If networking makes you nervous, here’s a better way to succeed socially

Despite the mountains of information about how important networking is for one’s career, many professionals still avoid networking events as uncomfortable time-wasters.

One reason for this avoidance is that there is a sameness to many of the events on offer, so there isn’t really much of a choice for people who want to make new connections or explore different parts of their industries.

But there’s another solution: start your own networking event, with people you have worked with and want to work with.

Sound hard? It’s not. The benefits are also enormous, allowing people to gravitate naturally towards each other through mutual acquaintances rather than mingling in an room full of intimidating strangers struggling to make small talk.

I interviewed two biotech executives and four lawyers who set up successful networks, and have researched a handful of entrepreneurs who have done the same. Here’s how they created their own networks.

Become the center of a community

In 2009, Derek Brand realized that the biotech community in New York needed a happy hour. When he lived in Boston, Brand, a serial biomedical entrepreneur, routinely attended a long-running monthly happy hour, called Biotech Tuesdays, where biotech researchers and entrepreneurs met to network in a “drinks with friends” atmosphere. But there was nothing like that in New York.

The first thing Brand considered: how to make the atmosphere less awkward.

The majority of networking events were sporadic and consisted of a presentation, then time for one beer. It delayed the point of networking, which is the chance to connect with new people.

“You had to hang out for a couple of hours for an opportunity to finally talk with the one entrepreneur you were there to meet,” Brand recalls.

So Brand, together with Arthur Tinkelenberg —at Ascent Biomedical Ventures at the time, and now a serial entrepreneur— and Chau Khuong, a partner at Orbimed, set out to fill the void.

They created the Bio-Entrepreneurs happy hour. It was designed to be an off-hand, relaxed experience, taking place reliably and frequently. They emailed all their New York biotech contacts, and assembled approximately 30 people for their first happy hour. It has been a monthly fixture on the NYC biotech scene ever since, routinely drawing between 30 and 50 attendees.

From the beginning, Brand envisioned an industry event that would increase the “networking efficiency” of biotech entrepreneurs. That is, it would increase the probability that the right two people would find each other.

Because he wanted an event where “people meet and make connections with their peers,” Brand was deliberate in his choice of attendees. He curated his lists relentlessly.

He did not invite service providers (like lawyers and accountants), so that the happy hour did not turn into an event where services were pitched to potential clients. The focus on entrepreneurs has not wavered even as Brand’s happy hour email list has grown to 700 people.

The results: Off the top of his head, Brand can name at least four startups that owe their genesis to the happy hour, and more than a dozen individuals who got their next job through it.

The effort only became bigger: The event also led to the formation of a yearly local biotech retreat: the Foundation Conference, which Brand started with Nicole McKnight (the founder of Kiiln), and director of BioLabs NY.

Even though the time investment for organizing the events is small – Brand estimates that he spends less than 2 hours a month – the benefits are significant.

The networking series allows Brand to touch base with people throughout the community frequently, resulting in several career and business opportunities coming his way.

“People hear from me twice a month,” he says, referring to the invitation and reminder emails he sends. “The invite itself is innocuous, but people remember who you are, and often reach out to ask you about things that are on their minds or introduce you to someone new.”

Keep it small and bring in regular speakers

In 2015, Paul Daruwala, the Chief Commercial Officer of Cidara, a pharmaceutical company specializing in anti-infectives, saw an opportunity to start a niche network in San Diego, and launched the Biotech CCO Network.

Daruwala, who worked in biotech and pharma in Boston and New Jersey prior to relocating to San Diego, felt there was a need to bring together current and former biotech and pharma executives focused on the commercial side of the business, so that they could benefit from the collective experience of peers.

Daruwala aimed for a “truly social setting,” so he kept it exclusive: members are nominated to join by other members, and there are only 32 executives involved. The CCO Network’s quarterly events started as “eight folks and a few glasses of wine,” says Daruwala.  As the network has grown, the events now include an informal ‘around the horn’ session, providing attendees an opportunity to introduce themselves and give a quick update on their company. The group also invites speakers to talk about scientific innovation and other topics.

While San Diego was primarily known as a R&D hub, no one had focused on the commercial executives before Daruwala brought them together. As a result of the light that Daruwala shined on his fellow business executives, several companies based themselves in the region and have reached out to him to find new talent. For example, Aries Pharmaceuticals, a startup, used the network to find the people they needed for their organizational build-out.

Daruwala, unlike Brand, did welcome the participation of service providers, signing them to sponsor the events.

Daruwala estimates that the total time commitment to arrange the event and maintain the CCO network is approximately 3 hours every three months. But this commitment is now shared with fellow members who volunteer to arrange for the sponsor and the speaker for each event.

The Dinner-Party Method

Exclusivity seems to be an asset for Running With Heels as well. Runnin With Heels is a business women’s invitation-only network, launched by Jenny Powers in 2012. As Powers explained in a 2014 interview, she organized Running With Heels “as an antidote to the proverbial ‘Old Boys’ Club.’”  Her signature event is a dinner party for 4-5 participants – a setting that promotes conversation and fosters the formation of genuine friendships.

Four tips for creating your own networking event

If you would like to start hosting an ongoing event and reaping the benefits of being the center of a professional network, there are four major things to keep in mind.

1. Keep it small

It’s your party; invite only those who fit your criteria and focus of the event.  Think about the benefits that potential invitees will gain from attending your event, such as new collaborations or job opportunities. The more benefits, the more likely your event is to flourish and build on itself.

2.  Networking is not the time for the hard sell

Hosting an event can be fun, but a good host always puts the spotlight on others. Don’t view your event as an opportunity for overt self-promotion. Avoid anything that smacks of selling, like pitching your services, or angling for a new job. Your influence and ability are implied when you’re the host; let people ask about your services if they’re curious.

3.     Choose the right people

In networking, chemistry means a lot — as well as how likely attendees are to help each other. Ask your guests to invite other people into the group, but stress that the invitees should fit the criteria of the group to keep the vibe and purpose strong.

4.     Make it regular

Keep the momentum going by holding the event regularly. It doesn’t matter if fewer people show up to the second event than the first. People may miss many of the events, but they only need to go to one to see if they fit well with the group. In the meantime, keep going. Consistency is the key to eventual success.