Jerry Colonna, who I had the good fortune to meet in person the other day, has a really great response to a frustrated entrepreneur in Texas, but there's one point I want to comment on...
"you MUST get connected. You know that business relies on people connecting with other people and that few great ideas are truly great enough to break through and emerge as successful companies without the founder/entrepreneur/CEO going out and pressing the flesh. So you don't have an MBA. So what? Go out and find a network you can join. If there's none in your area, start a chapter of the Young Presidents' Organization (YPO) or Young Entrepreneurs' Organization (YEO). Go to you nearest university and meet with the professors there."
It is important to be connected, but a lot of people's efforts to get connected are misguided or too forced. That's why, although I'm a huge proponent of networking, I'm always very cynical about the networking nights that Fordham tries to do with its Young Alumni. I tried to focus those efforts on a three month mentoring program, where you could build a relationship over time. To me, networks are what develops naturally out of being a productively functioning and active member of a number of circles. I never tried to develop a network, but I was always active in pursuing my interests and so my network grew out of that. If you're growing a network and you don't have one currently, I'd wonder what's going on that is leaving you out of what should naturally be your network given your course of business.
For example, I have an idea for an online information service related to college recruiting. That idea comes out of the student mentoring I've done, which connects me to many people in and around the career education world, and some recruiters as well. It was my participation in this network, because it was an interest of mine, that grew the idea. By talking to all these people, I found a need and came up with an idea to fill it. If you ideas are grown in a bubble, away from customers, peers, other entrepreneurs, its probably not a well tested or appropriate product for the market. If I wanted to shop this idea around a network, I have one already because it is a relevent network that helped grow the idea in the first place. If you join a network with the intention to see what you get out of it, people will see right through you.
Its a lot like dating. When you go out to a bar with the intention of hooking up, you're unlikely to build a long term relationship out of that. People are a bit guarded, because they know you're "on the prowl" and they're trying to play defense. Its a market that paralyzes its sellers because they're all afraid of getting duped. Its all too forced.
However, if you just pursue your interests on a regular basis, taking part in activities you enjoy, you will find yourself meeting people with shared interest and you've got a much higher chance of success. I met lots of great people at the Boathouse in a much more natural and informal way. I always wonder about people whose only outlet for finding new people is at a bar.
A lot of times, I find both people who understand this point and people who don't at professional gatherings. When I'm at ILPA, I talk to the people I like and the ones I find interesting, rather than anyone I feel like it might be fruitful for me to cozy up to. I think these personal connections are much stickier than those made by new entrants trying to "work the crowd."
So, not to say that Jerry's suggestions won't bear fruit, they're good suggestions. I just want to point out that networking--the building of really effective long term relationships--happens over time and it happens not because you go out and look for it. It is the coming together of like minded individuals taking part in activities for their own sake, not necessarily to get connected to other people. Just be careful not to cross that line between trying to connect and enjoy time with like minded individuals and trying to get something out of them.