From the December 2005 issue of Entrepreneur

The saying goes that every person on earth is separated from every other person by only six degrees. That means your friend's brother's nephew's wife could know Michael Dell, Donald Trump or Martha Stewart. You could conceivably be only a few networking steps away from someone who could help you get your business off the ground--be it an industry contact, a top lawyer or a state government official. You've heard all about the importance of networking, but what about harvesting your own network to uncover someone who just might be able to get you in touch with a stellar business contact? That's six-degree networking.

Even if you don't think you know someone who can help, you'd be surprised. What about an old schoolmate you send holiday cards to? Who might she know? Or could your softball teammate have a brother in the same industry in which you hope to hang your shingle?

Perhaps the biggest benefit of using the "six degrees of separation" method is that you have an "in" with this new person. Since your friend of a friend is opening the door, you're not exactly a stranger. "The whole key to six degrees is you're coming with a reference; you're not cold calling," says Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time and CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a marketing and sales consulting and training firm in Los Angeles. "You're coming with a warm lead, so to speak."

A Friend of a Friend
A warm lead is exactly how Paul Taylor found someone who could help him get his specialty clothing business off the ground. Taylor, 36, had been working as an arborist and found that his work clothing wasn't as practical for tending trees as he would've liked. He wanted to combine the durability of a canvas work pant with the agility and great fit of a rock-climbing pant--so in 1997, he launched Arborwear LLC from his parents' Cleveland-area home.

Like any entrepreneur excited about a new idea, Taylor was talking about the venture one day with a friend who was also an arborist. This friend happened to have a friend whose sister worked in a New York City fashion enterprise. Taylor called that friend of a friend, who then introduced Taylor to his fashion-industry sister. "I called her, and I ran the whole idea by her. She didn't know anything about chain saws or tree work or arborists, but she said, 'The key to it is that you have a niche, and that's really the only place you can ever hope to get started,'" recalls Taylor. "I wound up going to New York City and meeting [this contact]. She loaned me a cell phone and gave me this list of people to see about fabric."

Taylor's fashion-industry contact was so helpful and encouraging, in fact, that he credits her with helping him launch his business. "She gave me confidence that this was a good idea--and she gave me a push in the right direction," he says.

Sincerity is the key to making the six-degree method of networking work for you, according to experts. If you go to people thinking only about what's in it for you, you'll turn off a lot of potential contacts. "As you approach these individuals, be sure you've clearly defined what you can do for them," says Ferrazzi. "Generosity is the [key] to your success with relationships. Defining what currency you have--what you can do for others-is crucial."

If you can bring something to the table, do it. If you can't, as was the case with Taylor and the fashion-industry contact, display complete humility, and be genuine in your communication with contacts. Says Taylor, "The thing that helped me most was that I never lied, [though] I always tried to sound like I knew what I was talking about. I really found that people bent over backward to help me."

To get started, plumb your expertise, and look for things to offer. Taylor, for instance, was able to barter his tree-removal services with a lawyer he met through another friend--he got legal services to help set up his business, and the lawyer got a problem tree removed from his property. Cultivating contacts has paid off for Taylor, whose $1.5-million business now sells its Arborwear line of specialty climbing and outdoor-work clothing online. The company's line of pants, shirts, T-shirts, belts and hats is also sold through retailers such as REI nationwide.

Coincidental Meeting

The seeds of your six-degree network can grow in the most unlikely places. You might sit next to someone on an airplane, or be chatting with someone as you wait for an elevator, when business kismet strikes--so be sure to bring your game face with you wherever you go. "Every interaction with anybody counts because it reflects on your brand," says Alaina G. Levine, president of Quantum Success Solutions, a Tucson, Arizona, company that provides expertise on topics such as PR, personal branding and marketing.

Kaz Kihara always had his business idea in the back of his head. While working for a CPA firm in the late 1990s, he was attending night school and started chatting with one of his classmates. The two struck up a friendly rapport, and Kihara learned his classmate was the chief information officer for an $80-million company in the medical services industry. In 1999, when Kihara decided to start Premier Data Technology Inc., a Torrance, California, provider of IT services to small and midsize companies, this high-level executive hooked him up with a former colleague--who became one of Kihara's first and largest clients.

Keeping his six-degree network of contacts in mind at all times, Kihara regularly calls his contacts socially--not always with a specific business goal in mind, but to keep those lines of communication open. "While I'm driving in my car, I call my clients, friends, ex-employees, just to see how everything's going," says Kihara, 35.

And just like the experts suggest, he approaches contacts with ways of helping their businesses. Says Kihara, "I try not to do it too aggressively--I usually try to know the person or help that person in their business or personally. How can I help them so that they might want to help me out?"

