It's Who You Know

If you really know how to work your connections, a successful startup is less than 6 degrees away.

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.

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This article was originally published in the December 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: It's Who You Know.

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