News, Insights and Stories from the Australian and New Zealand tech ecosystem.
G’Day SF

An Aussie founder’s guide to making introductions in Silicon Valley

I first came to Silicon Valley with my previous startup, SportHold, after StartMate set up several demo days in where we pitched to investors in Silicon Valley. Our company got into 500 Startups and we raised a modest amount of money from angels in Australia and Silicon Valley.

I now work at Gigster and I’ve been in the Bay Area for almost two years and the biggest learning curve I see for Aussie founders centres on the business culture and the subtle, unwritten rules that exist in the tech industry here. One of the most nuanced cultural differences is around how to get and make introductions.

In Sydney the tech scene is small enough that you can almost always get face time with anyone you’re trying to meet. In Silicon Valley it’s a complex web of connections that’s always in flux and realignment. Serendipity still occurs at social events but as an Aussie founder new to the Bay Area you’re likely not in those social circles (yet).

Almost all of your new connections will have to be made online – a process that can feel highly impersonal. It’s likely to be that way for at least the first few years in the Valley (unless your company is a rocket ship). The top founders, angel investors, and connectors in the Valley get inundated with intro requests so it’s only natural that a series of customs exist around making introductions.

It’s these nuances that can trip up newcomers to the Bay Area. I made plenty of mistakes including pitching too much too soon without qualifying (wait for the coffee meet – apologies to Sean Percival on this one), not moving the introducer to bcc, not having a compelling reason to meet, and requesting intros to the wrong folks. Violate the unspoken etiquette and you can end up leaving a bad impression, burning contacts and not building a network as efficiently as you otherwise could.

Follow the advice below to avoid making the same mistakes I did.

Silicon Valley Culture

A lot has been written about how Silicon Valley, the global capital of startups and technology differs from the rest of the world. There’s more venture capital activity in Silicon Valley than anywhere else in the world and both the name and place are synonymous with innovation.

A magnet for the young and ambitious, it has its own business culture that, along with the technology it produces, gets exported and disseminated around the world. The use of email in business is an example of both a technical and cultural innovation that began in Silicon Valley before spreading elsewhere.

For example, in the introduction to his classic High Output Management, Andy Grove discusses the impact that email had on Intel’s fight against Japanese competitors in the 1980s. According to the author, using email was central to Intel’s success in transitioning to a better and stronger business model for the company. That might not sound too remarkable until you consider that the first time a sitting US President sent an email was Bill Clinton in 1998.

One of the most powerful workplace innovations was in full flight in Silicon Valley in the 1980s a full decade before the world’s most powerful man had even used it.

So, of course, introductions are one of the most powerful and frequently traded currencies in Silicon Valley. The only way to connect with a lot of the best investors is by getting a strong intro from someone they trust. There are several unwritten and unspoken rules that guide the etiquette for requesting, making and accepting intros. This usually trips up newcomers to the Bay Area.

Observing these guidelines will serve you well wherever you are in the world and these practices are likely to become common place as the world transitions to a gig economy where introductions and networking will only increase in importance.

Allow Me To Introduce…The Introduction

Email is a relatively new innovation in human history whereas making introductions is one of the oldest business practices we have. Wherever there has been commerce in the world, there have been introductions. In every culture access to the halls of money, power, and influence has been contingent on networking, reputation and introductions.

Like all business practices the way an intro has been performed has shifted and changed over time alongside the development of new technology and mediums of communication.

Until relatively recently in human history, introductions were always made face to face or through written correspondence. With email came the ability to easily do introductions over email threads and new technologies (yes, there’s even an app for performing intros) will continue to change how we meet new business contacts

What hasn’t followed as quickly is a wide-spread etiquette for doing these intros. Here’s a guide to the typically unwritten rules surrounding the intro in Silicon Valley.

Your Reputation Is At Stake

There are many types of currency in Silicon Valley. Money, talent and media attention all matter but by far the most important asset you can build is your reputation. Whenever you make an introduction you’re investing your reputation.

