Episode 167 - Surfing Volley's Network
Published May 5, 2015
SPECIAL GUEST: Mike Waters. In episode 116, we talked with one of the founders of the social network Volley. On this episode, we're joined by a connection we made via Volley, entrepreneur Mike Waters, to talk about the future of business and professional networking. Mike has worked with a variety of Internet startups and shares some of his own personal experiences with networking and how to achieve results. Recorded 4/22/2015.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Mike Waters on LinkedIn
Mike Waters on Volley
More coming soon...
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #167. On the show we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us on this episode is Mike Waters. Mike, thanks for being here.
Mike Waters: A pleasure.
MJ: Could you tell us a little bit about your background?
MW: Yeah, I’d be happy to. So, I’m actually based in Seattle, Washington. I did my studies in electrical and computer engineering out at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Since then, I’ve been working on technology and manufacturing companies. So, right now I’m working on a couple of software projects, one in automation for gardening, one in intelligent introductions for professional introduction. And I have a couple in manufacturing—one is actually in digital signage—wireless e-paper-based signage—and the other is in automotive parts development and building engines for race cars, and building those up to play with on the weekends.
MJ: For our listener’s benefit, you and I connected on the social network Volley. We previously had Mike Murchison, one of the founders of Volley, on to talk about social networking. I think that’s been kind of an interesting experience. You mentioned one of the efforts you’re working as far as professional networking. How has that influenced your own career?
MW: Yeah, it was actually interesting. So, I’m advising a startup called Knotwork, at Knotworkapp.com. I met the founder there, Bill Bricker, through another startup I was working on for a friend of mine. So, I was helping out a friend’s startup and ended up meeting with Bill through that organization. We ended up kind of aligning our skillsets a bit and saying, “Hey, well, you’re here in sales, I’m here in technology. Let’s discuss what our goals are and see what we can help out.” And that just kind of happened naturally, because we’re both proficient networkers and we like to spend our time helping out other people if we can, and it’s just something that we like to do and that we tend to do. So, we decided to kind of help each other out and we ended up sharing a lot of different contacts and getting to know one another well over some years. What came out of that is we spent a year just doing this with our friends and people we met, and realizing the value that we were creating, helping out with a sales career, helping out with organizations, and identifying good partnerships and business development efforts. Then it kind of leaked into the nonprofit and volunteering sector. I do a lot of volunteering for folks and just helping out any initiatives that I find some value in. We kind of realized that could be done better; we were doing a lot of work to facilitate all those interacts. So, we started thinking up some ideas of “How do we make this better? What’s missing? As technologists, how can we use technology to facilitate these introductions and these meetings?” So, we ended up doing a bunch of research on what’s out there, and using applications like We, then Shaper, then Volley, of course, and exploring what others were doing. You and I met over Volley, which is a really interesting service, and actually just about as close to the idea of Knotwork as we came up with, and I’ll explain to you a little later how they differ and how the target markets are different. But Volley is great because it really serves up a platform for somebody to say, “Hey, there’s something I need, there’s something I’m looking for, let me blast it out on the internet and see what comes back.” Like, these people who are in this network also looking for something presumably are flipping through this deck and saying, “Oh, hey. I can help that guy, or I can help that guy.” Ideally, you can help directly and you’re like, “Hey, I’ve got the answer to that question. You know, ‘What book should I read to learn about programming?’ I can help you with that.” Or perhaps it’s “I need somebody to do some graphic design for my startup. Well, I need to send that to my brother who’s a graphic designer”—both of these things I’ve already done. You end up helping these guys out and they’re super grateful. That’s how we met, right? You were saying, “Hey, I’m looking for some folks who are interested in technology, the future, who have some interesting thoughts, like what’s coming down the road here? What can we expect? And what are some interesting ideas and thoughts that people have?” And there’s so many of us now working in technology and in startups. I’m part of the upper end of the millennials, and I think we’re kind of leading the charge there in that we’re okay with striking out, and taking some risks, and trying something new, and seeing what sits, and trying to make things better, and not being satisfied with sitting around and accepting what exists today—we want to try something new at all times. So, that was great, and we were able to connect. I don’t think we ever would have without Volley. We would have never found one another, right? It’s a very fortuitous interaction. And then here we are, able to speak about “What is networking today? And what’s in the future?”
