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Coming of Age as a Self-Employed Networker: Field Notes of an Amateur Anthropologist Researching Net

I’ve been networking for decades with moderate success. Yes, I’ve enjoyed leads that have paid off and I’ve accumulated business cards galore. But recently, I totally changed my approach to networking.

Previously, except for a few professional organizations of special interest, I’d cycle back and forth among community associations and skill-development groups. I’d try a few meetings and then put them on the back burner, if not clearing them off the stove entirely.

Now I have a new interest. I like to attend networking events for professionals a generation younger than myself to learn what they are up to, both how they network and the types of assignments they are taking on.

I haven’t yet lined up paying work there—that’s not my primary objective. Younger people talk with me, no bad vibes. Still, I don’t expect to become a key player in their teams.

This research benefits my quest to know what’s really going on in the marketplace. I am observing a whole different approach to networking that enables me to review my previous efforts with fresh eyes.

Of course my research is not exhaustive or conclusive. I’m working without grants. Not even an intern. I do my research in urban Chicago though I reside in a nonprestige suburb about 30 miles out.

Of course, every millennial does not think or act alike. Broad generalizations follow.

Here go my observations:

Younger professionals network all the time. Their lives are one big networking story. Many live with millennial friends who are also professional contacts. They share projects and leads with each other continually. Often they have complementary skills, such as a writer who lives with a videographer. They are friends with roommates’ friends, with second and third degree connections that are incredibly more solid than typical LinkedIn connections.

They work together all the time. Even those who are self-employed solos spend little solitary time at a bedroom desk. Check out Starbucks or other city coffee shops and delis and you’ll see people working intently for long periods of time. Some of these places also have programming and social events so those who concentrate on solitary work also have opportunities to mingle with other self-employeds.

They may utilize coworking office space, also called collaborative workspaces, office-space rentals, and such. Some rent space for the afternoon for a single team or client meeting; others join full-time, perhaps even as employees whose company pays the membership fees. Some of these areas offer “free” coffee, refrigerators, microwaves and other amenities that enable them to work there all day and all evening. These settings facilitate ongoing networking.

Then there are the bars and evening activities with other people like themselves. Also sports, running, and working out. Additional informal networking around the clock.

They are highly visible and open on social media. I’m not just talking LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, but also Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, and more. Video and photos, not just text. Spontaneous and opinionated, including political opinions, without concern that a corporate client may see issues entirely different. Which leads to the next observation . . .

They don’t overthink privacy issues. Maybe if they say they are visiting friends in San Francisco this weekend an online stranger will break into their apartment and steal the TV? This describes how I may think. It does not describe many millennials.

They focus on offering services rather than specializing in narrow industries. This enables them to benefit from relationships with co-networkers with diverse businesses. It’s the efficient way when you get work from local acquaintances to open yourself to the varied businesses they serve. Many self-employed millennials also offer a broad range of services as single individuals who are capable at a mix of marketing strategies, programming, visual and writing talents, crafts, administrative tasks, and more.

Many of the most successful are extroverts. Actually this is true regardless of age. Yes, we introverts can develop our networking skills, but the whole thing comes more naturally if you are an extrovert.

And among younger people, showy tattoos, piercings, asymmetrical head shaves and such are all for the good. The Gold Cross pens and leather briefcases recommended to freelancers in the eighties and nineties are quite unnecessary—facile thumbing on a smartphone and a backpack will do.

Originally posted 8-11-16

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