Many independent developers are skilled at networking a home office, but they’re often lacking in the area of human networking. In early 1999, I knew my lack of networking was going to hold me back if I didn’t do something about it. As an independent developer, I felt isolated and cut off from the rest of the industry, and I knew I was missing out on opportunities because of it. I would often struggle to solve a problem that someone else had probably already solved, but I didn’t know where to look for the solution, and it was taking me a lot of time to do everything on my own. I quickly realized that if I just had a small network of developer friends, it would save me a huge amount of time because I’d have people to turn to for help and advice. And I also knew that I could help others in the same manner. So one day while listening to a tape about the benefits of networking, I made a firm commitment to get out of my fortress of solitude and start building a human network.
Looking back, this turned out to be one of the most powerful and life-enhancing decisions I ever made. Today I have a strong network of dozens of great friends and contacts in the industry. I can achieve much more in less time because I have a tremendous number of outside resources I can turn to for help. And to a large extent this all works passively. New opportunities come to me every week through my network, and I don’t have to work so hard to seek them out on my own. I feel as if my vision has expanded a hundred fold. I want to share with you what I’ve learned through this process and how I think networking can benefit you specifically. To some of you, what I’ve said so far may seem obvious, but keep reading anyway because you may find something useful in the remainder of this article.
The benefits of networking are many. Even if you only work on your business part-time while holding a full-time job, you should know that most jobs are never advertised. Most jobs are filled through networking. The more people you know who can help you, the more opportunities will come to you. As I am building my company, my first choice for hiring new people would be to put the word out through my existing network. Networking saves time because it is an easy way to find whatever it is you want, such as a new job, a new home, a solution to a problem, or a new business deal. Networking is a lot like investing. You put a little into it, but the payoff accumulates year after year, eventually growing far beyond your initial deposit.
Networking is an extremely good complement to technical work, and it helps to balance you as a person. If you are feeling burnt out from technical work, you can balance your day by investing time in networking. I’ve found that I enjoy my work a lot more, and I’m a lot more productive when I know others are keeping tabs on me. Sometimes I’ve found it hard to motivate myself when my goals are known only to myself, but when I share them with others, I will often work harder to be sure I don’t disappoint them. Networking gives you a feeling of connection with your industry, and this allows you to see how your work is contributing to the whole in a positive way. Sharing resources with others is a terrific form of contribution in itself, something that all humans have a strong need for. Networking will also help you grow professionally by leaps and bounds, especially if you continually associate with people who are superior to you in some way (higher income, more organized, more honest, etc).
Build your network carefully.
We tend to become like the people we associate with most. Grab a piece of paper and make a quick list of the ten people in your life you spend the most time communicating with, whether in person, by phone, by email, or by any other means. Study that list carefully. That list is your future. And if this list hasn’t changed much in the past few years, then my guess is that you’ve been feeling stagnant or even stuck. My prediction is that you earn about the same income as the others on your list. You probably have similar standards of living to those you spend the most time with, and your lifestyles may be similar as well. If the people on your list are very neat and organized, you’re probably the same way. If they’re unhealthy, you’re most likely in the same boat. If you feel like you’ve been stuck in the same situation for a length of time and that your efforts to change have felt like an uphill battle, that list is the likely culprit. One of the easiest ways to change is to associate with others who’ve already achieved what you want. Their values and beliefs will essentially infect you, and you will achieve what you want almost effortlessly. Think back to a time in your life when you experienced a major change in the names on your top ten list, such as when you moved or switched jobs or schools. Didn’t you find that you became a slightly different person in the new environment?
For example, let’s say you want to earn $100,000 a year or more from your business. How many of the people on your top ten list are already doing this? If you only associate with others whose businesses are barely scraping by, you’ll likely have a hard time getting your sales to grow beyond a certain point. Every level of income is associated with different beliefs and values. People who earn $100,000 a year simply don’t have the same beliefs as those who earn $10,000 a year. Were you aware that the average lottery winner spends all the money they won within two years and has nothing to show for it? The reason is simple — these people kept their old network, and thus their old beliefs and values continued to govern their actions, leading them right back to where they started. My shareware income grew tenfold in one year because I made a decision to associate with people who were making ten times as much money as I was. I passively became more like them, and the results naturally followed. I’m continuing to add more people to my network who are again making ten times more money than I am now, and my income is continuing to increase up to their level. I’ve also changed a great deal as a person as a result. If you want to become better at anything, start making friends with people who are already successful in that area, and get them into your top ten list. You can become better at absolutely anything using this approach. But before you add anyone to your network, make sure you want their results, in at least some area of your life.
So how do you build a strong network? There a many ways to do this, and here are some that seem to work best for independent developers:
Become active in trade associations.
One of the easiest ways to build a network is to make contacts within a relevant trade association, such as the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) or the Association of Shareware Professionals (ASP). If you aren’t making back your organizational dues many times over each year from the benefits of membership, then you aren’t doing enough networking. For instance, ASP members constantly share resources in the private members-only newsgroups. If you haven’t been participating actively in a trade association, you’re absolutely missing out on free opportunities that can make you a lot of extra money for very little effort.
