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Networking

How To Build Connections When You’re Just Starting Out

Serial Entrepreneur Matt Galligan on how he went from small town Illinois to founding his third startup.


We know that opportunities often come our way thanks to the people we know. Unfortunately, many run into a conundrum: in order to meet people, you first need to know people. In hyper-competitive industries, access is everything, and the path to success will be much harder if you do not connect with people in your chosen field.

In 2005, Circa CEO and serial entrepreneur Matt Galligan lived in Williamsville, Illinois, a small town where he was on the outside of any entrepreneurial community. He spent his downtime creating music podcasts which helped him plug into a community of podcasters that shared tips and tricks with each other while promoting each other’s shows. One of these podcasters happened to be Derrick Oien, the COO of MP3.com. Oien found Galligan’s ideas interesting and encouraged Galligan to try a startup.

“I was a kid who grew up in a town of 1,000 people and cornfields, the idea that you could even do this didn’t even begin to cross my mind,” he said. 

Since then, the small town kid with no connections to speak of has sold two companies and is now working on his third. We asked him how he created his community from scratch, and what it’s like to now be on the other side of the table.

You started in rural Illinois and now have a few companies under your belt. How can people replicate your path?

You need to find a group of people that are like-minded individuals that you can talk to and really jump into that community. The other option is if you flat-out do not have access — let’s say you’re somebody that wants to be an entrepreneur and you’re in rural North Dakota — look for the nearest conference. Even one afternoon at a conference is valuable, just buy the plane ticket. Then you start to expand that community and learn.

But the golden rule at all times is that you never try to get to a final conclusion in the very first interaction. If your goal is a career, and your goal is developing a network, you need to understand that it’s exactly like dating. Your goal at the end of the day should be to get another date, not just hook up.

The golden rule at all times is that you never try to get to a final conclusion in the very first interaction.

How important are conferences when building a community?

A conference is a temporary community, and a lot of times you’re not going to get the most amount of value on day one. It’s rare that you’re going to start to establish a really fantastic network with a short conference, unless it lasts several days. One of the things that was incredibly valuable for me early on: In Boulder, we have the Boulder/Denver Tech Meetup. There I saw the same people over, and over again throughout the life of that community. Some people entered, and some exited, but finding that community was super important for me. I met a lot of my circle though that. 

What’s the best approach to connecting with speakers at conferences?

You might have two minutes to talk that person, so respect their time. When that person has a lot of people lined up: tap them on the shoulder as you walk past, and say, “My name is Matt, I’d really like to talk to you about my thing at some point in time, I know you’re busy right now and I want to respect your time. Here’s my card, would it be okay if I got yours?” A lot of times you’re not going to get that card in return. But you do your best to stay in touch with that person.

And then?

Email them. But ambiguity in emails is always your enemy. You’re never going to get anywhere if you say, “What do you think about this?” Which is 90 percent of the cold emails I receive. The reality is: I don’t have the time to dig in on things and noodling around, and discover for myself what this thing is about, and figure out what they’re asking.

I often tell people that cold email me to give me three questions. When you ask pointed questions, you can get real answers. It is so much easier for me to knock out an email with a thoughtful response when a question is asked.

I like the analogy of dating. What exactly do you do to during that first meeting to convey your passion and not be annoying about it?

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You can double down on the dating metaphor: If you go into a first date and all you can do is talk about yourself, then that’s a turnoff. If all I hear is somebody just talking at me, as opposed to somebody talking with me, then I don’t want to be interacting with that person.

Let’s say I’m at a one-day conference, I meet two or three interesting people, but I’m from out of town. How do you maintain that positive interaction after you’ve left town?

Twitter is a great resource because it is a one-way thing. If it’s mutual, then great; if it’s not, it’s still okay and you’re still getting value out of it. If I meet someone like Brad Feld, who’s an amazing individual and does great things for people that simply want to have a chat with him, but doesn’t have a lot of time — if I meet somebody like that and want to stay in touch with them, the best thing I can do is follow him on Twitter. I’m able to get a sense of what he’s thinking these days, what he’s interested in, and what links he’s sharing.

Then, the next time I see him, I can say, “Hey, that link that you shared was talking about Bitcoin, I thought it was really interesting.” A spark can happen then, and you meet on a different context. I didn’t need to be in the same place as him to discover that about him.

