Understanding The Network

Nobody ever gets to where they want to be on their own. Everyone has had some help along the way. If there is one thing that I find that levels the playing field for designers, it is the network. You can be the best designer in the entire world, but if you don’t have a network, nobody will ever know you exist. The opposite is true as well. If you are a young designer still perfecting your craft, having a network allows you to find opportunities  as well as  offers support as you grow.

If you have not experienced the network effect or have not paid much attention to your network, it’s never too late. With that said, I hope this week’s lesson starts to get you thinking about your network and how it can help as your career progresses.

My Experience:

I’ve had so many great moments in my career that would have never happened if it wasn't for my network. However, in order to try and make this as simple as possible, I’m going to focus really quick on just a “birds eye view” of my career and show you how my network helped me get to where I am today.

It started in 2003 when I first arrived at CCAD as a freshmen and met Julie. We quickly turned into best friends and then started dating. Our senior year we both attended career day, and met many local design professionals. This is also where I met a guy named Chuck. Chuck was a project manager and strategist. He loved my portfolio so much that he introduced me to the Creative Director and Senior Designer at FITCH. They too loved my portfolio and I was hired the next week as a Graphic Designer. Bingo! I’m now officially a designer in the industry. My first project? Sub-branding for the NFL. This was the first example of the network effect, but it didn’t end there.

After two years of working at FITCH, I decided I wanted a change. At that time Julie had been working as an Interactive Designer at a large advertising firm in town for the last few years. She made an introduction to the Creative Director, and discussed my desire to get involved in Interactive and perhaps broaden my horizons a bit. We had some drinks one night and he offered me a contract position if I was ever interested in taking it. Network effect number two!

So while I was winding down my time at FITCH, Chuck who I worked with closely asked if I was interested in taking any client work. At the time his neighbor who was getting ready to open her own pediatrics office was in need of a designer to build her brand and website. I said yes and he made the introduction. Bingo! I now had my first client, who shortly after, kickstarted my first business, Greenline Creative.

So for the sake of keeping this short, lets fast forward six years. Greenline is chugging along nicely. Julie and I are now cranking out branding and websites for companies all over the world. Our preferred Content Management System was and still is ExpressionEngine. After digging around in the EE community for some help on a new project, we discovered that the co-founders of Director-EE, Ryan Battles and Andy Johnson happened to also live in Columbus. Julie soon set up a meeting with Ryan to meet and chat about hiring him to work on a project with us. We met and during that time he introduced us to his business partner, Andy.

Ryan, Andy, Julie and I stayed in touch for a few years through the EE community. One day out of the blue I received an email from Ryan and Andy about an opportunity to work remote out of Columbus for a San Francisco based start-up. At that time, I was ready to take on a new challenge of building apps and focus Greenline on a handful of select projects. So I accepted the opportunity and the rest is history.

This is a small snapshot of how the Network Effect works. The crazy thing is, you never know when it is going to even happen. You can’t plan it, so you have to be sure you stay in position for  when it does happen, and continue to meet new people. My network has been amazing for me. And to be honest, it has kept me from having to submit my resume and portfolio to the black hole of job boards in order to find opportunities for myself.

Again, this is not to brag. Instead, it is to help you see that your network will do more for you than you can possibly ever do by yourself. In many ways I owe my whole career to my network. Greenline Creative may have never existed if it was not for me meeting Chuck. In fact this blog may not have ever existed if it was not for the conversations that I have had with other designers in my network about their frustrations and challenges as designers, and if it was not for this blog, I probably would not have met all of you! Now I don’t know what opportunities lie ahead for me, but what I do know is that I’ll be keeping my network close by.

