How do you get the biggest names in publishing, marketing and business to return your calls? How do you get them to join you for an intimate evening? How do you pack a private event with more than 40 top-tier journalists?
If you asked Sol Orwell, founder of Examine, he’d tell you it comes down to one ingredient: cookies. Well, maybe two: cookies and a cause.
On November 4, 2017, Sol Orwell and Tammy Tibbetts, CEO and co-founder of She’s the First, played host to a veritable who’s who of influencers at the first annual NYC Charity Chocolate Chip Cookie Off. Notable attendees included best-selling author Seth Godin; personal finance guru Ramit Sethi; Nick Ganju, whose company ZocDoc was valued in the billions; Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck; and the king of food-related networking himself, Keith Ferrazzi.
Part media event, part philanthropy, the Cookie Off reveals two ingredients perfect for not only leading your own networking event but also for networking itself. And just like any great recipe, what you leave out is often more important than what you put in.
The Cookies: Networking is about the person, not who they know.
At first, cookies might sound like an odd centerpiece to world-class networking. But they serve as a metaphor. Take, for instance, the attendance of Seth Godin.
“Here’s the truth,” Orwell told me, “I don’t really know Seth Godin. Seth was there because his wife Helene’s bakery, By the Way Bakery, was competing with a gluten-free loaf she’s been perfecting for years. When I was chatting with Helene, at no point did I ask if her husband was coming. It wasn’t about him; it was about her. It was about what she did and her excitement. If she brought, Seth—cool.”
When I asked Brian Dean, a search-engine optimization entrepreneur, why he’d made the trip from Berlin, his answer echoed the same sentiments: “Was flying 3,965 miles worth it? Definitely. Do these folks know more people than the average Joe? Probably. But that’s not why I wanted to meet them. I didn’t fly all that way to meet person X because she knows person Y. Instead, I traveled halfway across the world to rub elbows with funny, smart and positive people themselves.”
The temptation in networking is to constantly trade up the chain, to let our egos taint and eventually spoil what would otherwise be a healthy relationship. One eye on the person in front of us, the other runs ahead to who they know and what they can do. Such an attitude not only ruins one-on-one relationships, but also any chance of who might come next.
Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone, put it to me like this: “It’s all about the person and being a high-quality person yourself. Game-changing relationships evolve in three phases: who you know and are connected to, how you create a supportive community among them, and how you co-elevate with each other to drive change.”
Instead of looking for greener pastures, our aim must be to focus both eyes on who we’re actually speaking to. Or, perhaps even better, all eyes on something beyond us.
The Cause: Networking is about giving, not getting.
When the big day arrived, more than 40 journalists from publications like Forbes, Entrepreneur, Fortune, Men’s Health, Business Insider and SELF arrived as well. Naturally, they hadn’t found their way to the party by accident; they’d all been invited. But similar to the previous point, how they’d been invited holds the key.
“I wanted them to meet me and my friends and get to know the positive impact we’re trying to make,” Orwell explained. “Sure, I was organized about it. I had a spreadsheet with their names, emails, social handles and publications. But what I didn’t do was say, ‘Hey, you should come and cover this.’”
It’s a difficult line to walk: balancing giving with getting. Is it manipulative to hide our “true” intentions in networking and build a relationship on what some might call pretense? That all depends on what your true intentions are.
At the heart of the Cookie Off wasn’t Orwell, nor any of the big names, nor even the cookies. Rather, it was a cause. She’s the First is a New York based nonprofit committed to sponsoring “girls who will be the first in their families to graduate high school,” primarily in low-income nations beyond the West.
As an immigrant himself, partnering with She’s the First was, in Orwell’s words, “a no-brainer.” And handing over a $30,000 check stood out even more than Milk and Cookies Bakery’s dark chocolate toffee potato chip crunch (which won the event’s most interesting cookie award).
After the event, Dorie Clark, author of Entrepreneurial You and longtime contributor to Harvard Business Review, told me: “I recommend people wait at least a year before asking for favors. It’s that important to establish yourself as a giver, rather than a networking leech.”
Likewise, Troy Osnioff, co-founder of JUICE, noted, “It was remarkable watching everyone rally around Tammy and especially the girls; suddenly all our conversations took on a sense of gravity.”
This isn’t to say networking has to revolve around a charity. But it does mean that relationships are best established and nurtured upon causes larger than just us.
“True friends,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “don’t spend time gazing into each other’s eyes. They may show great tenderness towards each other but they face in the same direction—toward common projects [and] goals.”
Networking isn’t about you.
The truths about networking are counterintuitive, but powerful.
“I’ve built my network by giving,” personal-branding expert Leonard Kim says. “When I first started writing, my only intent was to make sure others would never have to experience any of the hardships I experienced. Sol’s philosophy of giving has driven genuine change to philanthropic missions and a sense of community within his network.”
Still, it never hurts to serve up something sweet, as well.
This article was published in November 2017 and has been updated. Photo by Jono Erasmus/Shutterstock
Aaron Orendorff is the Head of Marketing at Recart. Previously, he served as Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus; his work has appeared on The New York Times, Forbes, Mashable, Business Insider and more. If you’d like to connect with Aaron, reach out via social—he’s a sucker for DMs about ecommerce marketing, bunnies and rejection.