When I first got started in my career, I did whatever I could to build my professional network quickly. I had developed a pretty good network despite coming from a rural coal town in the middle of Pennsylvania, but I knew that I had to put in work to meet people, especially as I moved around. So I tried going to networking events.
They've almost always been a complete waste of time.
I now recommend that people looking to grow their network never go to networking events.
Slayback's Silver Rule of Networking: Don't go to events branded as "networking events."
Why Networking Events Suck
A "networking event" is any event which has a primary purpose of "networking." These could be networking happy hours, networking mixers, networking meet ups, or any variation on these. Their organizers and promoters pump them up as a great place to meet other people also looking to meet other people.
But they almost always suck.
Go to a local networking event and instead of finding influential decision-makers, executives, and people hiring and making buying decisions you find...salespeople.
Life insurance agents. Network marketing salespeople. Financial advisors. Marketing salespeople. Salespeople of all stripes.
The events end up being salespeople selling to salespeople selling to salespeople. If an attendee isn't a salesperson, they're usually somebody looking for a job.
There's nothing wrong with these people and these career tracks. In fact, I am a huge fan of sales and a good salesperson.
But these are not the kinds of people who help you get ahead in your career. Even if they're nice or you get along quickly, they rarely have the decision-making power you need to get a new job or land a deal. They'll try to set up follow-up meetings with you (as they're trained to do) to get you to sign up for their service. This ends up eating up more of your time after you've already committed time to the initial networking event.
Instead, you want to meet people who are further ahead in their careers and have decision-making power of some kind.
The kinds of people you need to meet don't attend networking events. Their opportunity cost is too high. They are Very Busy People. They're executives, business owners, investors, and decision-makers. They're already at least somewhat successful. They have a lot of responsibility at work and at home. They may have a family.
Do you really think that with their little extra time they will hang out at networking happy hours?
No, of course not. They already have strong networks. When they do expand their networks, they do it in places other than networking events.
These are the kinds of events you want to go to.
Where to Go Instead of Networking Events
Instead of going to networking events, where the primary purpose is to network, go to events that have a secondary or a tertiary purpose of networking. That means that something else is the primary purpose. These are even better if there's some kind of quality filter, either active or implied, that filters out people who are not serious about attending and selects for those with higher opportunity cost.
When I talk about primary, secondary, and tertiary purposes for events, I mean why people attend the events.
A Primary reason is the obvious reason the event is held and why people attend. This could be fun, fundraising, education, or competition.
A Secondary reason is the kind of reason somebody gives themselves when they go to an event and further justify it. E.g., "It's for a good cause. Plus, I could use a round on the golf links."
A Tertiary reason is the kind of reason somebody is glad they want to an event in retrospect. E.g., "We raised a ton of money for the local food shelter, we had a great game of golf, and I even got to talk with some amazing people!"
Charity Events & Fundraisers
What kind of person attends a charity event? Somebody who can afford to do so (either with time or with money) and who cares about a specific cause. If you also care about the same cause, this provides a great hook for a conversation and a way for you to build a relationship with another attendee.
Some conferences that are run by values-driven organizations do VIP dinners for donors. These are the conference equivalent of fundraisers. If you are not asking the VIPs for money, you have an opportunity to engage in conversation with somebody who can at least afford to attend a VIP dinner.
Do you have to spend money to attend these?
Not always. But I've found that you get what you pay for. If all the attendees have to pay to attend, the likelihood that any given conversation will be interesting increases.
For example, my friend Tam Pham introduced me to Sol Orwell, who invited me to buy a ticket to his Chocolate Chip Cookie Off charity fundraiser. I bought a ticket because 1. it sounded fun; and 2. Tam and Sol are interesting people and if there are more interesting people there, awesome; and, 3. it was invite-only, so there's an extra filter that is the organizer's judgement. That's worth the money to me. I didn't go with some explicit goal of "networking," but the people I met at the CCCO were far and beyond more interesting than anybody I'd ever met at a networking mixer.
