When I started networking on behalf of Virgin Music -- meeting with agents, persuading musicians to sign with us, finding distributors -- it often involved swapping phone numbers scrawled on napkins. It was the '70s, after all!
These days it's much easier to connect with people who can help you launch and grow your business. Just think: LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+ and Twitter all provide opportunities for you to meet and interact with fellow entrepreneurs, experts in the field and innovative newcomers. However you go about making connections, from the very first moment you begin to realize that your idea is worth pursuing, the first step on the road to success is building a network.
To get started, attend industry events and meet key players; join regional business associations and start learning about local market conditions. Also remember that you can meet potential mentors at schools, clubs and business groups. Someday, when you get stuck or when something goes wrong, these contacts will be the people you'll turn to for help. (Finding investors is a step that follows: People buy from people, so if you're limited in terms of who you can access, talk to and sell to, well, you probably won't get very far.)
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Launching a startup is tough and scary, so it is important that as you build your network, you look for smart, supportive partners and employees who understand and share your goals for the business. When I started Student magazine as a teenager, I worked with a small group of other students. Their tireless support and our camaraderie was invaluable as we got the magazine going. Some of us continued to work together for decades, and I count these people among my closest friends. My parents were also very important to that project (Yes, your family is part of your network too -- don't underestimate their ability to help you), and without their backing we probably would not have succeeded.
Finally, you're also going to need a network of peers, so don't be wary of making friends with your competition. When you see other people achieving similar goals, you will be reminded that your own plans and dreams are possible. And if you are feeling daunted by a task, there's no better encouragement than learning that somebody else has already achieved something similar. In my experience, moments like those have been the tipping point for many a new business venture, and there's nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition!
Almost 50 years after the launch of Student, the team at Virgin Media started up the Pioneers program with the goal of helping young entrepreneurs to create their own networks. As operators of and investors in many businesses, our group also wanted to understand how the digital generation would go about it -- whether or not tech-savvy young entrepreneurs could use social networks to unlock valuable business connections. So Virgin Media decided to partner with them to create a fun social platform showcasing their ideas.
Virgin Media Pioneers started with 100 people in March 2010. We gave each of them a laptop, a flip camera, a broadband connection and some space on our website to use as they wished. Without our prompting, the Pioneers started connecting, sharing their ideas about their businesses and making them happen in ways they probably would have never considered before.
Jammin Designs started up when Pioneers Dowa Ojarikre and Nathaniel Peat met at one of our events and decided to combine their talents, working together on designing smartphone and iPad cases celebrating the Jamaican Olympic team. They managed to get their wares stocked in outlets near London's Olympic Park and also in Jamaica House, the center of all activity for those cheering on the Jamaican team during this summer's Olympic Games.
The Pioneers community has now grown to more than 3,000 people and it is attracting many more who want to connect and discover new ways of doing business. We are using the site to help entrepreneurs, no matter what stage they're at. For those who are kicking around ideas or who dream about opening a business someday, we're providing inspiration; for those trying to expand their businesses, we provide information and resources to help them get ahead. Last year, Virgin Media also invited some Pioneers to pitch their ideas as part of our Innovation Challenge, a number of which are now being considered for development.
Related: Richard Branson on Thinking Big
Once you're a successful business leader, it's time to start championing undiscovered talent yourself. I get a real sense of pleasure from seeing talented people realize their ambitions and grow professionally and personally. As I've learned, in the process you can gain new insights and discover fresh approaches to doing business by simply discussing how things work. After all, continuing to network means continuing to grow.