Matt Galligan during his SimpleGeo days | Photo: by magerleagues on Flickr

Matt Galligan during his SimpleGeo days | Photo: by magerleagues on Flickr

Any other advice for reaching out to busy people?

Recognize somebody’s level in the industry. You’re not going to get away with randomly trying to get in touch with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey these days. For example, if you’re trying to get a deal done with Uber, your best vector is probably not going to be to go to CEO Travis Kalanick. Even if you did, it’s going to get delegated to another member of his team. 

It’s always possible to ask for an intro to someone. I often don’t know anybody that’s actually doing the on-the-ground work so I’ll reach out to that CEO or that founder and say, “Hey, we’re thinking about doing this – would you mind putting me in touch with one of your salespeople or one of your biz dev people?” Take that awkwardness off the table and suggest an easy action to get the email out of their inbox.

Take that awkwardness off the table and suggest an easy action to get the email out of their inbox.

Have you ever denied someone who asked you for an intro?

When I go back to instances where I’ve said, “No,” the vast majority of them are cold-emailing me asking for a warm introduction. The value my connections is partially based upon my reputation inside of that community. If I become the guy who always sends intros, then my value inside of that community goes down. They may stop listening to me, and when I need a real intro, that value is no longer there.

Other times it’s when somebody that I know is asking for an intro, but I just know they’re not ready. They’re saying, “Hey, can I talk to such-and-such,” and I say, “Look, you’re definitely not of the stage that I think you need to be to be talking to this person. Here’s what you need: Give me three sentences why it’s relevant, give me your bio, give me your slides,” and then what I typically do then is I will forward the information on to that individual.

I’ll email the person and write, “Hey, this person is requesting an intro.” I’ll either say “I don’t know the person really well,” or “I don’t personally vet this product,” or “I haven’t spent time with this product,” but I email that stuff out to that person and then let them decide. 

I actually had this happen recently the other day, where somebody was asking me for an intro to a CEO I knew. This person wanted to talk to the CEO because of a job position that had opened up. I said to the emailer, “Look, I’m not 100 person tight with that individual, I know them, we know each other, I’m also not super-tight with you, but what I’ll do is forward my information on to them, and if they want the intro then I’ll let you know.” Sure enough, a day later they got back to me and said, “Actually, this is great. We are looking for a person for that role. I’m hooking you in with such-and-such on my team, and I’d be happy for the intro.” Everybody won.

Herbert Lui

Herbert Lui is exploring the intersection of art and entrepreneurship. He is a writer and specializes at content marketing. You can connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn, and see more of his work on Contently. He is the author of a free guide to building credibility online, titled Brick by Brick.

Comments (10)
  • http://www.scoop.it/t/daily-clippings/p/4017876320/2014/03/18/how-to-build-your-personal-network-from-scratch How to Build Your Personal Network From Scratch...

    […] Serial Entrepreneur Matt Galligan on how he went from small town Illinois to founding his third startup.  […]

  • http://yourewastingmytalent.com/2014/03/18/great-article-by/ Great Article by | You're Wasting My Talent

    […] 99U on being […]

  • Oliver

    Great post Herbert – some insights and advice here that I will put into practice. There is a definite tendency to want to close too early – instead of aiming for that 2nd date!

    I try to employ some of the points in Dale Carnegie’s book “How to win friends and influence people” to help me in this area. A mind-map of that book can be found here: http://whycode.com/home.aspx?kgid=23758

    Thanks for the read.

  • http://mattbandstra.com/2014/03/19/how-to-build-connections-when-youre-just-starting-out/ How to Build Connections When You’re Just Starting Out | Matt Bandstra

    […] It’s been said that most business comes from relationships and referrals. And that it’s not about what you know, but who you know. But what about when you’re just starting out and haven’t made those types of connections yet? The always-great 99u has a great post on building your own personal network from scratch. […]

  • Karen Hoffman

    LOVED this post Herbert! Matt Galligan is doing so many things I have done as well. Another idea… If I LOVED the content of a speaker and he has a long line to talk to him, I WRITE my thanks and hand to him/her (or their assistant-team member if line is way long) along with my card and follow up on FACEBOOk about what great content the person had and then follow up with an email. Sparked many relationships this way!

