Back in 2012, I was back in Buenos Aires after a couple of years of intense travel. It was the first time in a while that I was interested in creating value as an entrepreneur in my home town. During the previous four years I had been invested in developing relationships and projects with individuals around the globe that I met online. This was the period that gave birth to my blog, my first startup, my longest apprenticeship, the foundations of my international network, and a number of small experiments.
However, I quickly felt the tradeoff of my past international orientation: beyond my close circles of school friends and family, I didn’t know anyone in the city, nor I knew WHAT I should work on. All I had was enthusiasm. I was a guy with a decent-sized international network and a zero-sized local network, trying to make “something” happen locally. Tough spot.
At the time, I was working as a paid apprentice to my mentor in the US, so I had one thing going for me: I could look to invest my leisure time in new collaboration opportunities where I worked for non-monetary rewards. When money is not an urgent goal, one can create other forms of wealth faster, such as social capital or knowledge. If one is long-term oriented, these forms of wealth often lead to more money than a direct pursuit.
The first thing I did was look online who I wanted to meet. *I didn’t worry too much about why I felt like meeting them; my curiosity was compass enough. *The only criteria was: how likely is it that they are part of diverse networks, and did they lead an unconventional career (broadly defined). These traits were important because I wanted each person to open doors for me to even more people in the local scene, and because they would be more sympathetic and/or impressed with my own unconventional career decisions. If they were older, that was a plus too.
After identifying some names, I proceeded to a) cold email them, b) go to events or offices where they would be, or c) in a few cases, ask for an intro (for example, an Argentinian guy living in Thailand who found me through my English blog made the intro in Buenos Aires to who would end up being my mentor for 2 years).
I started meeting people for coffee or lunch as often as I could, sometimes four or five meetings per day. My approach in each meeting was the same:
- Ask and understand their situation, goals, and assessment of Buenos Aires’ entrepreneurship and tech scene.
- Tell them a bit about my background and what I wanted to learn about the local scene.
- Ask how I could help them.
- Towards the end, ask: “Who else do you think I should meet?”
My only request for them was to introduce me to someone new, anyone they believed I would appreciate. People want to help as long as it’s reasonable for their current commitments. This is specially true when it’s helping someone that shows potential, in case they end up going far in life. I was very young so potential was easier to convey.
Side note: One of the tradeoffs of getting older is that potential becomes harder and harder to communicate, and achievements (or lack thereof) start speaking for yourself.
I tried to understand how to help them, didn’t act needy or impatient, and my request was simple, so almost everyone introduced me to someone else. In 6-8 months, I went from not knowing anyone, to being one of the most connected 25 year olds in the city. In my talks I sometimes say that 2012 was “the year of the coffeeshop”, because of how much time I spent there meeting new people.
This period of my life led me to three key local networks:
1) Joined a small private club that would invite renowned experts to hear them explain complex or controversial ideas, or showcase a strong personal story, and then have a dialogue with us. I was able to meet or identify local leaders in different fields, which helped me paint a richer picture of Buenos Aires’ opportunities in my head.
The founder of this club used to say that “networking was collateral damage” for the club, since he would prefer each meeting to be about listening to the expert instead of trying to make professional connections. Seeing how many of the original members have launched multiple successful projects together, it’s obvious that the tight networking was beneficial for everyone. To this day, this club hosts one of the most diverse and curious groups of people of Buenos Aires.
2) After meeting my mentor and being hired by him that same day (story for another day), I helped launch and became an assistant professor at a now-famous creativity program. Because of its limited availability, high pricing, and the reputation of its founders and teachers, this workshop attracted accomplished individuals from all fields. In fact, the main criteria for selection is background diversity in the participants. I pursued working with this guy precisely because of the range of his connections.
3) Started a group of young curious people, which combined online interactions with in-person meetups and retreats, to discuss life and business deeper than we usually would in our more traditional social circles. This group gave me some of my current closest friends, at a time where I felt misunderstood because of my interests. It also became a massive source of introductions, clients, jobs, etc. not only for me but for many of the other active members of the group. The group grows daily and it has now +700 members.
I no longer go to the secret club, nor do I frequent the creativity program’s networks. I co-host a monthly dinner in the group I started, but that’s it. Nowadays I have a better understanding of the opportunities and roadblocks in the local scene.* My focus transitioned into execution and avoiding distractions such as active networking.*
The lesson I want to stress from my “people exploration” process is that instead of asking ourselves “What should I do?” when looking for our next career step, we should instead ask “Who should I meet? Who is out there that has some perspective, some connection, some idea, that could trigger the changes I desire in myself?”
Sadly, this is not a popular notion. We see people as doors to opportunities like jobs or customers, but we underestimate them as doors to new ideas or ways of thinking. We believe the way out of a career crossroad is “thinking hard” or talking with those that we know, while in reality, there are more opportunities and ideas OUTSIDE of our immediate networks.
As long they are not incentivized to push a certain agenda (media, events, “experts”, etc.), people remain the most curated and up-to-speed source of objective information. The value of having a robust and diverse network is that the more people you know, the better the odds you will know WHO is the answer to each question or struggle you have.