Friday, May 17, 2013

Networks, and Gatekeepers

I don't like gatekeepers. I don't like private clubs.

And I don't like being a gatekeeper. I don't belong to clubs.

Through luck, hard work, contributions to networks and communities, and the kindness and openness some people along the way, I've developed a network that includes some really special people, some of whom have significant position and power in their respective fields.

Most of them are very open people, which is the only reason I'm part of their networks.

They're also very busy, and I respect their time. Thousands of people try to reach them, try to connect with them, want something from them.

When you're building a startup, you need things. You think certain people can get it for you. In some cases you're right. But (and I hate this metaphor...is there another?) when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And startup need is a hammer that you apply to everything and everyone you meet.

You need stuff. You ask everyone. You're mostly a taker, for survival's sake.

I've done that, been there, and will be there again, I bet, though I try to be a giver more often. It's very likely that I haven't launched anything in the past 4 years because I know I need stuff and I don't want to ask until my last company is officially deemed a success, though it's been a success.

So I get it.

Being connected to someone who values their time and expects their networks to respect that makes it very tough not to be a gatekeeper. I'm asked to connect people, and if it makes sense, I do that.

I gatekeep. I curate.

I hate the filtering part of it, but the truth is, some things need to be filtered. If I don't do that, then I'm not a responsible steward of the connection's time, and he or she will start to filter me, such that future potential connections that make sense will not benefit from that connection.

I'm not great at it either. Over the past year I've made introductions for five startups--that's it. I'm fairly certain that none of them turned out to be productive connections for various reasons.

There are two I'd like to help out right now, because there's definitely a there there, but neither of them have really nailed it yet--in my view. It's too early.

I'm opening the gate for one of them because there's just enough basis, but it's a stretch because there's no business model. So I'm curating, but more liberally than I should. Ever the optimist, I think something beneficial might come of it, though it's almost guaranteed that it won't result in a long-term relationship. So I waver.

This is a fortunate person's problem; I know that and I'm not complaining, I'm just struggling with the idea of the openness of networks vs curation. Brad Feld writes about gatekeepers in Startup Economies, and I don't want to be one of those.

But he implies there's filtering and curation in the network, too. He's just not explicit about it. I think he meant gatekeepers to exclusive clubs. Clubs are not networks--you can't just approach anyone in the club. You have to go through the gatekeeper, and the club reinforces that in their rules.

But networks--you can go around any of the nodes in the network and still get through. The main ethic?

Merit.

Here's how I see the value of networks and the roles of the people within them, using a mix of Metcalfe's law and my own non-mathematical equations: networks increase in value exponentially with the addition of each person, but only to the extent that each person judiciously yet optimistically filters new additions to the network.

In other words, if everyone adds anyone to their networks without discretion, the value of the networks decreases with every new person who might waste the time and resources of others in the network.

This sucks--it sounds like I'm advocating for private clubs. You can only join if you have $100,000. You can only join if you're a blue blood. We only invest in Wharton grads. Executives only. Entrepreneurs only.

We do that with Startup Lancaster. Founders only.

And it works. If we add employees and vendors, it dilutes the conversation. It distracts from the focus.

So how can you be inclusive while being exclusive at the same time?

Merit.

Merit is in the eye of the curator. If you seem like you're ready--you have your story together, business model, early customers, data you can extrapolate into 12 months of vision, stuff that really works, you're probably ready. If I don't get what you're doing, or don't like what you're doing, I'm not likely to pass you on into my networks.

And you know what?

Screw that. To hell with me. Go around me. Find another way in. Keep at it. Prove me wrong--I'd be thrilled (and chagrined).

Don't let gatekeepers stand in your way.

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