Earlier this week I was at the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge’s annual Startup Spotlight, a fun competition between thirty or so entrepreneurial ventures from Massachusetts and elsewhere in the region. The competition part of the event is to be named, by attendee vote, as the company most likely to become a unicorn, develop a cult following, or the company you’d most enjoy sharing a beer with.

But really, the goal for each of the companies there is to tell their stories is to make a connection that will play a role in the venture’s success. Being named a potential unicorn is fun, but when a potential investor, partner, key employee or customer takes an interest—that’s the real prize.

As I walked around to check out the different and innovative approaches to tackling different problems I realized that the first few companies I was drawn to all had something in common: each solved a problem that I had a personal connection to.

The first, DropZone for Veterans, aims to make navigating the enormous number of services and benefits available to U.S. Armed Services veterans a simple process. Talking with DropZone founder Courtney Wilson, herself a U.S. Army vet, I was struck by the unflappable enthusiasm she had for her mission. I’m U.S. Navy veteran and I posed a question that started us on conversation that was eye-opening for me.

“What do you offer for vets like me who did their four years, left physically and mentally intact and who simply want to move on to the next phase of their lives?”

My intended implication was to address the false impression that many young men and women have that the only services available are for the unfortunate ones left injured. Courtney quickly educated me with a brief taste of the many services—offered through government and private organizations—that range from complicated bureaucratic engagements to the plethora of private services and gestures intended to supplement benefits or simply say “thanks for your service.”

DropZone says it can help its users “access thousands of resources tailored to veterans and their families.” After talking with Courtney, I have no doubt that it can. And I wondered why it took so long for someone to do what Courtney has done.

The next company that caught my attention was Blink, maker of a wireless, remote security video camera for keeping tabs on what’s going on in and around your home.

A few weeks ago, there was a suspicious incident at my house that played out very much like a casing. The police officer who spoke with my wife and daughter suggested as much and, while there was no damage done, nerves were frayed and my wife purchased a product like Blink’s, but that turned out to be more promise than delivery.

As I shared my story and asked my questions based on that experience I learned that Blink was developed in response to similar frustrations with the products available and in response to a similar situation. I texted my wife and, in a fit of buyer’s remorse, we both agreed that we wish we’d known of Blink at the time.

There were other encounters during which I learned of personal connections that made the resulting conversation more meaningful and so business cards were exchanged with a promise of re-connecting in order to possibly make a helpful introduction. Who knows what will come of such conversations, but when I left it was with the satisfaction of having played a small part in an enjoyable event charged with positive and productive energy.

As for the winners of the three categories, those shook out as follows:


Congratulations to them and to all those entrepreneurs who mustered the gumption to participate.

For last month’s Tip Sheet I wrote about my approach to professional networking, and that when I’m out pressing the flesh I try to find and cultivate relationships with people I think I’ll like. If I’m at an event with a thousand other folks and walk away having hit it off with one person that I think I’d enjoy sharing a drink with, that’s a good result. Sometimes we’re forced by necessity to do business with people with whom we don’t mesh, but common business interests and simple professionalism require that such differences be put aside in order to meet a goal. When I have a choice, however, I’d rather work with people whose company I find enjoyable.
The typical networking environment requires that you make quick judgments about the people you meet. There’s nothing worse than getting cornered by a pushy me-monster who’s only interested in describing—in painful detail—how lucky you are to have the pleasure of their company. No one wants to run into that guy and most people don’t want to be that guy.

Early on in my professional life I ran into so many of the overbearing, pushy types that I felt I didn’t belong. That wasn’t me. I must be out of my league. But gradually I learned that networking success doesn’t mean being obnoxious; to the contrary, the best networkers I’ve known are understated, humble and generous with their time and attention. That doesn’t mean they can’t be blessed with an outsized personality, but that’s not the same as an over-inflated ego.
The best networkers know that success requires building a network of complementary associates and that to do so requires offering their talents in trade. By seeking first to give of themselves the karmic forces of the business universe will repay them in time.

Author Elizabeth Segran recently wrote an article for Fast Company that examines this dynamic. Segran profiles the experience of consultant Selena Soo who makes the important point that when you enter into a networking milieu with an objective to find ways to help others, you will rarely be disappointed. Everyone has needs, and if you are the one who is able to meet a need, you have an edge over everyone else in the room there to toot their own horn.

When I was just starting out as a writer I was told to, “show, don’t tell.” I wish someone had given me the same advice as a networker earlier in my career.