MJ: Well, I’ve got to say that one of the things I found interesting about Volley was the way it integrated with your existing technologies, the fact that it kind of leveraged your email contacts. So often it seems like with technology—I mean, I love technology, I think Matt does, too—a lot of times though with technological solutions, I’ve tried innumerable apps or social networking services over the years, and a lot of them are very neat technologies, but they don’t always connect to how people network, and I thought that was one of the things Volley has done well. Do you think that sometimes that networking almost needs to be a social skill, or a soft skill somewhat, underneath the technology before you even get to the technology part?
MW: [Laughs] It’s interesting that you would present it that way, because I would say that for most people networking is a drag. It’s like going to the dentist. You just kind of dread it. You’re like, “You want me to go into a room and listen to someone speak, and then actually engage with strangers and hope that I run into somebody who’s interesting to talk to, who has something to offer me that I have any interest in? And you want me to go do that just on my own volition, just because? And you want me to pay for it on top of that?” Most people are not interested, and you’re going to get consulting and sales-type guys who are out there, and those are the last guys you want to talk to if you are a developer or somebody like that. You’re really looking for something different; you don’t want to be sold. You’re looking for something else. So, that’s exactly the problem that we identified is, yeah, unless you’re a natural networker and you’re an extroverted, outgoing person with some personality and charm to engage these people and get something out of it, you’re not going to succeed, and you’re not going to really have any interest in trying again if you do and it’s no fun. So yeah, I think what we came up with is, “Alright, well, what’s hard about it? Well, it’s hard because you don’t know what you’re going to get.” You don’t know what’s going to happen at these events, you don’t know what’s going to happen when you talk to this company. You don’t know if there’s even anything interesting there. And as you said, it’s leveraging technology—your email, maybe some of your networks—but what do you really know from that? You’re having to do a lot of investigation into what you’re looking for and into who you’re able to speak with. So, really the idea that we came up with was, “Alright, well how do we use technology?” which are things like let’s utilize big data, machine learning, let’s do so comparison algorithms, and let’s try to figure out “How do we present to you what’s interesting?” It’s kind of like if you have something that you’re looking for, or something you’re offering, and you’ve got a network of people who have told you something they’re looking for, something they’re offering, and this could be active or passive, what if we just mash that together and use technology to surface “Oh, this guy is an investor looking for an early-stage startup. This guy is a co-founder looking for a seed round for his company. Why don’t we just plug those guys together? That seems obvious.” And there are a few categories of people that fit there: fundraisers, investors, job seekers, hiring managers, and then networkers. So, those five topics seem like maybe it fits some genres of what people are really looking for. If somebody is able to state through an app “This is what I’m looking for, and this is what I have to offer, go out and serve me up recommendations,” well now at least I’ve got a starting point. I know what this guy is looking for. If I can link it back to their social profile somehow—their Facebook, their LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.—then I get some history, I can do a little bit of research, and I can decide, “Hey, how well do these match up? Do I want to talk to these people? What could they really offer? Or what could I offer them” and maybe facilitate this a little better and say, “Actually, before going into this event, or before doing my online prospecting or networking, how well does this fit together? What can I really gain from it?” without having to do that cold calling feel that you get at a typical networking event.
MJ: Do you think that with your average person you run the risk of—with just the sheer volume of information that everybody faces nowadays, and the number of apps, and the number of social networks, that there’s a certain amount of fatigue that goes with that?
