Elance Blog

How Desert Hippies Can Teach You To Network Like A Pro

Occasionally we invite entrepreneurs to discuss issues of importance to our community. Here are a few thoughts on networking from Danny Schaffer, a freelance writer and marketer from South Africa. Danny was also a runner-up in our recent blog writing competition, which Elance co-sponsored alongside co-working space The Common Room. 


Sites like Elance and oDesk have shifted the way many of us do business. By connecting clients and freelancers from all over the world, the online marketplaces spark what will often become long-term business relationships.

But relying on digital workplaces alone to grow one’s network is no longer enough. Savvy professionals know the key to building a powerful career in any field is through powerful and intentional networking.

But unless you’re some kind of socialite, networking is awkward. The word alone reeks of contrived self-promotion. 

Most of us at some point or another have tried at least one networking event. And it’s almost always the same ... mildly interesting talks swarmed by people throwing around business cards right and left.

The problem here is a lack of authenticity. People aren’t interested in each other; instead they’re dead bent on a mission to work the room, convincing strangers that they’re worth knowing.

But meeting people face-to-face, having a real conversation, is one of the greatest ways to form genuine connections with people. So how can do this in less used-car-salemanesque way?

Burning Man and the art of powerful networking

I was first introduced to the idea of gifting on a week-long trip to the desert for Afrikburn, an offshoot of the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. While hanging out in the desert for a week may or may not be your bag, there are a number of great lessons we can take away from The Burn. Burning Man was originally founded upon 10 principles, the most important of which in this context is gifting - the act of giving something to someone without expecting anything in return.

At first the concept seems a little alien, but after seeing how it works in practice and reflecting on it after the drugs have worn off, one realizes it’s the most natural way relationships are formed. Give someone something and they want to give you something back, this back-fourth quickly builds trust and sparks a friendship based on mutual benefit.

The key here is to become a giving person in every aspect of your life, always looking for ways to make people’s lives better whether or not they’re able or willing to return the favour.  

Once you’ve integrated a giving attitude into who you are, you can take the next step into a more focused and intentional approach when it comes to networking with the people who interest you.

Focus on the people that matter

Unlike the Burning Man bunch, you’re not just looking to gift yourself and your skills to everyone you meet along your merry way, rather you need to identify a group of specific people who know something you want to find out more about, and add real value to their lives in a unique way.

While at first this may seem difficult, it’s actually super simple. These days, we live in public online. Most people post their personal views, stories and thoughts on a number of online channels daily. All this information can help you figure out how you specifically (with your unique skills and knowledge) can add value to their lives.

Make use of these channels and you’ll be able to connect with potential mentors and allies on their terms, discuss things they’re interested in and find commonalities between the two of you.

When selecting the people you’d like to have in your professional network, focus on those who:

·       Have the job title you want

·       Work at a company you admire

·       Are doing things you want to be doing

Generally you want to find people who are one step ahead of where you are, these people will know what it's like to be in your shoes and will often give you the best advice.

Get in touch

When making first contact with anyone who has a lot on their plate, it’s vital to be clear about why want to connect, what you’d like to learn from them and why their unique views are important to you. Be brief, respectful, honest and direct. At this point if you can add any sort of value to them, do it. Be innovative!

One of the most common excuses I hear from friends when it comes to networking, is that they don’t want to bother people who are really busy. They don’t feel like they have anything of value to offer the professionals they admire.

The truth is, if they can, most people want to help you. And if you can’t add value to them up front, you’ll be able to give back in some way after spending time with them or corresponding over email and finding out what matters most to them.

If nothing else, ask questions about how they got to where they are today and afterwards, a few weeks or months later, give them feedback on how you implemented their advice and how you’re better off for it. This small act of recognition is more than most other people who meet them will ever do.  

The more you prepare for meetings with people, the better. If you can show some insight into who they are, they’re far more likely to respect you, give you the information you’re looking for and allow you into their network. Once there they’ll recommend you to their contacts and recommend their contacts to you.

Get started today

If you take action immediately and keep nurturing your network by following the advice presented above, in a matter of months you’ll have stronger support structures than most people who’ve been working in your industry for years. 

Take a few minutes now to get started on the exercise below.

Exercise - 5 Steps to a powerful VIP network

Step 1 - Identify 10 people you’d like to get in contact with

Step 2 - Research them online – Go through their social media posts and learn about who they are

Step 3 – Think about how you can add value to their lives based on your individual expertise

Step 4 - Make contact – This can be by email, Twitter, Linkedin, Google+, or with a direct call (just remember to keep your message clear, concise, and simple)

Step 5 - Arrange a meeting with this person and prepare unique questions  

Step 6 - Follow up after the meeting to tell them about your progress

Editor’s note: When your new-found networking prowess turns into freelance opportunities, be sure to use the Elance and oDesk platforms for working together.


Danny Schaffer is a freelance writer and marketer focused on helping startups and small businesses grow into brands that people love through powerful content. 


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