THE BLOG
05/02/2014 10:28 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2014

Networking as an Introvert in the Startup World

Let me be upfront: I'm an introverted English literature major from a small public school doing business development for a venture-backed payments startup. By many standards, I do not fit the generic standard for a typical business hire in the technology world. Much has been written about breaking into the tech industry as part of the operations side of the business but very few time is spent on the introverts out there. It's not something to be resented or dismissed as a characteristic of defeat; one just needs to find ways to work around it and be genuine while interacting with others.

"Eighty percent of success is showing up." - Woody Allen

The most common piece of advice someone will give you when asking how to break into any industry is to network. Network and get to know people. But just the idea of networking makes an introvert's palms cold and sweaty, erupting images of funny looks from strangers. There's something about large crowds that make us tighten our lips and preventing us from "working" the room. Add to the fact that many industry professionals, particularly in the tech scene, are a close-knit bunch that won't hesitate to ask their friends for reference as a form of social proof.

Because of this, I'd much rather take coffee/lunch meetings and connect on a more personal level. It allows me to focus on one person and be remembered by them. Lessening the nervousness prompted by crowds, one on one meetings help me to be as genuine as possible. It takes longer than talking to dozens of people within an hour but when trying to break in, whatever works is necessary.

Nonetheless, it doesn't excuse the introvert from showing up at events. There are two approaches I often take to use events to my advantage.

Business Card Swap

The first is to exchange pleasantries with the person and swap business cards shortly thereafter, when you sense the conversation just about to get awkward. If you don't have a card, ask for theirs and never be afraid of straightforward rejection. From there, follow up via email shortly (no more than a full day) after the event, reintroduce yourself in one sentence, and ask for a sit-down with the person. Keep the follow up short and do not pitch. The reason for this is twofold:

  1. A surprising number of people do not follow up. They assume the answer is no and would rather not ask. There's no time for fortune tellers, only people who take chances.
  2. Now that you got in front of them, move them to home court, where you are more comfortable (it's never easy but it does get easier) while valuing their time.

Volunteering

I've organized many events and student products in college, so I am familiar with how events are generally run. From there I quickly learned how valuable it is to volunteer for events that attract the very people you want to get in front of. Two main reasons immediately come to mind:

  1. People come to you whether it is the organizer of the event or the attendees; you are not left in the corner with a drink in one hand and a phone on the other trying to divert your attention from the very reason you are there: to get to know people. You are wearing a t-shirt that tells people that you have knowledge about the event and that they should approach you. A bonus here is to go above and beyond expectations as a volunteer. If you can take ownership of your duties as a volunteer and climb on as someone who understands their function and purpose for the event, people (organizers and attendees alike) will take notice. People do talk about you when you stand out and that's always a good thing, since it shows that you are a self-starter and dependable.
  2. Big events are often expensive to get in but that's because they need to offset costs that were not fulfilled by sponsorships, which also means free labor is often welcomed. Volunteering is a great and easy way to gain access to special events without having to lighten your wallet, while also getting in front of those you otherwise would not have been able to.

An introvert that attempts to be an extrovert comes off as awkward and inauthentic. An introvert that shies away from personal goals because it causes the person to get out of his or her comfort zone has a defeatist mentality; it's not a handicap. Introversion isn't anything special but it also doesn't have to be a scarlet letter in pursuing your dreams.