MW: Yeah, absolutely. I think there is. I think that’s why you’ll see some of the social apps now limiting that interaction. People get tired of Tinder, right? You can only swipe right so many times. You’re looking at professional networking, and it’s even harder than that, because you’re looking for things that are very, very specific, or you’re able to offer something that’s very, very specific, and you need that boiled down, and you need there to be fewer choices. So yeah, absolutely, there is fatigue. That’s why I think it needs to be something that’s like, “Hey, here’s one suggestion,” maybe two. Like, “Today, can you help this guy?” Or “You’re served up. This guy asks for your help today.” And Volley’s headed in that direction. You’ll see the tuesday emails that go out saying, “Hey, here’s one featured guy,” and you get to think about one that day. That’s great, and it’s a great intro, and if you want to help out, or if you don’t, you say, “Huh, do I have an appetite for more or not?” If not, I’ve done one, great. If I do have an appetite for more, great, then I can hope in and do some more. But there certainly is that fatigue and I think you need to at least, at the outset, limit that ability to get so many people and so many options presented at you, because you just get kind of worn out. Then you don’t want to go back because you’re like, “Man, that’s not a three-minute effort. That’s a 15-minute effort, or 30; I might get sucked in and spend an hour.” You really need to understand what it is you’re going to, how much attention you’re going to put there, and how much time that’s going to take, I think, if you’re really, truly going to be interested in signing up and making that effort. I think really what it comes down to—following your last question—is there’s so much information. We’re no longer seeking information. We are now deciding—and I think very selfishly deciding—where do we focus our attention? And I think attention and focus are the new commodity. That’s really what people are “spending” right now. They’re not spending their knowledge, their information. It’s their time and their focus and that energy, and that’s what we’re all competing for. We just want a little piece of that from people who can help us out somewhere. How do we get that attention onto us if we need something? And how do we put our attention onto something that we care about, or that helps us out?
MJ: Yeah. I think that’s an interesting shift, and I do think—you alluded to this earlier—that millennials are driving it. Matt and I are a little bit older, we’re more Gen. X. Just looking at the people that I know, now that a lot of them have families and stuff like that, they just… A lot of the stuff that I’m interested in—reading about the future and the way society is changing and all these new technologies—I’m running around, trying to get into all these programs and nobody I know—I can’t send it to them because they’ll complain about “oh, I’ve got all this stuff with the kids,” or “I’m busy at my job…” It seems like, in thinking about how these technologies affect them, a lot of them are—I’ve started to notice more in our age group, Matt, I don’t know if you agree—that a lot of them are resistant to some of these ideas.
MB: Oh, absolutely, and I think it has a lot to do with what you just said, which is “my kids” or… And this isn’t to pick on any of the people who have kids who are listening, but it seems like once you have kids… I mean, most of my friends who have kids, their life basically just stops. So, you get to that point and they don’t get on Twitter—to the point where they don’t even get on Facebook or anything. It’s kind of “I get on the internet for work and once a week I go on Facebook to make sure my friends are all still there and that’s about it.” And I’ve been to their houses before. I understand why they can’t get on the computer. It’s like living in a monkey cage.
MW: So, what if those guys who are at home, who have this limited attention, they’re not there spending their time doing the research and consuming all of the media that you guys are as fans of technology and information… What if those guys were served up, like, “Hey, here’s how you get introduced to a connector. This is a person who has a very vast network, somebody who can plug you into something really interesting.” Would those guys take a meeting with someone who opened infinite possibilities for them? Where they could dream up “man, yeah, actually I need a babysitter so I can get out of the house,” or “actually I want to know what the latest interesting book is that I can read so I can take a break from this drama” or whatever it is. “I have a hobby and I need a hand with something; I’m stuck on a house project, I need to borrow something.” It seems to me like those guys would be a prime target for a very narrowly-focused introduction back into that world. It’s like, “Guys, you can be over here super-busy, but what if we made this easier and you actually had a very, very high potential or percentage of success here by taking this meeting or engaging in this network or through this application?” It seems to me like those guys may have some interest.
MB: Yeah, no, I totally agree with you. I think they’d probably would. It’s getting them to take that first step, which obviously always the scariest one. But I think that if you could show them “hey, this might actually work, this might save you the time of researching it or doing it yourself…” If you could just get the answer or the help that you need without doing a lot of work, I think that would help them out a lot. But getting them to take that first step, getting them to do anything really, is a challenge.
