How to Quickly Build a Local Startup Network: Q&A with Claude Cimeus

If you’re in the Chicago tech or startup scene, chances are you’ve met – or heard of – Claude Cimeus. So how does he do it? Great question. I sat down with him (virtually, of course) to find out. Read on for his insights.

I feel like everyone in Chicago’s startup community knows you – it’s why we’re talking to you today – but why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Not *everyone*, but I'm flattered by the compliment. Where do I start? Well, I am Claude. I was born and raised in Haiti. I immigrated to the US when I was in seventh grade.

I’ve been involved in the startup community for a bit now. I am currently a Product Manager at ActiveCampaign, one of Chicago’s unicorns. In my spare time, I play soccer, go to church, go to the gym, go out with my friends, and throw really fun tech parties. Oh, I also love music. I am really into rap / hip-hop. Meek Mill is my favorite artist.

When did you know you wanted to be part of the Chicago startup community?

Early in high school. I stumbled upon a documentary about Mark Cuban titled “Beyond the Glory.” I was really inspired by his story and knew from that point on one day I would want to be an operator and founder. I was also very broke when we first got to the US, so I also thought that tech provided a way out of poverty (aka the trenches) quicker than other industries.

What were your first experiences in networking among Chicago tech startups?

I started by reaching out to anyone who’s somebody in the tech space to give me a few minutes of their time. Early in high school, I would Google: “who are the top CEOs and VCs in Chicago” and then email all of them. Thankfully, a lot of them said yes, so I started building those relationships from there.

I also went to a few events but they were not as fun. No one would talk to me because I didn’t have anything to offer. That’s partially why I believe traditional networking is broken. People are very transactional, so if you’re a “nobody” like I was, no one wants to chat with you at events.

Who were some of your early connections?

Amanda Lannert, Guy Turner, Troy Henikoff, Ablorde Ashigbi, Brian Luerssen, Tim Grace, Bret Maxwell, and Lindsay Knight. Those are the OGs that've been riding with me ever since I was a teenager. Shout out to them!

There are a lot of people in Chicago’s startup scene. What’s your mental algorithm for deciding who you want to be connected with?

It’s mostly people that I want to be like, in one way or another. It could be their career, it could be their lifestyle – anyone I think is inspiring. Plus, anyone who shares my interests and with whom I can get along easily.

I am not sure there’s an algorithm because people are so complex, but the majority of my network is VCs and founders. And that’s mostly because I want to become a founder again. So it’s good to get to know the people who are investing in the people who are building.

If someone reading this wanted to build a startup network where they are, what should their first step be?

Reach out to people who you think are interesting. Find their emails or reach out via Twitter DMs, or whatever form of communication you can find. Be personable and be yourself. You’re making friends, it’s not that complicated.

If you had to break out your network-building advice in X steps, what would those steps be?

  1. Reach out. Secure a meeting over Zoom or in person.
  2. Be yourself, stay true to who you are. Talk about your actual interests, don’t try to act “professional” – be you.
  3. Get to know people for who they are, not what they’re getting paid to be. Lindsay Knight, for example, gets paid to be a VC, she doesn’t get paid to be Lindsay. She’s going to be Lindsay for the rest of her life, she may not be a VC for the rest of her life – so get to know Lindsay, the amazing human that she is.
  4. Treat yourself like a company and your network like investors. This is especially true if it’s a mentor relationship. Reach out about fun updates about yourself every once in a while. And ask for ways you can be helpful to them.
  5. Repeat a catch-up every two months. This doesn’t have to be fancy – just a coffee or a chat over Zoom.
  6. See people as humans, not opportunities. Build meaningful and genuine relationships. Don’t “network” for the sake of networking. I actually don’t like the word “networking” because it’s so transactional.

I literally have a spreadsheet with the names of people I want to keep in touch with, their titles, and the last time we caught up. Anything over three months needs either an update email / text or a Zoom / coffee catch-up. It’s impossible to keep track of so many people. Gotta have a spreadsheet or something equivalent. You really have to be intentional about it, and it’s real work.

Again, you’ve been incredibly successful at building a network of folks in Chicago’s startup community. Is it ever possible that you grow your network too large, and it loses some of its impact or meaning?

It has definitely gotten harder to keep track of everyone on a deeply personal basis, so I prioritize the folks I want to stay the closest to, on a personal level. I am not sure if it can ever get too large. Everyone’s different and unique, so I am always interested in connecting with as many dope people as possible.

You are now actually creating your own events. Can you share your thinking on that? And what are you doing now?

I do my events to help more people connect with others. It's helpful for me because I get to meet some fantastic people, but I do it for the community. My goal here is to redefine what people think about networking / professional events. Usually, networking events are boring. People are all wearing uptight suits, the music is lame, and the conversations are boring. It's a mess.

