Elite Privilege, Ivy League Schools, and Uncommon Advice for Building a Network

Geraldine and I don’t have kids, but for some reason, the last few months, I’ve spent innumerable conversations talking to our many friends with children about the tradeoffs of public vs. private schooling. As is my nature, I couldn’t help but research the topic on the web. And in nearly every piece I read, the same few messages emerge:

  1. Private education and Ivy League Schools are correlated with higher incomes in the job market (but if students’ socioeconomic backgrounds are controlled for, the difference is far less great)
  2. The education received at Ivy League Schools is often not dramatically better than other good schools that cost far less (plenty of data and anecdotes I found actually argue its worse due to issues like professors’ foci and research demands vs. attention to students)
  3. The primary benefit Ivy League education provides may be more related to the social network of peers than any other factor

This probably isn’t a big surprise. The web has put many public schools and universities on more equal footing with their elite, private peers, and the Ivy Leagues couldn’t maintain a lock on the best teachers even if that was their sole focus (which, according to most of my reading, is not the case). Brand, history, alumni networks, and social connections make sense as drivers of the disparity between graduates of certain schools vs. others.

But this blog post isn’t actually about private vs. public education or about Ivy League Schools. It’s about how to get that network, even if you didn’t go to an elite school.

When I started my career, I had nearly the worst network imaginable. I knew no one in technology. No one in marketing. No one who’d ever done a high-growth startup. I didn’t even know a single person who’d ever done SEO. I had a couple high school friends who built websites, but none of them stuck with it. My sole connection to any professional field at all was my Mom, Gillian, who had a network in the Seattle area of small business owners whom she’d helped, primarily with print advertising, over the years.

Like many folks in the early days of SEO, my “networking” started on forums and in blog comments. But the true catalysts for helping me create a network were conferences & events.


Distilled’s Searchlove London

Conferences like SES and Pubcon came first, but the people I met there helped me find my way to smaller, more intimate (and sometimes more elite) events like those put on by venture capital firms, private companies, or trade organizations. The cumulative impact over my first few years at conferences was immense. From 2004-2008, I’d estimate that I met more than a thousand people who, over the years, have directly enabled or indirectly benefitted Moz’s growth and my personal profile innumerably.


Goofing off at the Boston Searchlove Afterparty

Much of that comes from serendipity. Almost none of it is measurable in an ROI sense. But it has produced and continues to produce exceptional value, and that’s why I continue to be a conference “whore” (and I expect I always will be).

If, like me, you didn’t launch your career with a stellar network from school, family, or friends, let me suggest that you, at the least, give conferences and events a shot. They certainly don’t work for everyone, but I do have five pieces of very uncommon advice you should try:

  1. Attend multiple events where you know at least some of the same people will be present
    This feels counter-intuitive, I know, but it works. Being on the road is a powerful, experiential differentiator. The connections you make feel stronger, more tightly bonded, more authentic, and somehow more special. But if you only meet someone once, even if you have a great conversation or two over a few days, it won’t hold a candle to the third time you see them in a new city. Something about travel makes relationships form faster. I can’t explain it, but I know it’s real.
  2. Prepare ways you can help others
    Some of my best experiences from events have come because I followed speakers or organizers at events on the web and knew a way I could help them if we ran into each other. When those run-ins happened, magic resulted. I could connect them with a potential new client, or recommend a piece of software to solve a problem, or make an introduction to someone else I met who might fill a role I saw them post at their company. Sometimes, I even had a personal recommendation – and these were, weirdly, sometimes better received than anything else. It only takes providing one big piece of help to make a lasting relationship and to catalyze the norm of reciprocity.
  3. Bring your significant other
    Having Geraldine with me on so many of my professional travels made me more human, and more fun, and someone people wanted to spend time with. I think, weirdly, it actually helped to build relationships better than if I’d just “talked business” with everyone. Being with my spouse meant I could relax and build real relationships. It wasn’t my intent, but many of those relationship turned out to be the ones that helped me and Moz the most in business over the years.
  4. Tweet, follow, link to, and mention people you meet
    If you hit it off with someone at an event, write about them. Nothing is more flattering and nothing will get their attention (or hold their memory) faster than if you call them out. And with Twitter’s and Google+’s notifications, you can feel very confident that your material will be seen. Just make sure it’s authentic – flattery will take you far, but false flattery is an obvious and instant turnoff.
  5. Organize meals
    I recall in those early SEO days, there were at least a couple folks whose primary link building tactics for their businesses were based on organizing dinners after conferences – and it worked quite well (any of the speakers from SES back when Danny Sullivan ran it will surely know the two guys I’m talking about). The more modern versions are more discreet and less about links, but no less powerful. Dharmesh Shah has used this tactic religiously. And after my post on the Help Me Help You Dinner, an entire website devoted to the practice emerged. Give it a try, even if its wholly informal, and with people you’re not yet sure about. I promise good things will emerge.

These practices won’t get you an Ivy League network in a month or a year. But for me, conferences and events have provided incredible value, and made up for my lack of a network through school or other sources. I believe they can do the same for you.

p.s. I’ll try to write about some of my favorite conferences/events and how to choose which one(s) to attend in a future post.