Moving home to Thailand after college was difficult. I had been living in dormitories in the United States since I was 15 years old, and after 7 years abroad, Bangkok seemed completely foreign to me. I felt helpless and lost. My first month at home was lonely and frustrating, and I struggled to define the starting point of my professional career. Most of the time, it seemed like my efforts were being thrown into an endless void.
One sweltering afternoon, I found myself at a sleek, minimalist cafe in the heart of Bangkok; I was going to be meeting some old acquaintances there, but I had arrived early. I was chatting with the coffee shop staff to pass the time when I was suddenly overcome by a whim. Mid-conversation, I asked the staff member if I could speak to the manager. A sharply dressed, petite woman came over to my table, looking concerned. I blurted out, “Are you hiring?”
What can I get for you today?
I worked as a server at Rocket Coffeebar from June to August. Although I spent a dozen hours on my feet every day, I felt positive and energized. I was learning to connect with people, and I gained a deep understanding of what it meant to be “customer-obsessed.” It was a humbling experience, but I was good at my job, and I enjoyed it immensely. In no time at all, I had caught the eye of several regulars who happened to be expat entrepreneurs in Bangkok. They often came by, occupying a table for hours at a time, and I would strike up a conversation by saying, “What are you working on?”
Would you like to come work for us?
After two and a half months, I had interviewed at (and received job offers from) seven different startups, simply by chatting to customers. Some had founded their own companies, and others had referred me to friends who were looking for help. Ultimately, I accepted a position at GuavaPass, where I manged multiple key business functions across five different countries within three months.
Working at Rocket Coffeebar taught me an important lesson. Don’t underestimate the power of human connection. Opportunities are unpredictable and often unexpected. A conversation in the lunch line might lead you to your next job. Keep in mind that networking is not limited to networking events, and successful connections are often not transactional. Many of my peers seem to think that you have to identify “strategic targets” to “network” with and that you must enter these conversations with an end goal in mind. However, people will be more responsive to you (and personally invested in your professional development) if you aren’t asking them to give you a job, or looking to “make a sale.” Try striking up a conversation with someone you genuinely find interesting and let your curiosity guide you. Ask for advice and seek to learn. Be patient, stay open-minded, and don’t turn down conversations because you don’t think the other party has anything to offer you.
I followed my own advice and since coming to Baltimore in August to study at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, I have already had the opportunity to volunteer at two local startups.
I met the founder of SparkVision by coincidence; MaryBeth had mistaken me for someone else at a personal branding workshop, and we began chatting as a result. We briefly talked about our values, our outlook on life, and our previous jobs, and in less than half an hour, we had clicked. MaryBeth invited me to participate in some studies she was conducting, and offered to connect me to as many entrepreneurs and creatives in the Baltimore area as she could. When she first introduced herself, I had no idea that MaryBeth was an incredibly successful and well-respected member of the Baltimore community who was speaking as a panelist at the workshop. If we hadn’t both opened ourselves to conversation, we would have missed opening a new set of opportunities for each other.
I reached out to the founders of BurnAlong on LinkedIn after reading an article in BizJournal about a fitness startup based in Baltimore. Interested, I sent a brief InMail requesting the opportunity to meet up and learn more about the venture. To my surprise, Daniel accepted the request, and I found myself sitting across from him at a Starbucks in Federal Hill a couple of days later. Less than half an hour into the chat, Daniel called his co-founder Mike to come and join us, and by the end of the week, I was planning promotional events, providing feedback, and copy-editing for the website. All I had said was that I wanted to help out, and maybe learn something along the way.
It only takes five seconds of courage.
It’s really as simple as saying, “Hi.” Take a moment to smile at those around you, and to initiate a conversation with someone you don’t know. I spoke to an MBA student just last week, and ended up introducing her to my brother because she was interested in the insurance industry, and he happened to have three years of consulting experience in the area. Being friendly is worth the effort – you never know who you might meet, and how you might be able to help each other.