I do mine differently and go the opposite route. This helps significantly with inclusivity, I noticed in networking events early on. People go to have a fun time. They tend to chat with everyone and not focus just on how this person may help get them to the next level in their careers. Lastly, Chicago needs better hype through better events – this is how we're going to attract the young people now debating Miami, LA, NYC, or SF.

Here’s what I have going. I started Fireside Nights as a series of in-person chats with the biggest names shaping the future of Chicago tech, business, and beyond. Some of the guests have included Steven Galanis, Cameo Founder / CEO; Justyn Howard, SproutSocial Founder / CEO; Amanda Lannert, Jellyvision CEO; and so many other impressive names. The goal of these events is to highlight our best “playmakers.” We need to do a better job at bragging about our amazing talents here in Chicago.

In addition, I co-host CHI TECH IRL alongside Abhinaya Konduru, Tony Coglianese, and Eric Duboe. The goal here is to throw really fun parties that get the Chicago tech community together. Fun music, great food, and all-around amazing vibes.

Anyone looking for an invite should DM me on Twitter or LinkedIn!

I contacted a few of the “OGs” mentioned above and asked for their thoughts about Claude and what people could learn from this networking superpower.

Amanda Lannert, CEO, Jellyvision (pictured with Claude)
Amanda and Claude at one of his Fireside Nights events

“Claude has a really special charisma that is unique to Claude. I don’t know how to bottle that up and sell it; I would if I could. However, there are lessons to be learned from the process Claude uses not just to connect but to maintain and build relationships over time. First, he’s intriguing and specific in his reach outs. He makes it easy to be helpful. Second, he follows up – not just over time but shortly after meetings to give updates or reflections on what was discussed. It makes those he connects with feel listened to and valued. Finally, he pays it forward. He’s not just seeking connections; he’s passing the mic and spotlight to others, creating a stronger, broader tech ecosystem with newer, more interesting voices. All heart and hustle, Claude’s the best.”

Guy Turner, Managing Partner, Hyde Park Venture Partners

“Claude's not-so-secret-weapon is his ability and interest in starting and building relationships with just about anyone – regardless of experience, age, or background. I first met Claude when he was a senior in high school. He had some startup ideas and wanted feedback from entrepreneurs and CEOs... as an 18-year-old. Five years later, Claude has created friendships and social capital by proactively staying in touch as his own career has evolved. The lesson is pretty simple. When most of Claude's friends were doing teenage stuff, Claude was curious about the world beyond and the people in it, and from that interest came many opportunities.”

Troy Henikoff, Managing Partner, MATH Venture Partners

“I first met Claude when he walked into my office for a meeting. I could not believe he was still a high school student. His confidence, poise, and sincere desire for learning and improving … many entrepreneurs are never that good! He then pulled on that little thread of a relationship by following up, coming back to talk more, and asking for advice. As soon as he was in a position to help others, he went at it full force. He became an organizer, motivating people to take action on critical issues, have open discussions, always with a perspective of how can we improve. The world would be a better place if there were more people like Claude in it!!”

Ablorde Ashigbi, Co-Founder and CEO, 4Degrees

“I'm a firm believer we'll all be working for Claude one day. Claude reached out to me as someone he wanted to meet – but I genuinely believe I've learned more from him than he has from me. There are lots of reasons he has become a star in the Chicago tech ecosystem at such a young age, but two practices of his in relationship building stand out to me.

He ‘shoots his shot,' intelligently. Claude is much more willing than most to cold email, cold DM, or @mention people that he wants to get to know. When he does it, it's personalized, concise, and keeps the 'ask' small. That's actually how he and I met, and I've heard of him doing this time and again to expand his network.

He also builds advocates and promoters. He reaches out to catch up without an agenda, gives others an opportunity to help, promotes other people in his work, and actively looks for ways he can help. As a result, his network isn't just robust; it's full of people that are actively rooting for him to succeed, and mentioning him in the (shrinking set of) rooms he's not in. He's a special guy!”

Lindsay Knight, Partner, Chicago Ventures, and Co-Founder, Chicago:Blend

“Claude’s authentically curious and kind. He has a natural ability to read people and relationships. He can connect with anyone, but it’s more than being a ‘good networker.’ These are all intrinsic gifts of his that, when combined, become superpowers.

These qualities are what inspired me to respond to a cold email from him years ago. He must have been just around 18 when we first met. Years later, he’s done some work for CV, worked for two of our portfolio companies, and become a friend and someone I admire.”

Brian Luerssen, Co-founder and CEO, Draftbit, and General Partner, LongJump Capital

“While everyone knows Claude as fearless (and formidable) in networking and connectivity, the real greatness behind everything he does lies in his positivity and excitement to learn. I can't think of a time with Claude that didn't inspire smiles from everyone around the table and optimism for what was next.”