Devang Singhal, 17, graduated from Amity International School, Noida, a high school in India, in the spring of 2017. Singhal, whose team The Wolves of D-Street placed third in the 2016 KWHS Investment Competition, is passionate about business, especially marketing and finance. He is headed to Singapore Management University in Singapore this month to pursue a business management degree. Singhal (pictured below) wrote this first-person article — part of the KWHS summer essay series — to share his advice for connecting online with people you want to know.
Let’s face it, we’re extremely lucky.
We are part of a generation that has a distinct advantage. I’m literally able to search your name on Google, hit a few links, and invite you to coffee next Saturday. And the best part? The world is still catching up. A huge number of people aren’t spending enough time building relationships with people who matter, people who have the potential to change their lives forever. Online networking is powerful, and it is time for our generation to take the lead and ramp up our networking game.
If I lost you at “online networking,” here’s a chance to catch up. But before I talk about what networking is about, I want to talk about what networking is NOT about.
People often think that networking is a chance to extract value from other people for free – chatting people up via email, social media or in person to get access to jobs, new business opportunities, and even the best place in town to have dinner. Why not flip that on its head? More people need to take this networking approach: “How might I provide something of value to the person I want to connect with? What problem could I solve for them before I even think about my own needs and what I could get in return?”
Successful networks are built on empathy and humility. Networking effectively is your ability to give so much value up front that you inspire people to help you back. This is exactly how I’ve been able to connect with multiple influencers throughout high school.
Now, I know that some of you might question what a high school student could possibly have of value to offer to an established professional. Stop thinking like that! This mindset is preventing you from having the courage and conviction to put yourself out there and start networking.
Connecting with Sir Tata
Right about now you might be thinking, “Is this guy for real?” So, here’s an example of how online networking worked for me. Using a mutual connection, my team of high school students competing in the 2015-2016 KWHS Investment Competition – The Wolves of D-Street — was able to connect with a billionaire Indian investor to learn more about investing and stock trading. I was even able to connect with one of the world’s biggest business tycoons, Sir Ratan Tata, through a series of mutual connections to find out about the availability of a college scholarship. Among other things, he has served as the chairman of Tata Group, a Mumbai, India-based global business conglomerate.
It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was immensely difficult to contact Sir Tata; I had to get through multiple gatekeepers to even get his email. What worked was my persistence. I got rejected multiple times. Many people did not even answer my emails, and some simply refused. If you’re trying to connect with very hard-to-reach people, persistence and using a chain of mutual connections are critical to your success.
But what if no such contacts exist? Then I urge you to consider other options, such as cold-emailing and social media. The first logistical problem to cold emailing is obviously getting the email of the influencer with whom you hope to connect. Let me introduce you to one secret weapon that I and many other successful networkers use to overcome this hurdle.
Email Hunter (Hunter for Chrome) is a Google Chrome plug-in that basically scouts for email addresses through LinkedIn or the targeted individual’s personal blogs or domains. People need an email address in order to create these types of accounts, which is why this online tool is able to locate genuine email addresses.
So, you found the email! Now what? Chances are this person doesn’t have a lot of time to consider your request. Whenever I email an influencer, I try to keep it as short and clear as possible. I emphasize providing value in the first two-to-three lines and then go on to explain any other relevant details. Avoid long essays, confusing jargon-filled language, or inessential details.
Here is where we all need to realize the power of social media. Twitter and Instagram are especially valuable platforms if you are looking to reach out and network. Research the online platform that the influencer you are targeting uses the most, spend some time there, and then leverage it to connect with that person.
Recently I wanted to connect with Kanika Dewan, a Guinness World Records holder for making the largest marble mosaic in the world. Dewan is also a successful businesswoman and Wharton alumnus, and our KWHS investment team wanted her advice on our strategy. I watched her Twitter feed to get a better sense of her interests. I updated myself on those topics, and then I actively engaged with her. I retweeted a couple of her tweets that I agreed with, shared my opinions on the topic, and tried to add value. This way I was first able to organically build an online relationship with her, and then I later contacted her with my request. The reward was an email address she sent me to continue our conversation in detail.
This also worked well because she did not have a massive following on Twitter. Thus, it was easy for me to grab her attention there. You should connect through a medium that gives you maximum visibility.
Trust, Rapport and Hustle
Entrepreneur and author Gary Vaynerchuk likes to say, “Jab, jab, jab, right hook” (which also happens to be the name of one of his books), when referring to using social media to your advantage. What he means is that first you give unwarranted value, and then you ask for value back. The cool thing about giving value is that it builds trust and rapport, two essentials of any relationship.
Every person is different and they all have problems that need solving and ideas that need supporting. Start by making a list of the strengths that you could offer up to bring value to a new relationship.
Here are a few ways that I brought value to some people I connected with:
- I wanted to work with an educational startup. I spent time on the startup’s website, noting things that could be improved to increase user traction and engagement, like better copywriting, search engine optimization, and new marketing tactics. I compiled and emailed a word document to the CEO with all my suggestions. Impressed with my hustle, he asked me to become the Delhi, India, ambassador for his startup, which served as a valuable internship for me.
- I’ve always been intrigued about how people build motivational accounts on Instagram with 1 million-plus followers, so I finally decided to learn this craft. But I didn’t have a lot of money to pay someone to learn this skill. I messaged 50-plus accounts with more than 100,000 followers and told them exactly this: “Hey, love what you do. Would be happy to make a series of posts for you for free and would love to connect with you.” Five out of 50 replied, and one of those five was exactly who I was looking for to teach me more about social-media strategy. I created posts free-of-charge, and he provided me with insight.
If you’re still out of ideas, here are a few other suggestions for reaching out and building value to potential members of your network:
Give the influencer exposure by offering to interview him or her for your school newspaper or YouTube channel.
- Organize an event for that person in your school/university, and invite him or her to speak. (I actually did this with my team in the KWHS Investment Competition to get a finance expert’s advice.)
- You know Photoshop and you’re great at shooting and editing videos? Offer to make 15 free videos for the influencer’s social media channels.
- You make great music? Why not offer that vlogger you’ve been trying to reach new and amazing background music for his videos?
- Oh, you can write? Why not offer to create great online content for that NGO whose founder can help you land your next summer internship opportunity?
There are so many ways to bring value to the table. And if you’re still thinking, “I do not have any skills like those to offer,” you’re wrong. I recently wanted to learn copywriting from a person who has worked with brands like Nike and Under Armour. As a high school student, I could not afford what he charged, and since many much more skilled people were trying to connect with him, none of my conventional value propositions would have worked.
So, to bring him value (and get access to his stellar copywriting skills), I offered to do busy work that would free his schedule for other projects and spending time with his family. I converted one of his long blog posts into smaller parts that could be shared as different blog posts on his Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest accounts. He was able to recycle old content and generate new leads and customers.
Attention, high school students. You are never too young to begin building your online network! If you aren’t leveraging social media to your advantage, you are missing out on lots of opportunities. If you aren’t using LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter to connect with key people and influencers, you are losing to others who are. If you aren’t deploying a generous and humble spirit to build relationships, you are probably not making strong connections. Take advantage of all these tools to build relationships and your path to success.
What is networking? How does it relate to the process of building relationships?
What are some specific examples of how Devang Singhal has connected with influential people? Have you had similar experiences? Share your story in the comment section of this article.
Do you agree with Singhal's approach to online networking? Why or why not? What suggestions do you have to add practical advice to his strategy? Let Singhal know what you think about his ideas -- he may just comment back!