Intro Misfires

This initial scenario is one you’re not likely to encounter when you first arrive but it will help you understand why that person you just hit it off with at Startup House might hesitate or push back when you start making intro requests.

Let’s say you intro a founder to an investor and the founder is rude and unprofessional towards the investor. That investor will more than likely no longer take intros from you in the future. That means that whatever you want or need from the ecosystem in the future – funding, candidates, media – you no longer have access to from that investor.

Most careers in Silicon Valley will end up looking like random walks and folks in tech understand this. You never know what you’ll need from the ecosystem from one week to the next so decreasing your optionality is a real loss.

It’s pretty hard to undo this kind of damage. If you’ve had a long history of good interactions with this investor they’re more likely to be understanding about it — depending on their personality.

Intro Wins

What about the scenario where you do the introduction and it goes really well? The angel invests in the founder’s seed round and the startup goes on to become the next Uber. Let’s just say the investor will probably always take your intros from then on.

The other way you get reputation currency is by taking intros when they come strongly recommended to you. This is the case when you know taking the intro will reflect well on the person making the introduction.

You also do this to maintain your relationship with the person making the intro. Deny their request and it’ll be difficult to get them to make intros for you in the future.

Let’s see what makes a strong intro in the Valley.

Better No Intro Than A Weak One

Sometimes you’ll get a request for an introduction to someone you don’t know very well (the requester usually sees you’re connected on LinkedIn). In these cases you probably shouldn’t make the intro unless the rationale for making one is exceptionally strong.

In these situations it’s perfectly fine to say to the person asking for the intro: “I’d love to be able to help you out but to be honest I don’t know them very well. I wouldn’t want to spoil your chances with them by giving a weak intro. I’d suggest getting an intro from someone else who has a stronger connection to them.”

If you go ahead and do the intro you’re more likely to alienate your contact and make an intro that hurts your friend instead of helping them. By making a weak intro your friend loses the opportunity to have the impact they could have had if they’d received a strong intro instead.

Scene Posers

There’s another situation where you need to be careful about weak intros. There are some folks in the Valley who like to project an image that they’re more influential or connected than they really are. You might meet and get along with one of these people thinking they’re a real ‘insider’.

You might then ask them for an intro to an influential person they claim to know. This could end up hurting you in a few ways. For all you know they may have a bad reputation in the Valley or be held in low esteem by the person they’re introducing you to (sometimes the person making the intro might not even be aware of this).

Not only will the intro not stick but your reputation may be tainted by association. You’re especially unlikely to know the introducer’s past when starting out but this can happen to seasoned folks as well.

Pleading ignorance is an ineffective defense — that would imply you lack judgment in who you associate with or request introductions from. Worse still you may not even realize the reason the introduction was declined. As with many situations in the Valley you need to listen for the things that are either subtext or not said at all. The lesson is to be careful who you request intros from.

Culture Guide

This is something that I’ve seen a lot of Aussies (including myself) struggle with in the Valley and there’s a deeper cultural reason for it. I’m going to generalize a bit here but in the Bay Area tech community almost everyone you’ll meet are extremely outgoing and enthusiastic. They’ll also focus on the positives driving your idea and give you praise.

At this point you’ll be pretty jazzed and feel like you’ve made a strong new connection in the scene. It’s not uncommon for this to peter out to nothing. This is especially true when you’re fundraising. For example: I met some folks from a fund in Salt Lake City.

They got extremely excited about what we were working on at SportHold and told us to send them an email so they could introduce us to several investors in Salt Lake City who we should talk to. To this day I’ve still never heard from them even after several email follow-ups.

This is a common experience from the founders I’ve talked to and it bothers all founders. That’s why YC create a handshake protocol to counter this issue. In the context of intros this means that even if someone verbally commits to making an intro face-to-face you should still take it with a grain of salt. Do follow up but don’t take it personally if it falls through. Just remember their behavior for future reference so you can set expectations.