  • kamaronn

    Great post!!

  • http://www.mulley.net/2014/03/24/fluffy-links-monday-24th-of-march-2014/ Fluffy Links – Monday 24th of March 2014 « Damien Mulley

    […] to build your personal network from scratch. From the guy that built Circa. Small town, big town, doesn’t matter. Conferences are a handy […]

  • Jonbon

    That’s very solid stuff. I love the detailed discussion of how he handles requests that aren’t appropriate or the person isn’t “ready” for that yet. Great way of staying professional and generous but not spending all of your networking points on things that don’t help you.

  • Kimmhsf

    I appreciate the advice and I agree that conferences are great places to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise get to know.

    Here’s another way to approach a speaker or someone else you want to know. You have to figure everyone is coming up to that person and asking for something.

    Is there something you can give? Do you have an email list or blog audience that would help the speaker? Can you promote their book or create an event for them?

    I say the best way to connect is to start with a genuine compliment and then find another way to give value without asking for anything in return.

  • http://www.scoop.it/t/betterness/p/4018344916/2014/03/25/how-to-build-connections-when-you-re-just-starting-out How To Build Connections When You’re Just...

    […] Serial Entrepreneur Matt Galligan on how he went from small town Illinois to founding his third startup.  […]

  • Ricky

    Great article!

  • Gwen O

    This article is really great!

  • http://iampariah.com/finds/design-business-links-3-april-2014-2.php Design Business Links 3 April 2014 | Pariah Burke

    […] How To Build Connections When You’re Just Starting Out “We know that oppor­tu­ni­ties often come our way thanks to the peo­ple we know. Unfortunately, many run into a conun­drum: in order to meet peo­ple, you first need to know peo­ple. In hyper-competitive indus­tries, access is every­thing, and the path t… […]

  • http://tomdurkin.me Tom Durkin

    Great notes to take away. Really useful for where I’m at right now

  • http://ayititek.co/2014/04/five-one-hour-routines-that-will-improve-your-life-as-a-freelancer/ Five One-Hour Routines That Will Improve Your Life as a Freelancer ‹ Ayiti Tek

    […] I talked to serial entrepreneur and Circa CEO Matt Galligan about networking, I asked him about his brief stint in product management consulting and how consultants could go […]

  • http://robsullivan.info/2014/04/five-one-hour-routines-that-will-improve-your-life-as-a-freelancer/ Five One-Hour Routines That Will Improve Your Life as a Freelancer | Rob's Personal Aggregator

    […] I talked to serial entrepreneur and Circa CEO Matt Galligan about networking, I asked him about his brief stint in product management consulting and how consultants could go […]

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    […] I talked to serial entrepreneur and Circa CEO Matt Galligan about networking, I asked him about his brief stint in product management consulting and how consultants could go […]

  • http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2014/04/five-one-hour-routines-that-will-improve-your-life-as-a-freelancer/ Five One-Hour Routines That Will Improve Your Life As A Freelancer | Lifehacker Australia

    […] I talked to serial entrepreneur and Circa CEO Matt Galligan about networking, I asked him about his brief stint in product management consulting and how consultants could go […]

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    […] I talked to serial entrepreneur and Circa CEO Matt Galligan about networking, I asked him about his brief stint in product management consulting and how consultants could go […]

  • Audrey

    Great article!!!!!! I will have to use this advice in my http://www.retrograndma.etsy.com shop. Thanks

  • https://plus.google.com/+Securitycamera-ny/about Mark

    Great post and very helpful adveise Thanks

  • http://99designs.com/customer-blog/99designs-x-99u-june-2014/ Entrepreneurship meets design: Your June tips from 99U Customer Blog

    […] 2. How to build connections when you’re just starting out […]

  • http://billlennox.me/blog/move-before-youre-ready-get-started-without-being-an-expert/ Move Before You’re Ready: Get Started Without Being an “Expert”Bill Lennox Aka Digital Bill | Bill Lennox Aka Digital Bill

    […] you’ve connected with them and set up a conversation or interview, your challenge will be to make a good first impression. If it’s just over email, you should ask pointed questions that are easy to answer. Do […]

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    […] you’ve connected with them and set up a conversation or interview, your challenge will be to make a good first impression. If it’s just over email, you should ask pointed questions that are easy to answer. Do […]

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