Also, by filtering the quality of the attendees, Sol and his team were able to organize matchmaking to help people meet others they thought they should meet. You can't do this unless you have a solid list of RSVPs. One of the ways you make that list solid is you filter people by invitation and ticketing.
Getting Started: Find a charity that works around an issue you care about or search your existing network for somebody you know who cares deeply about specific issues. Look to see if those charities do fundraiser events that you can attend.
Advanced Tactic: Look at the boards of these charities (especially if they are smaller, local charities) and research the board members. For most charities, their Board of Directors is made up of their biggest donors or representatives of those donors. The quality of the Board of Directors reflects the quality of top-tier donors to the organization.
Lectures, Talks, and Interviews
Lectures, public talks, and interviews contain considerably more interesting people than you'd find at your typical networking event. Whether the talk is on the psychological archetypes of the Biblical stories or a founder interviewing another founder about how she built her company, talks pre-select for more interesting people.
I am reminded of when Jordan Peterson started becoming a thing. What caught me off-guard about his rise to prominence wasn't anything he was saying. It was that people were paying $30-50 to go sit and watch a professor talk for 3 hours about Biblical stories. That's unusual. Most people don't take the time out of a weekday evening to go listen to a lecture. The kinds of people who do are more likely to be interesting if you yourself are interested in the topic.
These kinds of talks have probably been the best area for me to grow my network. I attended a summer seminar when I was in high school that connected me with a number of people like Isaac Morehouse and Brian Aitken. I've attended lectures given by Supreme Court justices and both met the justices and interesting people I've collaborated with to this day. I worked at a nonprofit that hosted lectures in the DC region. Some of the people I met at those lectures went on to become colleagues, friends, and collaborators.
I work directly with people I met through an event at which I gave a talk and I've gone on to advise a number of startups I met at talks. These relationships took time to develop. You don't go to a lecture looking for a colleague or a cofounder. But somebody selected from a lecture audience on a niche topic in which you're both interested is more likely, over time, to develop into a fruitful relationship than a rando you met at a networking event.
Getting Started: If you're in a major city, look up talks on topics you find interesting. This can start as simply as searching, "Pittsburgh lectures on sustainability," or "NYC talks on psychology," and going from there. You can also ask the people who are already in your network for their recommendations. A lot of companies also hold their own events and mixers. GrowthLab runs GrowthLab Live. I attended that and not only met Ryan Carson of Treehouse but a number of other GrowthLab readers who were, again, actually interesting people.
Advanced Tactic: Find the personalities you already follow and find interesting in a space. See if they have public lecture dates. If not, tweet at them asking them when they will be speaking at your nearest major city. If you're not near a major city, put together a weekend trip to go to an event at one.
Non-Networking Business Events
You can go to some business events and find interesting people, just make sure they aren't primarily branded as "networking events."
I find that this is better for specific professions and if you can add another pre-selection filter before going to the event, even better. If you're a lawyer, doctor, medical professional, real estate agent, financial advisor, accountant, or somebody practicing a licensed skill, these work well for you. Often, they'll overlap with some kind of lecture or interview, like a Federalist Society event for lawyers or a talk sponsored by the union for airline pilots.
I generally recommend going to these so long as there is some kind of barrier to entry, whether that's licensing, accreditation, a fee, or knowledge about the industry. I have a client who drove two hours to go to an artificial intelligence and data science meet up only to leave frustrated when it turned out nobody there knew what they were talking about.
One artificial limit is a limit on time. Shorter events that are time-limited due to the time of the day or where they take place force people to focus on the primary aspect of the event instead of "networking." We used to have an event in Pittsburgh called UnStuck that was ostensibly for business owners, entrepreneurs, and people in the Pittsburgh small business scene. UnStuck meetings were time-limited by the fact that they took place at 8 AM on a Monday morning. People had to leave and get to work. And people who weren't going to participate didn't show up because they wanted to sleep in.
Getting Started: This is not as straightforward as "go on Meetup.com and go to the most interesting events you can find." A lot of meet ups on Meetup.com aren't active or don't have quality attendees. I recommend first networking with people in your industry in your city and asking for referrals to interesting events.
Advanced Tactic: You can lead these meet ups. If you're experienced in your industry or have connections to interesting people in your industry, you can rent space (or negotiate it for free) at a local coworking office or coffeeshop to host a talk by an expert for your specific niche.
Education & Training
Educational seminars and training workshops provide more opportunity to learn and meet than networking events. Like lectures and talks, these events take time and energy to go to (and often cost a pretty penny). The kind of person who takes time out of their weekend to learn about federal taxes (as a non-accountant) or to become proficient in Sandler sales, is more likely to either be a decision-maker or be connected to a decision-maker.
If you're not in a career track that has specific education and training tracks (like Sandler sales or continuing education credits for teachers), just think about what topics interest you and that you currently spend time and money on. Would you like to meet other people who would spend time and money on those topics?
This need not be professional education and training, too. It could be personal development, like a Tony Robbins seminar, or skill development, like a cooking class or a language class. The important part is that nobody is being forced to attend the event with you and that you share some interests with other attendees.
Getting Started: What are you currently studying? What do you want to study and learn? What would you spend your time learning if time and money weren't an issue? You can start locally with extension classes that your local universities offer. You can also look for schools and academies related to those specific topics (e.g., Google "Sandler sales training Pittsburgh").
Advanced Tactic: I am a fan of combining multiple categories in this list when we can. An advanced tactic here would be to talk to somebody more experienced than yourself who works in your industry and ask them what kinds of classes they previously took and that they recommend. That way, assuming you like you're job, you get the best of learning more for work, finding other people who work in your industry, and learning from somebody more experienced.
Social & Amusement
Don't underestimate the importance of going to social events. People with high opportunity cost go to social events only when they really enjoy them (or they have a secondary or tertiary reason for being there). Networking events aren't fun.
What is something fun that people with high opportunity cost might want to do? This sometimes comes with an informal barrier around cost or age, but you can get around these easily. For example, you might not be able to race in the Pittsburgh Grand Prix (a retro car race in Pittsburgh), but you can attend and talk to the teams in the race for no extra cost.
1517 Fund hosts socials in the Bay Area every few months. Sometimes they include a speaker. Sometimes they don't. Attendees range in age from 16 year old hackers and makers to 70+ limited partners. People attend because they enjoy the events and think they're fun. Nothing more complicated.
Getting Started: This isn't complicated. Find something fun that people with more experience and decision-making power than you might also find fun.
Advanced Tactic: Find something that is fun and takes a skill to practice. The skill acts as an informal barrier and a filter. Wine tasting is a good example of this. I have a friend who likes to attend wine tastings at his local city club. There's a cost to join the club but it's relatively low amortized over a year. The tasting is less than $100. He works in real estate and meets experienced property owners looking to sell all the time at these wine tastings. Networking is actually forbidden here, but he's able to follow up with them afterwards. His ROI on a $100 night can easily be $10,000 after a few acquisitions.
Sporting events are a lot like social events, except they contain a vicarious competitive element that makes strangers feel like they're all part of the same fold because they cheer for the same team. It's best to attend these either in combination with another event (e.g., a golf outing that doubles as a fundraiser) or as a competitor. Again, they're more fun than networking events and, unlike networking events, have a barrier to entry and a filter.
If you play a sport casually, sign up for your next round of competitions that reflect your skill level. This could be tennis, swimming, basketball, softball (I've heard great things about industry-based softball leagues), CrossFit, marathons, or any other event in which you can either compete by yourself or easily join a team of mixed skill levels.
Getting Started: What do you play now? What did you play growing up? Look on Google for competitions and events related to these sports. If you can join at a novice level, try it. Most people respect novices that actually put themselves out there.
Advanced Tactic: Get good at a sport and make this part of your social life. Get good at CrossFit, powerlifting, or swimming and compete locally. Get good at running and run a marathon. Get good at horseback riding and try to compete.
What's the best advanced tactic of all of these? Host your own events. Throw parties. Invite people to give lectures. Take groups out to dinner. Organize impromptu competitions. Obviously these require you to have some network first, but you'll grow your network quickly with people others bring and invite. Plus, your friends and network start associating you with enjoyable events.