Be A Gatekeeper

Often you’ll get an intro request that doesn’t look like it would add value to both sides. Or sometimes you’ve just met someone socially and they want you to vouch for them professionally. Other times the intro will make sense but you know that one of the people is in ‘heads down’ or time off mode right now and is refusing all intros. In situations like this you should find a tactful way to avoid making the intro.

How you decline the request depends on your personal style. The key thing is to only make introductions you would stake your reputation on. The power of your introductions is a function of how often you make them and how valuable they are to the recipient. Dilute that and your introductions will fall flat and you’ll weaken your professional network.

Given that your network and reputation are your most important asset it behooves you to guard it closely.

Always Double-Opt In

If there’s only one rule you follow from this post then make it this one: always check with both sides if they would like to be introduced to each other. This is called the double opt-in. If both sides say “yes” then you have the double opt-in and you can make the introduction.

This is especially important when the person requesting the introduction is a founder and the person they want to meet is an investor.

There are exceptions to this rule, but you’ll never upset anyone by doing the double opt-in. If in doubt, double opt-in.

Take “No” For An Answer

If you’re the person requesting the intro then be gracious and understanding when someone declines to make an introduction for you. You should take this “no” as final. By being gracious you increase their likelihood of doing other introductions in the future.

Also be gracious if the person you’re trying to get intro’d to says “no”. This is a “no” you can take as a “not yet” if you’re going to be persistent and follow-up. When being persistent in the Valley it can be a fine line and what will upset some folks will charm others.

There’s no perfect method and that’s the reason why fundraising, sales and hiring can often be referred to as a numbers game. Fortunately the Bay Area is one of the few places where investors, customers and talent are in abundance.

Make It Easy To Say “Yes”

When requesting an introduction do your homework and be able to explain the value you would bring to the person you’re trying to meet. This is something you need to show to both the person you’re trying to meet along with the person you’re requesting the introduction from.

Show the introducer that you’ve put thought into it and that you have sound reasons for making the request. The more you can show alignment and make the introducer’s job easier the more comfortable they will be making the introduction for you.

If they choose not to do the intro then they’ll be able to give you good reasons why now that they know your motivation and process. That feedback can often be more valuable than the introduction you were originally asking for.

Move Folks To BCC

Once the introduction has been made you should move the person making the intro to bcc. There are two reasons for this. The first is that you want to spare their inbox from getting multiple thread updates. Secondly, you may want to discuss something privately with the recipient. Both reasons are fair and legitimate.

So as a rule you should always move the introducer to bcc on your response and that’s an industry standard practice. It’s more strange not to do this than it is to do it. When the other person replies then the introducer will be out of the loop and you can continue your thread.

Why not just not include them on a response at all? The person doing the intro will want to know that you’ve responded politely. This is reassuring and they won’t have to chase you up to make sure you reached out.

Coaching

Sometimes you might get an odd response from the person you’ve been introduced to. If this happens after you’ve moved the introducer to bcc then it’s fair game to forward the response to the introducer to get clarification or to give them a heads-up.

Often they’ll have some insight or input that will help you understand why you got that response. This is especially important and helpful in Silicon Valley where a lot of responses are written in coded language that has a specific meaning that isn’t obvious to outsiders.

For example, let’s say you get an intro to an investor and five days later you get the response: “Can you circle back with me in 2-3 weeks. Swamped right now.” You might ask your contact if the investor is blowing you off or if it’s legitimate.

The contact might tell you: “Hey man, I checked in and the investor sits on the board of Acme Company. Acme is on fire right now because a judge just ruled that all of their freelancers are actually employees and it’s a total sh#t show over there right now. She’s interested but timing is off right now. I’ll let you know when time is right to circle back so check with me on that in 2-3 weeks.”

Or they might say: “I checked and they just closed on acquiring a similar company two days after I sent the intro. I would follow up politely but they’re probably not going to invest in your next round.”