MJ: I would totally agree with Matt. I think there is sort of a high barrier to get them to actually move. I’ll talk about this stuff with my friends and I’ll go off on this or that technology, this or that thing that I’m doing, and they’ll sit there and nod, and “oh yeah, yeah, that sounds great…” But then they’ll literally put no time into it. I know they have some time. I mean, granted they’re busier maybe or more involved in family things than I am, or Matt is, but they do have some time. It’s how you choose to do that… And I know the other night, I helped my mom actually with some stuff. She was on the computer and she didn’t want to bother me, so finally after quite a while, I actually just started to help her. She had been typing email addresses one by one from hand from a printed out spreadsheet to try to get a distribution list. And literally, I copied her list and I had something I could manipulate digitally in two seconds. I could think of, off the top of my head, at least three different ways that the process she was trying to do could be easier. When I brought that up, it was “well, I don’t have time to learn any of that.” And yet literally she had spent half an hour or 45 minutes typing in these email addresses by hand. My frustration with that, as someone who’s into technology, is “I could show you a better way in five minutes that would save you all of that 45 minutes. All you have to do is ask.” And yet, for whatever reason, people don’t. And I run into this with all my friends, too.
MW: Like, “I could teach you to fish, mom…” [Laughs]
MJ: Yeah, exactly! It’s just the stuff that is universal, like… Well, I don’t want to get too deep into that, but there’s any number of tools that will make your lives easier. I think the millennial generation seems to adapt those things even a lot easier than the people in our generation. I’m continually amazed by that. I’ve even found some things myself that I’m resistant too, and whenever I hit one of those, sometimes I’ll maybe be a little crotchety about it at first, but over time I’ve tried to force myself to at least consider “is that something that I might want to look into?”
MW: Well, you have an attitude about it until somebody shows you what it is, and then you learn it. Because there are some things that you’re just like “I just don’t want to learn it. I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to learn that and find value in it.” And if somebody shows you, like with your mother, and it takes a moment, you’re like “Okay, cool, now I’ve got it,” and that’s going to be part of your new world and you’ll be happy with it. But you just weren’t happy to take that first step, and that is the barrier. I would posit that all these guys that are too busy, they’re spending their time somewhere, and, as you said, they’re spending their time on what their priority is. They do have extra time somewhere, but where are they spending the majority? Is it at the office? Is it in their job? If that’s the case, then why don’t they think about “How do I make my job easier? How do I find efficiencies here? How do I perform better? How do I do this job better today than I did yesterday? Or next year better than this year?” So, if we can help these guys out in the areas and the occupations where they spend the majority of their time, we’ll have the biggest impact. I think that’s an interesting way to approach getting these folks into trying something new, even if they’re not interested in investigating and trying something on their own out of the gate.
MJ: Oh, and I would totally agree, Mike. I remember, for me, the reason I consider these technologies a lot, even when I don’t see the use of them right away, is I remember the first time I saw instant messaging, and I thought it was just the most ridiculous, silly thing there was. I worked at AT&T for 11 years, and the time I was at that company, the majority of the company’s business actually took place within the company on instant messenger. Like, that company would have shut down had it not been for instant messenger. Here’s this technology that, at first, I thought was super-trivial, and “why would you even spend any time on this?” and this is how this company does business. I think that a lot of times when you don’t know about the technology, it might appear like a trivial thing, or “why are you wasting your time on that?” I know I’ve become a huge fan of Twitter, and a lot of people think that about Twitter—”Well, look at the things most people tweet. ‘I’m eating a sandwich.’ ‘I’m going to the store.’ ‘I’m watching this movie.’ Why would you spend any time on that?” And yet Matt and I have actually connected with a ton of guests that way.
