Contacts are always valuable – and especially so at the start of your career. Ambitious millennials might consider LinkedIn, the world’s most popular networking website, their best bet. The problem is that when it comes to networks, bigger is not necessarily better. More important than size is the quality of the relationships that its users form. In scaling up at speed, and evolving into a platform that offers both news and job adverts, LinkedIn has become too impersonal. Though it succeeds in fulfilling one of its aims, to help people manage their professional reputation (it’s a great way to show off a CV to recruiters), it struggles with the other, to “build and engage” people’s professional networks. In my experience, it’s difficult to develop lasting professional relationships through the platform, because most users are there only to list their professional achievements, not to meet new people.
Two startups, BumbleBizz and Shapr, claim to have come up with a new, more intimate approach to networking – apps that are modelled on dating apps. As with those apps, users create a profile and swipe right when they come across someone they’d like to network with. If that person swipes right too, it’s a “match” and the pair can chat. The aim of both is to produce meaningful connections that get results in the real world.
BumbleBizz lives inside Bumble, a dating app that requires women to make the first move – an attempt to invert stereotypes about men taking the lead in new relationships. Women make the first move on BumbleBizz too: when they get a match, they have to send the other person a message within 24 hours, or risk losing a dream contact. Bumble’s founder, Whitney Wolfe (above), has stated, a tad optimistically, that this approach may help to tackle sexism in the workplace.
Within the first week of BumbleBizz’s launch in October a flurry of people across various industries had signed up. I flicked through the profiles of an operations manager at Uber looking to “grow his network”, an associate director at HSBC searching for a social-media “wizard”, and a producer from Vice, motive unclear. There were even people from professions known for their distinctly offline, old-boy networks, like law. Off I went on a swiping spree, gleefully messaging matches with offers of coffee and cheesy lines like “it sounds like you’ve had a really interesting career, I’d love to hear more!”
Perhaps I should have toned down the exclamations, because my enthusiasm did not serve me well. The biggest hurdle I faced was not so much finding people, but getting them to give two hoots about me. My swiping frenzy led to dozens of matches (“BOOM!” says the app when you “connect” with someone), but few proper conversations. The majority expired, along with my spirits. Possibly my rapid response rate was scaring off would-be contacts.
I might have had more success signing up to one of the subscriptions on offer – starting at £2.49 a week – or buying a “Bumblecoin”. As with Bumble’s dating app, the coins unlock premium features, like allowing you to reignite a conversation that fizzled out prematurely. But coins are £1.99 each, meaning promiscuous networkers could soon find themselves out of pocket.
The founders behind Shapr reckon that networks are more effective when built around a handful of worthwhile relationships, not thousands of interactions. It works much like BumbleBizz, with some notable exceptions. First, it’s not part of a dating app, so using it will not make your partner freak out. Second, there are no arbitrary rules: any person can start a conversation at any point meaning men are not left twiddling their thumbs, and women are not frantically messaging to fit an allocated slot of time, an irritating gimmick which – sorry Whitney – is unlikely to solve the problem of sexism in the workplace. Third, Shapr limits the number of profiles you can see each day, which stops people from getting too swipe-happy. Finally, the selection is personalised: you can list a range of interests, like “technology” or “sustainability”, and the algorithm will connect you to like-minded people.
Shapr, which is free, plans to launch premium features soon, but – unlike Bumblebizz – the standard version works perfectly well. A word of caution is due: unless you are a startup enthusiast, avoid listing “technology" as an interest: it swamps your daily list with bizarrely named firms and dodgy-sounding investors. Removing it produced a more balanced mix. I matched with a political adviser for a top MP, a project manager at JP Morgan looking for “ideas and inspiration” and a consultant looking for job opportunities (just don’t tell PwC). Mercifully for my sense of self-worth, some of my matches actually responded to my messages – if only to tell me to contact them on LinkedIn. It seems that the networking giant isn’t going to be usurped soon.