Circle Back

After you’re met the person you’ve been introduced to you should circle back to the person who did the introduction to thank them and let them know how it went. This is especially true if the intro went extremely well or extremely poorly.

That way they know if they created value or not and that data is useful for them when making future intros. It also shows you’re conscientious and value their time. That’s important if you expect them to do an introduction for you again in the future.

Advance Technique: Stacking The Deck

If possible see if you can get multiple people to mention you to the person you’re trying to meet. Of course, you can’t do this in a way where it appears to them that you knowingly intro-bombed their email so you’ll have to make it appear to happen naturally.

This can be by spending time with, and impressing, three of their closest confidants over a short period of time. They may each bring you up separately to the person you’re trying to meet without you even asking. When that happens the person you’re trying to meet will probably request an intro to you.

This is an advanced technique that requires a lot of skill but it’s very effective if you’re able to pull it off.

Common Intro Types

There are several common types of intros that happen in Silicon Valley and there are a few things to be aware of with each of them.

Low Stakes — You Two Should Meet

This is where you meet someone doing something interesting in a space and you want them to meet another person you know in that space. As far as you know there’s no specific agenda, you’re just trying to facilitate serendipity — which is what the Valley is all about.

In this case you should still follow the etiquette but there’s also a lot less riding on it. The upside is potentially quite high — they might become co-founders — and the downsides are low. In cases like these you make the intro and let the two folks work out if a coffee meeting makes sense.

You Should Hire This Person

This is when you meet or know someone ridiculously smart who is looking for their next project. They may have just started their search and you want your contact (investor, employer or potential cofounder) to speak to them immediately. Time is of the essence and you should be super responsive. In this situation you can get away with not doing a double opt-in.

Why? Available talent is a highly valued currency in the Valley and even if your contact can’t hire them now they’ll want to see if they can connect them with a company they know that needs them.

That’s why smart folks in the Valley are often surprised at how quickly they can get meetings at short notice from folks they’ve only just been introduced to.

Can You Intro Me To This Investor?

This is one of the most common types of intro requests people get in Silicon Valley. This is when a founder wants you to introduce them to an investor you know so that they can pitch them. In this case you need to be a strong gatekeeper.

Get the founder to send a one paragraph about their startup that you can forward to the investor. It’s up to the founder to write a compelling paragraph that will appeal to the investor. As a gatekeeper beware of founders who push back on sending paragraphs or decks (if the investor requests one).

Founders should also realize that they’ll often have to pitch the gatekeeper to get the intro. Some founders find this frustrating but it makes sense when you consider what’s at stake for the person making the intro.

It’s not your fault

As mentioned above there can be many reasons why your intro gets turned down. Often the biggest factor that determines whether or not someone takes your intro has nothing to do with you or the person making the introduction. Where someone is in their career is a huge factor.

If someone has just started a new job at a startup they’re probably not taking any intros right now unless it will improve their job performance.

If a founder’s company was acquired by Google and they’re in their final year of a four year vest (or, as likely, only one year in) then they’re likely taking as many coffee meetings as they humanly can to line people for the next company they’re going to found.

As you learn more about the Valley you’ll learn to look out for these signals to make sure more of your intros stick.

There’s also all the non-work related reasons they might not be available for intros: buying a new house, death in the family, planning a wedding, getting locked up (you might want to rethink getting this intro). Life happens – even to VCs and founders.

Good Intros Are A Virtue

Even if you have no intention of setting foot in Silicon Valley, following these guidelines will improve the quality of your professional network and the introductions you make. The more someone receives intro requests the more relevant and powerful these guidelines become – regardless of geography, culture or industry.

They may not be universally acknowledged best practice but, just like using email in business, they soon will be. Observing these guidelines has few, if any, downsides and lots of upsides.

An earlier version of this piece was originally published on Gigster.

Image: Christian Thurston. Source: Supplied.





Startup Daily