What I’ve Learned about The Network:

  • It starts today: I didn’t realize until later in my career, but your network starts the minute you define your career path. I’ve been out of high school for many years, but I still get contacted regarding opportunities from those I went to school with years ago. This is also true with college. They may just be fellow classmates today, but they will actually become a really valuable network for you tomorrow. If you are already out of school, replace classmates with colleagues and the same is true.
  • You have to nurture it: If you expect your network to just work for you, think again. Your network needs to be nurtured and to be honest probably more often than you think. Stay in contact with them and make sure they are aware of what types of opportunities are actually valuable to you and ask how you can help them in return.
  • You have to give in order to receive: This I hope goes without saying, but don’t just take. In order to get anything accomplished with your network, you have to be willing to give as well. Make introductions to others within your network and introduce opportunities to those who you think may be of good fit. They will not only appreciate it, but you will actually feel great about making the connection.
  • It’s a small world: I know it is often said, but it’s true. The world is small and the design community is even smaller. Don’t abuse your network or someone else's. Word travels fast with today’s technology so be careful what you say. Yes, you can have an opinion, but treat others kindly so you don’t burn any bridges or leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth. I don’t know if it is true, but I’ve heard that for every bad experience, it can take at least seven great experiences to regain the trust.
  • Your network is always forming around you: I think many assume your network only counts if it is a physical network or you have met face to face. That’s not true. Your network is forming all around you. If you're on Dribbble, Twitter or any other digital medium, those are always powerful networks and you should be aware of those you are connecting with and make sure you keep those relationships meaningful.
  • Knowledge equals power: Success is contagious and every time I have coffee with someone in my network, I immediately feel a burst of energy and feel motivation. I’ve rarely had meetings where I didn’t learn something new. As you move through your design career, the more important it is to stay educated. Classes are expensive, so your network is a great place to start.
  • The best opportunities come from your network: Yes, you can have success on a job or freelance board, but to really get the opportunities you are looking for, you need an in. Someone needs to help introduce you to those that matter. I’ve found that the best opportunities really come from your network. Employers and business owners are busy. If they can avoid posting a job or project on a website, they will. Most times they will ask internally. If you share your goals with your network, stay connected, they will vouch for you. Keep in mind, that by doing so they are also placing a lot of trust in you, so don’t make a fool out of them.  
  • Being connected feels great: I love that feeling when you’re meeting a new person and then all of a sudden you start to see the overlap in your networks. It really feels good. You can feel the power that comes out of being connected and the level of respect rises. In my opinion, you can never know too many people. Yes, you do need to be aware of quality over quantity and you should not waste your time on those who you can’t help and vise versa. However, knowing or being a few tiers away from the right people can really open some major doors for you.
  • Networking is not about collecting contacts: I’ve had meetings with young designers and professionals and you could tell immediately that their sole purpose was to try to get me to open up my “rolodex” to them. Those people clearly have missed the purpose of networking. The purpose of networking is not to share contacts, but to build relationships and to help one another in the process. In order for it to work, you need to have respect and trust in one another. Once that has been accomplished you will more than likely naturally begin to create introduction for one another.
  • Your network can change: Depending on your focus, you may find yourself placing more focus on certain people in your network. Your goals change from time to time and it’s okay to align your network with those goals. After all, many in your network may be doing the same to you. Don’t feel bad, but be aware of when that happens so that you can reach out and keep the relationship warm.

My Takeaway:

Building a great network takes time. If you find yourself feeling alone on an island, attend a networking event to try and meet some new faces. Everybody loves to help one another, so if you’re worthy of their time, they will grant it to you. The key is to be authentic about the way you network. Don’t be creepy. I like to look at networking as a way to learn, problem solve with others and catch up. I love to share stories and show my support for those in my network.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that if someone vouches for you, value that and show respect for everyone involved in that opportunity. It’s not just your reputation on the line, but theirs as well. If the opportunity is not a great fit, decline it with respect and try to provide an alternative solution to their needs.

So, when was the last time you reached out to your network to genuinely help someone? Don’t feel bad if it has been awhile. We all get busy and nobody is perfect. In fact, I’m probably due for a few coffees, emails and phone calls here soon myself. Who’s up for it?

Communication is important to me, so I’d love to continue the conversation with you on Twitter. How much has your network contributed to your success?

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