There's one definite no-no of the six-degree system: Don't be too pushy or aggressive when pursuing your leads. And don't rush a connection too quickly, says Steve Harper, author of The Ripple Effect: Maximizing the Power of Relationships for Your Life and Business. "If person A can get you aligned with person B, but you don't have enough rapport built up with person A, you have a tendency to really burn a bridge," he says. "You [can] make people feel used and seedy in the process [by] leapfrogging them. It's really important to let everybody know that they're individually important in the process--and give the proper credit to person A for opening that door of opportunity." You can do that by following up with a thank you, he notes.

Ever appreciative of his business relationships, Kihara's company grew to a second location in Las Vegas in May thanks to six-degree networking. He is currently establishing and building relationships in Asia with hopes of bringing his services to the Japanese market, which will likely push sales past the 2005 projections of more than $2.4 million.

Proactive Network
Consider the biblical adage "seek, and ye shall find" when it comes to six-degree networking. As Ferrazzi notes, you have to be proactive when employing this approach during startup. First, you must decide exactly what type of startup help you need: Are you looking for someone to help finance your business? A mentor to teach you about your industry? A source of great employees? "Once you identify what you want to achieve, you can specifically target the individuals you need to associate with to achieve [your] goals," says Ferrazzi. "Some are going to be prospective clients, community leaders, influencers, etc."

That kind of preparation is precisely what helped Cindy Page build her Blockhead Bath line of bath and body products. When she launched her company in 2002, she needed help determining her company name in addition to general information about the bath and body industry. A former assistant buyer for Filene's, Page knew a vendor who referred her to a friend who worked in marketing for a large bath and body manufacturer--and she was able to glean a lot of industry knowledge from that contact. "When I talked to that person, I really made sure I had a goal in mind and the kinds of questions I wanted to ask [all prepared]," says Page, 35. "I made sure I did my homework."

Do your homework, and don't be afraid to ask politely for what you need. But, Ferrazzi cautions: "You've got to make sure the intimacy you have with them is commensurate with the request." There's a fine line between being proactive and being aggressive, but experts agree that many people are willing to help if you approach them in a positive, "what can I do for you" kind of way.

It's really just being brave enough to open your mouth about your business. Says Page, "I tapped into every friend, every trusted colleague, every business associate." A friend of a former co-worker, for instance, was organizing a Ronald McDonald House fund-raising event; thanks to that connection, the organizer tapped Blockhead Bath to donate to the silent auction-a social coup and a brand boost. Page was also invited to participate in a sales event at an arts fair in Chicago when a friend of hers, who went to college with the person who ran the fair, put in a good word. The real-life implication of such relationships is clear: Page has seen her company's 2005 sales approach $500,000, and her company currently sells its products online at www.blockheadbath.com and at the Amazon.com Beauty store. Says Page, "People like to do business with people they know, and they like to help people they know-or kind of know."

Six Degrees of Success

It would seem that using your six-degree network of contacts is not only smart for business, it's essential. "It's amazing to think that we are connected to every other person on the planet by only six steps, which means there are unlimited business opportunities out there," says Levine.

And if you've learned anything, it's that this isn't just an easy, one-time gig. It's important to keep your six-degree network thriving as you grow your business. "It's a never-ending process. It isn't just going to events and collecting business cards--it's about finding people you can build something with and cultivate a relationship [with]," says Harper. "It's a lot of hard work to build that trust and rapport, but you'll be rewarded handsomely because you're willing to put the time and effort into it." Cultivating your six-degree network is a deliberate and valuable act, so tend to it as you would a garden, and watch the business opportunities grow.

6 Ways to Start 6-degree Networking Right Now
Ready to build and cultivate your own connections? These six action steps will help you get your six-degree network up and running:

  • 1. Make a list of the 250 people most important to you. Keith Ferrazzi, CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a marketing and sales consulting and training firm in Los Angeles, suggests you consider business leaders, community leaders, friends and family--basically anyone who can help you and to whom you might have something to offer. Start cultivating those relationships.
  • 2. Become a master at relationships. It's not just about picking up the phone; it's about creating long-term connections and developing a real rapport. Ferrazzi says to remember things like your contacts' birthdays and favorite hobbies.
  • 3. Join business and social groups. Start attending meetings, luncheons, mixers, whatever--anything that will build your contact list. "As you grow [your] business, your circle--your network- should grow as well," says Zoe Alexander, networking expert and founder of Divas Who Dine LLC, a women's business networking group in New York City.
  • 4. Assess your attributes. Clearly define what you can bring to the table for all your new contacts. The more you bring to the party, the more willing people will be to help you, Alexander points out.
  • 5. Engage in conversations. No matter where you are, start talking with your seatmate or line buddy. Ask questions about their business or industry and talk a bit about yours, Levine suggests. You'll get ideas, inspiration and, if you're lucky, a really good six-degree contact.
  • 6. Bone up on current events. "Leaders are readers," says Steve Harper, author of The Ripple Effect: Maximizing the Power of Relationships for Your Life and Business. To be relevant to your desired contacts, you've got to stay abreast of news, happenings and the like. Doing so will also give you good conversation-starters for any networking situation.