When I was 13, they split up my Little League into the "A" Team and the "B" Team. I got put on the "B" Team, mostly because I sucked. I didn't suck as bad as some of the other kids--I tried to swing, wouldn't swing over my head, but I certainly never really hit the ball. The team was terrible--we went 0-14--but I took it upon myself to really work at my hitting, learn how to play other positions, and try my hardest. I succeeded. In fact, not only did I start hitting, but I played well enough to earn a spot on the "A" team over the second season later that summer. I did even better then, leading that team in batting average. I couldn't wait to join the upper level team the next year.
Except, they didn't invite me back. I couldn't have been more disappointed. I worked so hard to improve, showed I could play with the top kids, and yet I still was left off the list.
I know that's how a lot of us feel when tech sites put out "top" lists of "influencers" or "startups to watch". You feel it when you don't get a VIP invite to a party to a startup that you feel like you really helped out.
But lists are bullshit, right?
Except, they're not. We say they are, but the reality is that there's an important social and professional standing that furthers our careers. If I'm gathering "top" tech people together in a room full of 100 people to meet with Jeff Bezos, I've got to cut that list off somewhere--I'm bound by the laws of physics. Instead of running a series of interviews of everyone in the NYC tech community, I'm going to use proxies--media lists, suggestions from others. Being on those lists and getting into certain events has real impact on your opportunity set, and that's not bullshit at all.
It gets worse when you work hard to climb those ladders and wind up on those lists--because then you're keenly aware of other lists that you didn't know about before. You're in a different network of peers and they're getting some invites that you don't. Of course, you get invites that they don't either, but that's not exactly bothersome to you.
And it's frustrating--more frustrating when you're right there on the doorstep. I don't expect to get invited to the White House anytime soon, so that doesn't bother me--but if someone's putting together a group of the top seed investors in New York, I'll be the first one to admit that I'm bummed not to be included.
Why? Who cares? Well, I care, just as anyone does, to be appreciated. It's a natural human instinct to want others to acknowledge your social standing--so, like it or not, I'm part chimp and I want to be on that list. Plus, it's a feedback signal. Maybe I'm not working hard enough--and then the frustration becomes not at the person making the list, but at myself. Did I miss an opportunity to get to know someone that I should have taken? Could I have been more helpful to others so that they, in turn, would suggest that I be included? Where did I make that wrong turn?
In the past, my first instinct would have very well been to pour all of my frustration into a biting blog post that attacks the very nature of list creation, and the bullshit nature of velvet ropes. It would have garnered a lot of crowd support, and that would have made me feel "right".
But what would it have accomplished?
Well, it would have made the person trying their best to do that event or write that article feel pretty bad about it--and probably glad they didn't invite me. Who needs a jerk like that anyway?
But that's pre-executive coaching from Jerry Colonna, pre-yoga, pre-five more years of maturing into being a partner at my own fund. New Me took a breather, thought about it, and came up with five things to do related to "getting in" where you want to be that are more productive than starting a flame war:
1) Just ask.
Every year I run an event at the Shake Shack. I curate both personally and from lots of suggestions from others as to who should be there. Inevitably, someone misses an invite or gets left off the list unintentionally. Like I said, the people who it bothers the most are the people that perceive, accurately so, that they should be there. I've run into a few people that were hurt that they didn't get invitations and, honestly, I had no idea that they didn't. I just assumed they couldn't make it. Running a big list for an event is hard and it's really impossible to make sure you have the right invites going out. A few people asked beforehand, I faceplanted, apologized, and put them right on the list. No big deal. So, before you think there's some big conspiracy theory keeping you out.
However, if there is one, you should know about it. If the real answer is, "Well, people just don't feel like your company is that interesting," that's actually good brand feedback. You need to know that to figure out how to tell your story. If the answer is "People think you're kind of a raving lunatic," that's also good feedback and perhaps something you should work on.
2) Work harder.
Every year, the baseball world votes for who gets into the Hall of Fame. There are some candidates that there is much debate over, and others where there is no debate at all. Why not just strive to be the candidate no one would ever say no to? Who wants to even be a borderline invite? Aim to be the obvious invitation.
3) Tell your story further, wider.
Self promotion when you've got nothing to back it up rings hollow, but if you're doing great work, it's incumbent upon you to make sure your story gets out there and people know what you're up to. Building yourself into a great product alone isn't enough. Marketing is a key component of any product strategy, especially when that product is yourself. Often times, the problem is that everyone in your own circle knows what you're up to, but you're preaching to the choir. Reach out and make sure you're known outside of your little circle.
4) Create your own list.
If you're not happy with not getting an invite to something someone else did, then you should just create the event that you want to participate in, and make it happen.
5) Make the kiddie table the fun table.
Big fancy tables with china and nice wine glasses usually aren't conducive to food throwing--hence they're less fun. If you wind up in a place that isn't exactly the most curated, high level, "influential" place in the world, you're only going to make it worse if you gripe about it. Have an awesome time and make sure everyone else--the aspirationals who you feel like you were three years ago and short have progressed past by now--are also having a fantastic time. Make the environment such a great place to be that the influentials start following you to the places that you go and trying to get invited along, as opposed to vice versa.