MW: Yeah, and I think you can. I think the thing about social media, things like Twitter, is yeah, there’s a lot of posts about “here’s my sandwich at lunch” or whatever, but it doesn’t matter. Even though there is some of that filler, you can still look at a macro view of Twitter and you can see who content producers are, who influencers are, and who’s credible. Regardless of all the noise, still over the top you have the ability to see “what’s credible, what’s worthy of my time, and what can I really filter out?” That leads to an interesting conversation, I think, about gamification. Gamification really gives us incentive to take certain actions, it gives us a history, it’s kind of this audit trail, and it gives us credibility and something to work towards if we’re not quite there yet, and it helps filter those decisions down, making them a little bit easier, and allowing us to gloss over some things that maybe we don’t need to dive deep in, and focus a little bit more on things that are more important because we’ve got our network and our people in the world around us who are concentrating on these certain areas. I think that’s a really interesting angle on networking, saying, “Okay, who is the connector? On Volley, who’s helped the most people? Who’s got the most points?” How do we encourage people to actually participate in helping one another out and really understand the personal benefit of this pay-it-forward networking and this “help one another out” idea that we’re speaking of here?
MJ: Yeah, well, and it makes it a little more fun, too.
MW: It makes it way more fun! It’s a game, right?
MJ: Yeah. What has your personal experience of Volley in particular been like? Besides connecting with me, are there any other folks on Volley that you’ve connected with?
MW: Yeah, it’s actually been really good. I was able to connect fairly quickly with folks who were looking to host nonprofit fundraising events. And I’ve had experience doing that, so I was able to advise some folks on that in some detail. I ended up finding a vendor who was able to build out a website for me that I needed to do. They did a perfect job; it was better than I could have expected, and it created a really good connection and a resource that I’m going to use in future endeavors, which I would never have found if I was just searching around by myself. I’ve met with folks who are trying to create communities and build out networks of people around affinity groups, and have spoken to them about “How do I engage with people I don’t know about something I really, really care about? How do I find others like me?” and have been able to speak at that level. Then, of course, with Mike and David and the founders of Volley, I was a power user from the early days, and started sending them all of the issues and wishlists and ideas that I had, hoping to just spawn some interest and ended up talking to those guys every day now, getting more things into the product, and improving the experience, and just leveraging what I know and would want to see, hoping that others have similar interests. So, it’s been really fulfilling, actually, just to be meeting all of these people and helping out. And along the way, folks are, therefore, interested in what you’re up to and you end up making some meaningful connections. What’s interesting about Volley is it’s Toronto-based obviously, and a lot of these people are up there. If I go to Toronto now… I knew zero people before I started playing with Volley. I know a bunch now. So, if I end up showing up in that town, I could have a lot of meetings, and see a lot of folks, and have an instant network built out in a geographical location, which is a crazy thing to think about. That’s a place where I can just show up and something interesting can happen. Which reminds me, actually, of another social networking group that I’m heavily involved in, which is Couchsurfing. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Couchsurfing.org, but it’s people from around the world who simply send you a request, saying, “Hey, I’m traveling. I’m coming in these days. This is what I’m trying to do. I’m a tourist,” or “I’m in for a business conference,” or “I’m working,” or “studying” or whatever it is, “can you host? I want to just meet up with locals and see things not like a normal tourist. I don’t want to be in a hotel and a rental car. I want to meet real people.” So, I host people from all over the world every week. And it’s amazing, you just get stories as if you’re traveling, but you’re back at home, you get to show people around. And then you pay it forward, because these people are now distributed all over. I can show up—I just did this recently: I showed up out in Bratislava, was able to hit up a former Couchsurfer. She was like, “Yeah, I’m in town. Let’s meet up.” Like, how crazy? Went to Austria, met up with people, like, “Oh, let’s go to a museum in Vienna.” Cool. Just people you know all around the world, you’ve helped them out, they’re happy to meet up, and they’ll offer you the exact same experience just because all you did was open your house and let them crash on your couch, told them where to go in your city. We all do this anyway with colleagues and people we know, and families and relatives. But to open it up out to that stranger level, out to that third degree network, it gets really powerful, really fast, because that is a network that would have never collided, you would have never run into that if you didn’t take that extra step.
MJ: Yeah, I think actually our guest in our #145th episode, Max Holzheu, he was doing the Couchsurfing.org. He was also doing unschooling. And he is actually a connection that I made via Volley as well.