Let me give you a couple typical examples. Many months ago an ASP member posted a link to a new shareware site that accepted PAD files. I submitted my PAD file, and throughout the next few weeks, I received several sales from that site. It took approximately 30 seconds for me click on the link and submit my PAD file, yet that one tip made me more money than the cost of my annual ASP dues. And this happens all the time. Another common occurrence is that members often buy products from other members. Shareware developers aren’t my target market, yet I sell more than enough games to fellow members every year to more than pay for my dues. If you participate in the newsgroups and include your URL in your signature, other members will visit your web site and get to know your product line. Members generally aren’t pushy in promoting their own products to other members, but they get sales just by being visible and contributing. A side benefit is that you become aware of many useful products and services you might need someday. I often buy products from other ASP members, and there are several members with whom I spend hundreds of dollars annually. Not all ASP members are developers — there are also many vendor members who provide useful services. So if you aren’t participating actively in a good trade association, then you are essentially letting free money escape you.
A strategy that worked well for me was one that I learned from author/speaker/consultant Brian Tracy, who credited it with helping him become a multi-millionaire over time. He simply started volunteering. While he was a salesman, he joined the local chamber of commerce and volunteered to serve on a committee. This made him many connections in the business world, and within a short time he was offered a new job through someone in his network for double his previous salary, which he accepted. He continued volunteering and found that more and more opportunities came to him this way. He was later offered a job as the head of a division of a large company, and from there he went on to start his own businesses. This is essentially the same approach I’ve been using. I didn’t feel the chamber of commerce in my area would do much for me, so I decided to volunteer within the ASP. About a month later I became the Vice President and a year later, the President, both of which were unpaid volunteer positions. Relatively few people volunteer, so those who do can quickly reach the top of any volunteer-run organization.
So why does volunteering work? Because only successful people tend to volunteer. Unsuccessful people don’t volunteer — they complain instead. I’ve found that the cream rises to the top, so volunteering is an easy way to associate with successful people. If you look at the people who volunteer in the ASP for instance, I think you’ll find that their incomes are significantly higher than the average member. This appears to be true in the IGDA as well. Plus they generally seem to be happier and more successful in other areas of their lives as well. Volunteering builds your self-esteem; it helps you see yourself as a person who contributes. This in turn causes you to feel that you deserve more, and so you tend to take advantage of new opportunities that are consistent with your improved self image. Greater wealth is just one common result.
Network on purpose.
Last year I attended my high school reunion, and I saw that many people thought they were there to network, ready to hand out their business cards to anyone who’d take them. These were people of widely different professions who simply couldn’t help each other in meaningful ways, despite the best of intentions. There are a few professionals who can benefit from this type of general networking such at attorneys and accountants, but it’s not particularly useful for a game developer. A better use of your time is to network at small, well-targeted conferences, such as the Shareware Industry Conference. There you can meet people who can actually help you, and you will easily find ways to help them. Intellectual exchange is one of the most rewarding benefits of networking. I love going to conferences because I always come away from them with a tremendous feeling of growth.
Build your reputation.
A key component of long-term networking is your reputation. It is perhaps your most valuable networking asset. If people come to know you as a person of genuine integrity, your reputation will spread beyond the people you know directly, and your contacts will be far more willing to share their best resources and opportunities with you. If you ever make a mistake, people will be very quick to forgive you if you have established a positive reputation. Note that having a good reputation is not the same thing as being popular. It is more important to be known as a person of integrity than it is to be popular. I am always more willing to trust the trustworthy than I am to trust the popular. Of course the reverse is also true. If you develop a reputation for dishonesty or demonstrate a lack of integrity, nothing will kill your chances for networking more quickly. New business is built on trust, so trust is sacred. Never ever violate another person’s trust. When it comes to networking, complete honesty and integrity is the only policy.
Look for ways to give rather than to get. You don’t have to be an expert; just offer to help others in a way that’s easy for you, such as by answering questions and volunteering advice in areas in which you are knowledgeable. If you gain a reputation for being a person who contributes, you will have no shortage of people offering to help you when you need it. A common pattern I see in various newsgroups is that those who give the most also get the most. If you answer others’ questions whenever you have knowledge that could help them, you may find more people willing to help you as well. Think of yourself as having a networking bank account. You have to make a few deposits first before you can start making withdrawals.
If you continually look for ways to contribute to others and your industry, new avenues for networking will open up to you. If you have decent writing skills, write articles. If you have an interest in public speaking, volunteer to speak at a conference. Writing and speaking can help you expand your network tremendously. You can reach many more people this way, and it helps strengthen your reputation as a person who contributes.
Overall, networking is a fairly easy skill to develop and need not consume much time, yet the payoff can be huge. As your network expands, you’ll gain greater and greater leverage. If anyone in your network hears about an opportunity that can be useful to you, chances are you’ll hear about it. Instead of having to struggle to find opportunities, they’ll come to you passively, so by nurturing your network, you can achieve your goals with far less effort. For me the process has felt like planting ears throughout the industry, all listening for opportunities. If you haven’t been doing much networking, do yourself a big favor and just get started. And realize that there never was a winner who wasn’t at some point a beginner.