The Networker’s Dilemma

The Networker’s Dilemma is a problem that I see plaguing lots of different industries, but it is particularly problematic for startups. The thesis is this: overly networked individuals suffer from a lack of honest feedback, which can distract and destroy new initiatives.

It may seem controversial to suggest that people should network less early on, because so much startup advice is about launching early, getting feedback, and meeting people, but I really do believe that there are substantial downsides to being too connected and too networked.   

Problem 1: Honest feedback is even more rare than usual
All that you should want when you are starting out is honest feedback. The best case scenario when you’re starting is that you pitch someone your idea and they actually tell you what they think. As anyone who has ever been pitched an idea will tell you, when an idea is bad, it’s really, really tough to give honest feedback. You don’t want to dishearten somebody who is passionate about what they are doing, and it’s just not fun to make people feel bad.

The incentive to give honest feedback and risk upsetting an overly networked individual is just not there. It’s so much easier ‘forget’ to tell a networker your true feelings about their product so you can stay on their good side. Then when you need a favor later, you haven’t burned any bridges! Gimme those sweet, sweet connections.

When honest feedback becomes even more rare than it traditionally is, it becomes impossible to iterate on your message, product, or anything else.

Problem 2: People will use your product for the wrong reasons
Getting any users is tough. Getting a lot of users is tougher. Getting tons of repeat users is one of the hardest things you can possibly do. You need the stars to align or you need to sell people money at a discount (Groupon) to ramp up your users with a bad product. But, it’s possible to get users because people assume that you’re good at product, just because you’re so well connected.

How many products have you tried because the person behind the product seems well connected? Have you ever tried a product that came out of Y Combinator even though you were actually pretty confused by the product’s purpose?  Have you ever seen lots of other people using something and thought to yourself, “Hmm… what am I missing here? This product doesn’t make sense. But I should use it so that I’m not left behind.” These are some of the signs that you may be paying attention to a product for the wrong reasons.

I’m not going to sling mud about specific examples, but I’m sure you can think of some startups run by networkers that never progressed because their fame brought them their users.

Problem 3: People will join your team because of your connections, not because of your ideas, execution, product, or traction
This one is truly terrifying. Building an early team is really hard, and it should take tons of convincing to get people to work under-market or without salaries because they buy into a company vision. Convincing an early team of all-stars to join you is so hard that many investors will buy into a great team without a great business. And actually, this problem is probably the one that can go either way for you on this list. Build a truly amazing team with your overly-connected network and you may still have a shot of building a great company.

But build a great team for the wrong reasons and you’ll soon have a group of people who are dissatisfied and disheartened with the lack of vision and lack of real growth once your networker bump disappears.

Being able to convince a real human, who doesn’t know you solely as a networker, that they should quit what they are doing and join you is a great sign that you may actually be onto something.

Problem 4: It can make it too easy to raise money
Raising money from investors should be hard. Challenging money is a good sign that the market is well-aligned with the risks of startup investing. If it’s hard to raise money, and you raise money, then you’re probably onto something! Congrats, you’ve been able to convince others that you are in a big enough market, studying an interesting enough problem, with the potential to create a compelling solution.

The problem, of course, is that if you’ve networked yourself too much then you are going to have a slew of people that will recommend you, just because they know you and think of you as a great person, but that doesn’t mean that your idea is any good. I see people recommending great, well-networked people all the time who are working on terrible ideas.

If you make it too easy for yourself to raise money with the wrong business, you’ll soon be searching for a real problem or real solution to work on, while investors start to ponder who they should bring in to replace you.

What’s the right way to think about networking?
Networking is great and no one can build a business alone, but don’t fall into the trap of spending all your time networking. Like most things in life, what you want is to find a healthy balance.

Have fun, take your time, and focus on fostering real relationships that can help you over the long term.

This post hasn’t been full of super actionable advice, so here’s a tidbit for you: Hole up in your dungeon and spend your time building something that is fucking great. Then, when you do feel the urge to get out there, networking will be an accelerant instead of a deterrent.