MW: See? That’s the thing—I think those of us who are into that… I really consider it pay-it-forward networking. We want to help people out, we really, truly do. And if something comes on the back end, great. If it doesn’t, great, because the experience is what it’s about. I do find that these people are really genuinely good. I’ve never, ever had issues along the way. None of this stuff would work if there were any problems along the way. This is people being people and really just being a little bit more outgoing, a little bit more risk-tolerant to say, “Yeah, I’m going to put myself out there and good things are going to come of it.” Personally, it’s benefitted me over the years because you meet people—I’ve interviewed I don’t know how many thousands of people and read thousands of resumes—and when you're hiring people, sometimes it doesn’t quite work out. But if that connection is there and you’re willing to actually make a little bit of an effort, those guys come back around and you meet up with them later. I’ve got people that I’ve met up with over the years that now I’m doing business with them, or have partnered with them, we’ve started a venture, or I’ve become a customer or a vendor, whatever. You end up leveraging that network because it’s what’s top of mind, it’s what you know. You’ve had some experience, you feel good about it, and you’re able to very quickly make a decision and commit. And we all know that most job seekers are hired by people they know through the network, right? Those are all personal connections. That’s how everybody is getting ahead, the vast majority, is by your network. That’s your net worth; it’s really where your value comes from. And what you can offer back to others is the most valuable, right? Like, “What is it that you want to offer? What do you want to learn about? Where do you want to spend your time?” Put that out there and let people take advantage and help them out along the way.
MJ: For a final question: we’ve talked a little already about people that are not entirely comfortable with some of these ideas, or that are resistant to some of it, or just the people—in Matt’s and mine’s social networks—who just don’t seem to have time for it, as someone who’s participated in some of these things, what advice would you give to those people to maybe get over that hump a little bit and encourage them to get involved in some of this stuff, even if it’s just dipping a toe in? Or how do they dip a toe in?
MW: Well number one: I would say at some point you just need to jump in and do it. Those people aren’t going to listen to that advice, so I think the advice I’d give to them is figure out a way that you can do it. I think the easiest is to figure out a way to do it for your work. Take a colleague. Or figure out a way where you can get to an event like this during the workday, to a lunch, to a happy hour, something like that. Or even get paid to go to a conference. Otherwise, take a colleague or a friend, somebody who’s either been to these things or is more comfortable or more outgoing than you, who’s willing to take you in and break that ice, make the introductions, help you navigate these events and organizations and applications, and really just kind of give you a leg up on how to make the most of it. Because you really do need to see some sort of success, see some sort of benefit if you’re ever going to try it again. The last thing I want to see is someone say, “That idiot Mike told me just to do it and it was terrible,” you know? But make sure you make the most of it. I go into a lot of these things with low expectations. Like, “Hey, let me think about how I can help these people” rather than “What am I going to get out of it? Am I going to get that sale? Am I going to find a job? Am I going to find investment for my company?” Just say “What do I have to offer? What experience do I have? How can I help these people out?” Talk to people, but ask questions and listen. Just talk to these people and let them tell you what it is. Let them give you their whole shpeel, their whole pitch, whatever it is. See if you can help. Truly try to help. If you can’t, just honestly tell them, “Sorry, there’s nothing I can really do to help you. It’s really interesting and I wish you the best of luck. They’re going to turn it around and say, “Well, what can I do for you?” because you took that time and you honestly listened, spent your attention on them without knowing anything and without asking for anything. Good things come of that.
MJ: Cool. Well Mike, thanks so much for joining us tonight.
MW: Thank you guys.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Are you interested in the future and how society is changing? We’d love to have you join our community. Visit our website to learn more and to connect with others that share that interest. You can find us at RobotOverlordz.FM. The site includes all of the show’s old episodes along with complete transcripts, links to more information about the topics and guests in each episode, and our mailing list and forums. We’d also love to hear what you think about the show. You can review us on iTunes or email us.
A: We hope to see you again in the future…
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Image Credit: By Original: Cpl. Megan L. Stiner.Later edits:Solitude at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons