Judy Robinett is the author of Crack the Funding Code: How Investors Think and What They Need to Hear to Fund Your Startup and How to Be a Power Connector: The 5-50-150 Rule. Robinett is a business thought leader who is known as “the woman with the titanium digital Rolodex.” On this episode, we discuss why “keep your head down” is terrible advice for fulfilling your potential, how Judy recommends you use her Two Golden Questions, and how she learned she actually isn’t shy (and why you probably aren’t either). Finally, Judy shares what she means when she says COVID-19 hasn’t really changed how she networks and why it shouldn’t stop you from growing your community either.
I’m going to kick us off by discussing a profile of you, which called you a “Sterling example of the new breed of super connectors who use their experience and networks to accelerate growth and enhance profitability.” I think we all inherently know that connecting and networking is vitally important, but what does it mean to be a super-connector and how did you develop this reputation?
Oh boy. Well, I think I developed a reputation just because I loved a challenging problem. I realized that almost anything that people needed is out there. There’s 7.4 billion people, 369 trillion in private wealth, so no lack of money, but it’s attached to people, so are information, ideas, and things. I figured out how critical it was to have a network when I worked for a fortune 50 corporation and I’d been taught, “Keep your head down and work hard. Don’t ask for help, people will notice.” I discovered people didn’t notice.
I could see there was this underlying network in the corporation that was very different than the hierarchy and structure and I wasn’t getting ahead. I made it a point to develop a network. After I left, which was finally as CEO of a publicly-traded biotech company, I got very enthusiastic about working with startups, I worked with Skullcandy, and several others. I found it was the same issue. It really is how do you find the resources?
If there’s no lack of resources out there, where can we find the best people to go over/under through a problem? There’s always an answer. I got a little brazen as I got older and braver because I was so shy and bullied as a kid. I made it a point to be able to talk to anyone anywhere. I found out quickly that if you add value to others, great things happen.
You hit something there and you talked about the great deal of work you’ve done helping early-stage companies scale, what do new companies typically struggle with? How are those lessons from your years of experience, how can they help us all no matter the size of company we work with?
I actually traveled the world working with different ecosystems and people would say, “There’s no funding.” There always is funding, but many of the early-stage VCs, family offices in particular, and now sovereign wealth funds, who are also directly investing into startups can be hard to access, so that’s why I did the second book. The reality, Matt, is there’s two reasons a startup fails. The first one is lack of a customer. The second one is lack of funding.
One thing that you speak about frequently, and it appears in some of your writing and the profiles of you is this concept of relationship capital. Can you share with our audience why that asset is so valuable? Why it’s often potentially underdeveloped and how someone who’s maybe never thought in those terms before can start?
Yes, it really is underdeveloped. One of the biggest mistakes I see with people trying to understand how to network is they’ve not utilized the network they already have. For instance, my book agent called me one day and said, “I think you need to meet with Mike Muni, he sold his last company for 45 million, he has an app having to do with networking, you guys ought to meet.” Mike flew to Salt Lake from Texas. I said, “You know, Mike, I’ve never heard of this app.”
He looked really sullen, very sad and he said, “You know, if I could just get an article in Success Magazine, that’s my ideal customer.” I looked at him and I smiled at him. I said, “Mike, when you go back to Texas, I want you to call, Wendy, who I’ve known for four months, who you’ve known for many, many years. One of her friends is Mr. Hardy who runs Success Magazine.” He almost fell off his chair.
What I find is people don’t share with others where they’re at, what the project is they’re working on or what they need help with, and then I teach people what I call my two golden questions. Number one, ask them, “What other ideas do you have for me?” Number two, “Who else do you know I should talk to?” That is an easy ask, both of those things. Even in fundraising, you will hear, “Don’t ask for money, ask for advice, and you’ll get the money.”
Really and critically, also important is to have a diverse network. For instance, I know people in the entertainment business. Jennifer Justice is a good friend of mine, she was Jay-Z’s first attorney and helped grow that business to a billion.
The second mistake people make is they’re tunneled. Everybody is similar in their network. I usually have people take a piece of paper and write down 25 people that they know and then write, what industry are they in. Usually, with accountants, you find they go to all the accounting conferences, and all of their friends are accountants.
The thing that has fascinated me the most about these conversations that I’ve been able to have is, in essence, advice for one’s younger self. I’m guessing that maybe some of your advice would say, “You wish that you had this perspective on relationship capital and everything, right from the get-go.”
Outside of the scope of things we’ve already talked about, is there something that you would tell your younger self that would have made this journey of success that you found yourself in a little bit easier, or a piece of advice that you would give to yourself when you were starting out?
Oh, my gosh, one of the first ones would be to kick fear to the curb. It turns out, research shows that 50% of us think we’re shy, and the real number is 12%.
If I would have talked to three or four of my friends and ask them, “What are the best things you see about me?” I would have been startled to find out that no one thought I was shy except me. Get out of your comfort zone, kick fear to the curb is a great piece of advice that I wish I would have understood better.
Make sure wherever you are at work, that again, you know people that are outside your immediate focus. The other thing is go to conferences and make it a point to talk to the speakers, reach out to them on LinkedIn beforehand, or Twitter. Read books, keep reading, that’s really critical too.
Go back to some of the work that you’ve done with early-stage companies. What are you most intrigued by when you meet a new leader that you potentially have the opportunity to work with? Are there a few characteristics that through your time working with different companies in different industries, you key in on a certain attribute as being really vital to later success?
Yes, and having worked with entrepreneurs and founders for about 20 years now– and this actually also shows up in research. It’s really fascinating to me. I learned to fly helicopters, and I find out the majority of other entrepreneurs out there, CEOs of companies often fly planes, they tend to be risk-takers. They also tend to be very comfortable with chaos. For years, I used to say I love chaos, because when things are in chaos, you can create anything you want. I’m always in awe of the brilliance of the founder and the vision and often the tenacity and the grip. It turns out you don’t have to have the Harvard degree, is persistence wins at the end of the day.
One of the things that I read about you is that your book How to Be a Power Connector was actually selected by Inc. Magazine as one of their best business books of the year. We’ve talked a little bit about the concept of being a power connector. Can you talk a little bit about the framework of bringing that book to life? What was your process like? What did your daily routine look like? How did that actually come to fruition?
My first book was going to be, How to Get Funded. I put together a list of 50 people I would interview, Reuben Abraham, who I’d met in India who raised all of George Soros funds, and a slew of other people. My agent called me and she said, “Judy, you live in Idaho. How do you know these people? You must have gone to Stanford or Harvard.” I said, “No, Utah State.” She said, “How do you know these people?” I started describing it for her. She said, “Wait, wait, we got to do a book on networking.” I said, “Not me. I think networking sucks. It’s icky. It’s manipulative.”
She said, “Well, we’ll change the title.” On a Friday, she said, “The proposal’s ready to go. Get ready to get on a plane to New York and we’ll go meet with the top publishers.” By Monday, we had offers from the top publishers. I didn’t even have to go. I had planned on writing the book, but my agent assured me that I wasn’t a professional writer and that it would be better if I hired an individual who did this as a living, which first made me feel bad, but I’ll work very closely with her. I would jot down outlines and notes and examples. I’ll just share a quick one.
I had met Joseph Cowan who was one of the top diamond dealers in New York City. He called me one day and he said, “I really need help getting into China.” Well, this man sells jewelry to Oprah, Bogle flew in with his little jet twice a year so his wife could buy something, so his network was a who’s who. My writer called me on the phone and she said, “What I don’t understand is why he called you.” It really made me think. I said, “He called me because I can help him and I will help him.”
This is another important thing of the people that you keep close at hand. You only need 25 to 50 of those individuals, again, that are dispersed through different industries that can help you and make sure that, first, they’re kind. You don’t want bad actors, machiavellian, sociopath, narcissistic individuals that will hurt you. That’s the first thing we all look for when we meet a stranger.
Number two, you want a level of competency, which takes a little longer. I’ll add, third, generosity because you want people who will have your back. When I was younger, I used to say, “I’d only let people in my network who had a good head, a good heart, and a good gut.” I finally said, “Is this person a Martha Stewart or an Oprah?” They’re both billionaires. They’re really good at what they do, but for my values, I go with Oprah.
How has your approach changed given the issues brought about by the global health issues that have forced people to be less in-person and more virtual? How has your personal approach changed to continuing to cultivate your network?
Not at all. I guess it could be said a bit because I will, for instance, be in places like the Waldorf Astoria that I go listen to the clock chimes in Manhattan and talk to strangers who then become friends. I’m a voracious reader. If I found a good book that had some terrific insights, I’d reach out to the author. Of course, most authors are happy to get back to you. I also heavily used LinkedIn.
Now with the Zoom, it actually is much easier because people who were used to having to sit down and meet face-to-face have figured out they can do it with technology and are more accepting of it. You see this with the VCs who are now doing due diligence on Zoom and offline. It has rapidly accelerated the process of building strong relationships.
As a final question before we shift to the final two questions, when you’re thinking about interacting with that individual that you’ve never met before in New York City and you walk up to them, what’s going through your head? Maybe if you can play it out, what are some of the things that you might say to kick off that conversation knowing nothing about the other individual?
Well, usually, if I’m going to meet somebody, I make sure I do know something about them. I go find their LinkedIn profile, read what I can just like you did on me. If it’s a stranger, I often will just ask a question or just start a simple conversation like the lady that was at the Waldorf. I commented that I was from Idaho, I’d love to come visit. Was she local? Well, she was. Now, she works for the State Department I think in the Middle East and just recently reached out to me. It turns out that people love to talk.
If you learn to just break the ice with a simple how are you, say something about yourself, that is like pulling the cork on the bottle often with other people. If they’re not interested in talking with you, then you just say, “Next.” You don’t worry. There are 7.4 billion people on the planet. You can always find people. Most people, honestly, will help you if you learn to ask.
Judy, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, and that’s a wonderful spot to shift to our final two rapid-fire questions that I get to ask all of our guests. Question number one is this, if you could describe your leadership style in just one word, what would that word be?
The final rapid-fire question is this, what is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
I once gave a speech at MIT and somebody handed me a Wall Street Journal, and it had an article on how to become financially independent in America. It said there’s five ways, a doctor, a lawyer, inherit it or marry it. I knew those were out, and the last one was start a business. I went, “Start a business, how hard can it be?” I got a $1.3 million SBA loan and, dumb me, did a franchise restaurant. Ì thought I was going bankrupt. I went to an attorney, he looked at my financials and he said, “You’re not even close.”
I said, “I’m broke.”
He said to me, “Judy, they can break you, but they can’t eat you.”
It was the best advice I ever had. It helped me get the hair up the back of my neck, put some steel down my spine. I turned that around, sold that company.
I tell people, “Kick fear to the curb. You have got to get out of your comfort zone. You have to get the ticket punched to play the game.”
This interview has been edited for clarity.