The Introverted Entrepreneur, Pt. I: Working the Room, Your Way

In this first part of “The Introverted Entrepreneur,” we’re talking about the frequently discussed challenge of networking. Not sure what we’re doing? Start here.

Let me get this off my chest first so we can dispose of the myth: discomfort with networking is not a purely introverted trait. Frankly, most people hate it. And I get that. The idea of making conversation toward either a specific professional goal, or as a means to be “memorable,” is an arduous task for most people.

However, the need to network efficiently and effectively is especially crucial for entrepreneurs. Building a business can be isolating, and getting to know others who have embarked or are embarking on the journey can be comforting. And from a more utilitarian perspective, it is these connections that eventually lead us to our occasional collaborators, co-conspirators, or co-founders. So yes, while there is some dread associated with leaving our physical cocoons (home or the office) as well as our mental and emotional cocoons (“do I have to go?”), there is undeniable value in making the brief journey out of that space.

That “do I have to go?” dread is real. And as I’ve shared previously in a move of accountability to stop me from whining about this, “catering to my own comfort isn’t conducive to building strong relationships, social or professional. This is an instinct that I need to fight, and am actively working to combat.”

So, how can you make these events work for you when you’re in need of the connections that your personal energy stores may not always welcome?

Go in with a plan. I tell people I’m coaching or working with often: it is often neither productive nor feasible to leave rooms like these with everyone present knowing your name. What’s more, as energy stores flag, you might find that those you met at the beginning and those you met at the end may see different versions of you. I’ll elaborate, using a snippet from my 2014 book The I’s Have It:

A hangover from alcohol or sugar (and yes, a sugar hangover is real) comes from the consumption of an excess amount of something that, in appropriate amounts, has few ill effects. But after we reach a threshold that our body can handle, we start to feel ill. The introvert hangover is our body’s response to excess- irritability, short temperedness, and a loss of focus. When we look back on some of the negative characteristics associated with introversion- assumptions of judgment, self-centeredness, and aloofness – one starts to wonder if these conclusions were drawn from introverts who were, as [my friend] Chris says, hungover. These characteristics generally aren’t true from a “fully charged” introvert, but could certainly be mistakenly assumed of an introvert in dire need of a recharge.

I remember very vividly hitting this point during an information fair for my graduate program; my first interview with a prospective assistantship supervisor was upbeat, well-informed, and conversational. My seventh? Well, it was…not. Nearly ten years after the fact, I remember sinking heavily into the chair, the words “I’m so sorry, I’m so tired” tumbling out before my brain had the time to stop me. I did not get that job.

If I were pitching support for my business to that last assistantship supervisor, there’s no way I would have gotten their support. And indeed, for entrepreneurs these interactions carry an additional burden. How do you put your best foot forward when not just you, but the merit of the idea you’re seeking to build, is being judged by the quality of these interactions?  With a plan. With notes. With a “cheat sheet” of your own design.

If you’re able to access an attendee list beforehand, take note of who you might be sharing the space with that evening. If you’re unable, perhaps take an initial pass through the room in search of familiar faces. The goal with either maneuver is to identify where your energy burn will yield the strongest outcome. This is an essential bargaining move when the time and energy you have to be the best version of yourself, is being depleted over the course of an evening or an outing.

I often use a cell phone battery to help articulate this idea; if your phone’s at 40%, that’s not the best time to think about streaming a movie or documenting something via Snap story. But reading an article, or maybe a 22 minute TV episode? That creates less of an energy burden, and doesn’t push you to your “red zone” as quickly. Plans, goals, and a deliberate plan of attack slow your time to your red zone. Use them liberally to make the most of these opportunities.

Take the assist where needed. We all need a “wing-human” to help us be our best in moments that challenge us. Whether those moments take place in sticky-floored bars on ladies’ night, or in the Atlanta Marriott’s harshly lit Salon D, going in with a partner can help make a difference in how we approach these potentially draining scenarios.

Picking a wingman as an entrepreneur carries an additional wrinkle; select someone who knows you well, but also knows your enterprise well. If you, for any reason, leave something out in conversation, who in your “squad” can jump in with the assist to make you look good? Who will speak well of what you do on your behalf? Who can answer that “so what do you do?” question for you the tenth time, because the first nine have just taken it out of you?

To that end, there’s a version of the assist that isn’t a person, but rather an action: how can you schedule your day in a way that helps you come to these events – to extend the cell phone metaphor – at 100%? For an example, if I’m headed to a conference where I’ll be expected to be present at a booth for two hours and chat with attendees, I’ll make sure the preceding hour or two is mine alone. That “assist” is akin to plugging myself in on a charger, switching myself to “airplane mode,” and powering up before high demand on my energy stores.

Whether the assist comes from someone else, or from you, the goal is the same: to give you what you need to present yourself well. Which reminds me…there is what I call “a kill-switch” moment, where you know you’re spent and that any further stimulation would lead to diminishing returns. You know when it’s arrived, you feel it. Strongly. Take that cue when it comes, and help your wing-humans recognize it in you. Whether you need to excuse yourself politely, or someone in the inner circle needs to identify a “signal” and step in, know that honoring this need isn’t quirky, selfish, or shameful. Rather, it is your body’s way of signaling you that it has had enough, and that with some rest you’ll be at your best again soon.

Let social media “hold you to it.” Even with the best of intentions, I don’t always hold myself accountable as I should to productivity at networking events. This can occasionally surprise people who have interacted with me via social media, and find me to be self-assured in those shared moments. And indeed, Jennifer Kahnweiler has recognized that a considerable strength of introverted leaders lies in their use of social media. The option to communicate asynchronously, with multiple media (I’m partial to GIFs myself), and the time to contemplate responses where needed, make a difference in how introverts can present themselves congruently.

Connecting this point to the earlier one of making a plan, I like to put out a call via Twitter or LinkedIn ahead of events I’m apprehensive about. It helps me see who in my networks I might see in that initial pass of the room, or who these people might know in those rooms. Even a quick “hope to see you there!” holds me accountable to stopping that vaguely familiar face and saying hi, or enlisting that friend who’s also going as my wing-human for a “scarier” encounter, like approaching a panelist or a prospective investor or collaborator.

And if I hit my kill-switch beforehand, or for some other reason don’t get around to flexing that connection? Sending another note with an apology and hopes of connecting again soon can help. Some people who I connect with regularly are ones who I reached out online, missed them (or froze in the moment, that happens too!) but stayed in touch and eventually did meet up with. If these are folks you’re hoping to work with or be supported by, these follow-up moments are crucial because they demonstrate commitment and accountability, even when the goal wasn’t met.

I hope this helps you tackle some of your fears, anxieties, and energy drains around the next big “room” you get to sell yourself in. Stay tuned- next week we’ll be talking about how to connect with prospective collaborators, and how introverts can effectively make meaningful overtures toward these goals.

This guide is in so many ways a means of scratching the surface on this topic. What tips do you have that I should think about adding? What challenges might I have missed? Would love to hear from you!

Further Reading from Me: