The founder of LinkedIn: How to build a social network

LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha give tips for successful networking.

'Relationships are living, breathing things. Feed, nurture, and care about them; they grow', authors say [GALLO/GETTY]
'Relationships are living, breathing things. Feed, nurture, and care about them; they grow', authors say [GALLO/GETTY]

If there is a guru of networking, it is Reid Hoffman. In an excerpt of his new book, The Start-Up of You, co-written with entrepreneur, Ben Casnocha, he explains the best way to go about networking.

The best network: Wide and (selectively) deep

Several years ago sociologist Brian Uzzi did a study of why certain Broadway musicals made between 1945 and 1989 were successful and others flopped. The explanation he arrived at had to do with the people behind the productions. For failed productions, one of two extremes was common. The first was a collaboration between creative artists and producers who tended to all know one another. When there were mostly strong ties, the production lacked the fresh, creative insights that come from diverse experience. The other type of failed production was one in which none of the artists had experience working together. When the group was made up of mostly weak ties, teamwork and group cohesion suffered.

In contrast, the social networks of the people behind successful productions had a healthy balance: There were some strong ties, some weak ties. There was some established trust, but also enough new blood in the system to generate new ideas. Think of your network of relationships in the same way: The best professional network is both narrow/deep (allies with whom you collaborate regularly) and wide/shallow (weak-tie acquaintances who offer fresh information and ideas).

Giving helpful help

The best way to strengthen a relationship is to do something for another person. But how? Here’s a good example. When Jack Dorsey was co-founding Square – the mobile-payments company – he had loads of investor interest. Digg and Milk founder Kevin Rose had seen a prototype of the Square device and immediately realised the potential. When he asked Jack whether there was room for another person to join the initial funding round, Jack told him it was full. But Kevin still wanted to be helpful. He noticed that Square didn’t have a demo on its website showing how the device worked. So he put together a high-definition video and then showed it to Jack. Impressed, Jack turned around and invited Kevin to invest in the Series A round of financing.

To be truly helpful, as Kevin was, you need to have a sense of your friend’s values and priorities. What keeps him up at 2 AM? What are his talents? His challenges? Once you understand his needs, think about offering him a small gift. A small gift is something that’s easy for you to give, unique to the relationship, and unusually helpful for the other person. Classic small gifts include relevant information, introductions, and advice. A really expensive big gift is actually counterproductive – it can feel like a bribe. When deciding what to give, reflect on your unique experiences and capabilities. What might you have that the other person does not?

Be a bridge

A good way to help people is to introduce them to people and experiences they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. In other words, straddle different communities/social circles and then be the bridge that your friends can walk over. My passion for entrepreneurship combined with my interest in board game design led me to introduce many of my entrepreneur friends to Settlers of Catan, the German Board game. A community in Silicon Valley has sprung up around the game.

Set up an ‘interesting people’ fund

Relationships are living, breathing things. Feed, nurture, and care about them; they grow. Neglect them; they die. You might be nodding your head at the importance of staying in touch. But behavioral change isn’t easy. That’s why Steve Garrity budgeted and precommitted real time and money to it.

Garrity studied computer science at Stanford and interned at startups over the summers. After graduating from a master’s program in 2005, he was convinced that he wanted to start a tech company of his own in Silicon Valley. But he had spent his entire adult life in the Bay Area and was worried that he would be tied down to one location for many more years. So he took a job as an engineer at Microsoft (MSFT) to work on its mobile-search technology.

Garrity had one big worry: What would happen to his network of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and friends? He knew he would someday move back to start a company. He did not want his local network to become stale. So he set aside time and money in advance to keep his network up-to-date.

The state of Washington doesn’t tax personal (or corporate) income, so Garrity figured he was saving a meaningful amount of money by living there. Upon moving to Seattle, he declared that $7,000 of his savings would be “California money”. Anytime someone interesting in the Valley invited him to lunch, dinner, or coffee, Garrity would fly to San Francisco to do the meeting. One of his old Stanford professors called him, not realising he had left town, and invited him over to meet some interesting students. The following evening, he arrived at the professor’s house, suitcase in hand. Because he had allocated money, he didn’t have to worry about the cost of flights or the stress of decision-making.

Over his 3.5 years at Microsoft, Garrity visited the Bay Area at least once a month. After returning to California in 2009, he started a company, Hearsay Labs, with a friend whose couch had served as his bed during his regular pilgrimages to the Bay Area from Seattle. It shows the power of what we call I^we (I to the power of we). Your capabilities and potential get magnified exponentially by an active, up-to-date network.


In the next day:
• Look at your calendar for the past six months and identify the five people you spend the most time with – are you happy with the influence those five people are having on you?

In the next week:
• Introduce two people you know who do not know each other. Make sure the intro will be useful to both sides. Then think about a challenge you are dealing with and ask an existing connection for an introduction to someone who could help.

• Imagine you got laid off from your job today. Who are the ten people you’d email to solicit their advice on what to do next? You should reach out to them now, when you don’t need anything specifically.

In the next month:
• Pick one person in your network who is a weaker tie but with whom you might like to have a stronger alliance. Commit to trying to help him or her proactively by giving small gifts, such as sending the person an interesting article or forwarding a job posting. Invest serious time and energy in the relationship over several months.
• Create an “interesting people fund” to which you automatically funnel a certain percentage of your paycheck. Use it to pay for coffees, lunches, and the occasional plane ticket to meet new people and shore up existing relationships.

Network Intelligence:

It’s not just the people you know. It’s the people they know – your second – and third-degree connections. Plan an event where your friends bring a few of their friends; invite your extended network.

More advanced tips on how to invest in your network are available here.

Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha are the authors of The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career, which is published today in the UK by Random House Business Books (£12.99) and in the US by Crown Business ($26.00). 

More from Author
Most Read