectors in the industry and also the ones that are just active on social media.

ELAINY MATA: Yeah. Do you agree, Eric? Do you have anything to add to that?

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: Yes, I love that 100%. Everything that Gael shared. The one thing I would add is that every three months there’s a quarterly earnings call. Every three months, this company shares everything that they’re working on, everything that’s working out great, everything that’s not working out great, and what their plans are for their year. That is a great opportunity for you to learn about the industry, and then when you reach out to these individuals and say, “Hey, I just heard these things that they were talking about in your last earnings call, can you share with me a little bit more?” Or, “Hey, this sounds like a really exciting project, would love to connect with you so I could learn a little bit more.”

ELAINY MATA: Okay, next question. This is from one of our listeners, Anna. She sent her a question through text and she says, how can you network authentically? I’m an introvert and I often think that networking is a forced activity for me.

GAEL AITOR: I mean if you really want to approach it in a very casual way, you could compliment their outfit. You can compliment something nice about them. Maybe you notice the way they’re interacting with people. I think a great first way to start it off in a way that feels organic is a good compliment. And I think that kind of sparks a conversation that could feel a lot better than just, “Hey, what do you do? What’s your name.”

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: For me it would be, again, maybe in the spirit of the event and saying, “Hey, what brought you here?” Or just sharing, “Hey, I’m excited to do this here.” And sometimes even just being as vulnerable as well saying, “Hey, I understand that we’re here, but why are you here? I might not be that comfortable being here.” You never know who you meet, too, that might say, “You know what? I know exactly what you’re going through. I’m going through the same thing.” And hopefully, I mean that goes into something else that’s a little bit more productive than just complaining, but you never know when also just being vulnerable could also spark some additional conversations as well.

ELAINY MATA: Okay. And last one, we have a question from another one of our interns, Diego.

DIEGO ORTEGA: I’m from Mexico, and in Mexico networking is not as enforced as it is here. Eventually people who graduate, they might find a job because, oh, you know somebody in the company and then he helped you out or whatever. And here, from my experience in college, networking is very forced upon. It’s like, you have this campus recruiting and you have to go and meet all the people that are recruiting at your school. It’s not like deep relationships.

ELAINY MATA: So how do you account for cultural differences in how networking works? How would you answer that question?

GAEL AITOR: I think in Mexico, there’s a bigger sense of almost like a family. An inherent family bond. Because sometimes I’ll be watching podcasts interviews where the host is interviewing a really big A-list celebrity in Mexico, but they really just talk if they were good friends. And there’s that sense of familiarity with each other and that bond. And so I think there’s a cultural difference there. I think maybe you notice it when you connect with other Latinos and there’s that sense of, oh, it feels like we’re already friends. We’re already on good terms just because of that.

ELAINY MATA: So how do you account for these cultural differences? Not just accounting for, let’s say other Latinos in the room, but if you’re trying to communicate with or trying to market yourself, and you’re in a multicultural room, how do you do that?

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: When it comes to multicultural aspects of things, you don’t know what you don’t know but be open to learning. And so if there’s different customs around different communities or different cultures, especially the university, you’re surrounded by people with completely different backgrounds and completely different upbringings. But even though y’all all are in that same school or getting that same degree, at the end of the day, we’re all still very unique. And so embracing that uniqueness, recognizing that uniqueness in each other, but in the spirit of learning,

ELAINY MATA: How have you been able to replenish your social battery when it comes to networking so you can keep doing it?

GAEL AITOR: I personally am still in the process of figuring that out. It seems like I am terrible at maintaining my close network and upkeeping it and adding new people. It’s difficult. I mean it’s even more difficult when you’re not in the same vicinity and you’re not in the same city. And a thousand times more difficult when you’re not coworkers and you’re on a project-by-project basis. And for me, a lot of my projects is … I’ve never been part of a team. I’ve never had a traditional job in the sense of I have my team, here are my mentors, here’s my teammates, here’s who I’m going to work with for the next couple of months. That really builds that foundation for a strong network once you move on towards a new job. And so for me, it’s been really difficult to understand how to find excuses to stay in touch and build connections with people that are deeper than just a one-off project or a one-off call.

ELAINY MATA: Eric, I think You’re really good at maintaining these relationships and I think you’ve just had so much practice of maintaining. What advice would you give to Gael?

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, so it’s a couple of things. One, checking in with each other. When you have a chance to be in the professional space for some time, there’s going to be some wonderful moments and there’s going to be some horrible moments in the industry. What I mean by that is, we’re going through the tech layoffs for the last 18 months. I’ve known a lot of individuals that have gone through layoffs. I’ve been through layoffs myself. And so checking in with folks that, sometimes they don’t want to share publicly that they’re going through this. Just check in. And you’ll be surprised, taking that opportunity to check in with someone, it means a lot.

ELAINY MATA: Eric, how have you been seeing people around the age of Gael’s trying to network with you and how has that been going?

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I always think back to … Elainy, I mean you and I, how we got introduced, and I was reflecting on that. That introduction actually started off in 2017 when I met someone that ended up being our common friend.


ERIC RODRIGUEZ: And then it was through that relationship we started making meaningful connection and collaborating and then I eventually was introduced to you. And so you never know how these introductions, these connections come in, but if you come in just in the spirit of service and support and helping elevate others and the work that they’re doing, you’ll always find that path eventually to collaborate either directly with them or someone within their network.

ELAINY MATA: This has been awesome. I hope I can talk to both of you in a separate setting, just to continue keeping up in the spirit of making friends, and see where that blooms. So I appreciate the both of you so much.

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: Thank you so much.

ELAINY MATA: [foreign language 00:25:11].

ERIC RODRIGUEZ: Yes, thank you so much.

GAEL AITOR: Thank you. It was amazing.

ELAINY MATA: Okay, I want to point out one thing before we go. This episode isn’t just about networking, it actually only came about because of networking. I met Gael through my colleague, Ian, here at HBR. And Ian knew Gael because Gael had reached out to him to talk about podcasting. And I met our other guest, Eric Rodriguez, because a mutual friend connected the two of us a few months ago. Eric suggested that we set up monthly meetings. We’re both pretty busy now, so they’re only about 15 to 30 minutes, but it’s enough to keep us both accountable and it naturally helps our relationship keep growing over time. Next week We’ll be talking about messing up at work and how you can recover. Like using the wrong slides for a presentation, maybe hitting reply all and accidentally spamming your whole company, to bigger mistakes that harm your credibility and even threaten your job. I’ve done that once. I’ve presented the wrong slides twice. Thanks again to our guests, Gael Aitor and Eric Rodriguez, and our interns Beatrice Gauthier and Diego Ortega. By the way, if you’re curious to see a sample of Eric’s one-pager for networking, we’ve posted that link in our show notes. To our listeners who shared their networking questions, thank you. Please keep sending us your stories and questions about work. Bonus points if it’s an audio file, we might even use it in an episode. Our email is [email protected]. If you liked what you heard, follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. While You’re there, leave us a review and tell us what you think of the show. Then send the episode to your group chat, Slack, or wherever you talk about work. Did you know the Harvard Business Review has more podcasts to help you manage your business and your career? Find them at or search HBR wherever you listen. This episode was produced by Hannah Bates, Anne Saini, Magdalene Johnson, and me, Elainy Mata. Special thanks to Curt Nickisch and Rob Eckhardt. Our editor is Mary Dooe and our engineer is Tina Tobey Mack. Supervising editors are Maureen Hoch and Paige Cohen. Ian Fox manages podcasts at HBR and our theme song was composed by Graz de Oliviera. See you here next week. Bye.

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