When I was 24 years old, newly and involuntarily single and full of the accompanying vitriol, I started a celebrity gossip blog. I claimed a little piece of blogger.com for my own, and every few days I posted to it something angry, unkind and occasionally witty about a celebrity. It was not very nice to the celebrities, but it was a gracious gesture toward my real-world friends, who I figured could be thusly spared the sharper end of my post-breakup bitterness.
I was neither famous nor important nor rich. I had a college degree from a big university, and I worked a 9-to-5 office job in a big office in a big city in a small role. I had friends, and I played volleyball and drank alcohol with them. I did not have what one might refer to as a “professional network”.
The blog became very important to me.
“My goal,” I said to my mother on the phone one night, “is to have 100 people be fans of my blog. Like fans who come and read all the time.”
It seemed a lofty goal to me, but I was determined.
The importance of a network
I studied other gossip blogs day and night. The big gossip blogs linked to each other almost every day. They did “link exchanges” – outgoing links to one another’s content that were sure to help them share their enormous amounts of traffic.
Clearly, I needed them to link to me.
I emailed those bloggers to tell them nicely that I was running a gossip blog, too, and I would like them to link to me and that I would link back. Some politely declined. Most of my favorites – the blogs I read every day and loved – didn’t write back at all. I emailed them repeatedly. No response.
My feelings were hurt. I’d always been an introvert – shy and not a salesperson – and it was devastating to put myself out there and not even get a response.
Building my own network
I put away my crippling depression — the kind you can only experience after the writer/editor/sole employee of a C-list gossip blog can’t be bothered to respond to your email and also your boyfriend just dumped you — and I retooled. My goal was 100 regular readers, not a million, so I looked for other bloggers whose audiences were as small as mine. I emailed them to request link exchanges, and most of them wrote back right away and were eager to get started. My tiny audience started to grow a little bit each day. Soon enough, other brand-new bloggers were emailing me to request link exchanges. I always said yes. My audience continued to grow.
I soon had 100 regular readers. Then I had 200, and then 500, and then 1000.
My link partners grew right alongside me. These same enterprising, hardworking, driven blog owners who had approached me when they had 500 monthly visitors now had 500,000, or a million, and they were still linking to me every day. We were still supporting each other, still sharing our readers with one another, and still emailing each other for advice and ideas. As time passed, we were all getting very, very good at running websites.
Three years after I started it, my beloved blog had over 13 million unique visitors each month, which is mind-blowingly awesome, but some of the bloggers I started out with can top even that number today. I knew them when they had 500 visitors each month. I helped them get to where they are today, and they helped me.
Starting from scratch
Several years ago, I turned that blog over to its very capable staff and went in search of my next project. I knew I wanted to move away from publishing and back into technology, where I’d started my career. I’d relocated to Seattle, a thriving tech scene packed with important people who had big networks of other important people who they had met at Microsoft, where everyone but me had worked at some point.
I’d recently adopted a new puppy, and that was the entirety of my Seattle network. Bill Gates was not responding to my emails about lunch. I realized I’d just sold the only job I knew how to do. The hiring managers at Amazon weren’t especially interested in the celebrity gossip blog I’d started or the corporate job I’d held years before.
A VP from a large tech company took an interest in my career, and she helped me land a junior position at a digital agency. My boss there seemed to be besties with every influential human being on the planet. She could get the most miraculous things to happen with a simple phone call. I was having trouble getting a hairdresser to commit to an appointment. I wanted to learn how to do what she did. I wanted to understand how to build a network, to be one of those people whose phone calls got returned.
The part where I spend a lot of years trying to figure out what’s wrong with me when actually nothing is
Was I not exciting enough? Not strategic enough? Not political enough? Maybe I needed to wear more expensive jewelry, or high heels. Maybe I needed a better laugh or funnier jokes. Maybe I needed to negotiate harder. Maybe I didn’t call often enough, or sell myself well enough. Maybe I was just too nice. Maybe I needed to be more selfish, more demanding. After years of trying to think up new and creative ways to insult Paris Hilton, the last thing I wanted was to be mean. But maybe I needed to channel my inner Machiavelli to accomplish my goals. Did I even have an inner Machiavelli?
How much about myself, exactly, was I going to have to change to become the wheeler and dealer I thought I was supposed to be?
It turned out that I didn’t have to change a thing. I already knew exactly how to build an influential network.
Building a network, again
Not that my puppy wasn’t totally awesome or anything, but I hit the ground in search of more Seattle friends. I wanted to meet like-minded people – people who were smart and hardworking and funny and creative and driven and full of ideas and passion. Slowly but surely, I began collecting them: mostly other young women, excited about the tech space and about digital media, with big goals and big ideas and a willingness to work hard. We were kind to each other, and loyal.
Many of us introverts, we bonded over Twitter and Facebook and email and text message as much as we did in person. We forged relationships that worked for us, relationships we were comfortable in.
We shared our connections. We recommended one another for jobs and for speaking gigs. We invited each other to the good parties we knew about. We put each other on the list. It didn’t feel like “building a network.” It felt like making friends, like finding a place I belonged, a social circle where I was valuable just the way I am.
Looking back, it didn’t take long for things to change. Just like with the blog’s link exchange, three years later the people in my network were playing on different levels. One by one, our goals had become our realities. We were no longer junior assistants with big-league dreams – we were vice presidents and managing editors and senior staff and, in some cases, even CEOs. We were the wielders of the opportunities, the connectors, the center of the game. We were the people that other people wanted to get at the table.
One day it hit me: I can get the most miraculous things to happen by making a simple phone call.
To be clear, Bill Gates still doesn’t return my emails. I’m not the single most important person in the city, and I have a great deal to learn. But I’ve realized this: wherever I am, I can create a strong network on my own terms. I don’t have to change the way I laugh or lose weight or get a job at Microsoft. I certainly don’t have to be more selfish. I just have to keep doing what I learned how to do when I was trying to build a link exchange for my tiny blog: ask directly for what I want, and ask the people around me what they want and how I can help them get it.
The strongest networks are formed not by leveraging power but by creating it, by enabling those around you to succeed. They’re not forged by calculated and cold politics, but through sustained focus and friendship. Dedicate your time to being the person you’ve always wanted to have in your own network, and soon enough you’ll have built yourself the network you always wanted to have.