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Use Your Former Job to Network

Connections can mean the difference between startup success and failure.

On that fateful day when you walk out of your office for the last time, gleefully carrying your personal effects in a cardboard box, you will probably hear good wishes and vows to keep in touch from the people you're leaving behind. Take note of those promises. They'll come in handy when it's time to launch your new business.

Past contacts can be a good source of future business, according to Paul Edwards, co-author of The Best Home Businesses for People 50+. "Most self-employed people get new business through word-of-mouth, especially when they have had good, strong relationships with people and have benefited from reciprocal favors for years," he says. "Overall, networking is a much more effective way to get business than putting yourself in the position of constant rejection with cold selling."

You can cultivate contacts in a number of ways, both before and after you officially start your business. First, if your employer pays for your memberships in professional or trade associations, make sure the dues are current before you make the fateful break, then get involved in organizational activities. Such activities give you instant visibility and provide you with a ready-made pool of prospects you can tap later, particularly because networking is a primary function of many professional organizations.

Second, query colleagues and business contacts about your career aspirations in an undemanding way that doesn't cause a conflict of interest with your current employer. "Before you resign, ask people whether they think there's a market or demand for what you want to do," Edwards says. "It's a great way to plant seeds in the minds of valued colleagues that can lead to business."

Third, once you have left your job, tell everyone you know--both professionally and personally--about the business, even if it involves something they may not need themselves. "You want friends and acquaintances to say about you, 'I know someone who does that,'" Edwards says. "If you have a good track record and reputation, people will refer their friends and colleagues to you."

That's what happened to Enrique Rosselli, who in 2004 opened an AlphaGraphics printing franchise in Henderson, Nevada. The 52-year-old former senior operations executive in the food, beverage and chemical industries started his business after enduring three buyouts in five years. One of his first tasks as a startup entrepreneur was to inform the more than 150 people on his family's personal mailing list about his venture.

"[My family] had been sending out one-page e-mail updates about the adventures of the Rossellis for years to stay in contact with people we met around the world," the self-described extrovert says. "Now I get convention work by way of those people when their friends and associates come to Las Vegas. In one case, friends in Switzerland told me they had friends in Henderson. We [met] for drinks, and the next thing you know, I had their business."

And that sort of business is invaluable for an entrepreneur with a startup operation. Ros-selli estimates that 5 percent of his franchise location's initial business came from previous professional contacts, which might not seem like a lot at a glance. But in his case, it was the catalyst for turning his new venture into a $2 million company in just two years.

"To succeed, you have to work your contacts," Rosselli says. "Business is all about relationships and networking, and people really do love to help each other, especially when it doesn't cost them anything!"

Eileen Figure Sandlin is an award-winning freelance writer and author who writes on business topics.

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This article was originally published in the February 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: It's Who You Know.

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