I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, living and working there until 1992. So the California way of doing things is in my DNA.
One thing I just took for granted was how networking and “taking a meeting” worked. While I was still in High School I was making an animated film adaption of “Flatland”. This classic book is about thinking in higher dimensions. It does this through the story of A Square, a two-dimensional being living in Flatland. who is taken into the three dimensional world by A Sphere.
I would try to meet and talk with every scientist and mathematician I could about the project. I wanted to get their thoughts on how to visualize and bring to life Flatland. I wanted to learn more about thinking in higher dimensions and how to make that come through in the film.
Not everyone would take my meetings — I was a scrawny 16 year old. But some did. After introducing our selves and working our way through pleasant smalltalk, the other person would invariably ask “what can I do to help?” This is before even hearing the first thing about the project. Here I was a 16 year kid and these important people took my meeting pre-disposed to help. That just blew my mind.
I’m a lot older now and understand why people do this. One its nice to help people. Two you never know how the other person might return the favor. This experience taught me that when some one approaches me for a meeting, and I accept, I treat it by default as an opportunity to help someone. Doesn’t matter who you are.
Once I left California I was exposed to the real world. I would network and ask people for meetings. I expected that we would sit down for a pleasant coffee, discuss my projects, I would ask for their help and, if they could, they would give it to me. This was very naive.
I was at one of my first “executive” networking events in Ottawa. I was working at Bookham at the time and involved with a potential deal to purchase some chips from a local company. At this event I met a entrepreneur starting a company making a similar chip. I was listening to him describe the technology and was almost at the point where I was going to suggest he meet with our purchasing team, when he abruptly walked away.
This was not just rude, it betrayed a mindset opposite what I’m used to — “what’s in this conversation for me”. In less then 5 minutes this person had decided there was nothing I could do to help him. So there was obviously nothing in it for him to even continue talking with me.
In an ironic twist, months later a VC looking to make an investment in this person’s company asked me what I thought. I was happy to give a glowing review of the technology, grateful that I as given an opportunity to help him in some small way. After that I would continue to this entrepreneur at networking events. I would ask him how the startup was going. He had absolutely no time for me, probably because I still felt there was nothing in it for him.
This “what’s in it for me” mentality hurts everyone, our ecosystems, our clusters, our communities. It holds us all back. California — specifically the SF Bay Area — seems to have it right, with people helping each other. Perhaps this is one reason the region has been so successful.
I still network California style. Looking for ways I can help others. But I’m losing patience for the “what’s in it for me” group of people. Please, next time you are networking or taking a meeting, stop thinking about how the other person can help you and try to find a way you can help them first. You’ll be surprised where this approach can lead.