Ditch The Startup Introduction; Let's go back to Having Guts
The Perils of the Startup Intro
It’s the crutch of every startup founder in Asia, a cultural hold-over from Silicon Valley: when we want to meet someone, we’ll look that person up on social media, and see who we have as a common friend or connection. Then we’ll ask for the most trusted mutual friend or connection to make the introduction to the person we want to meet.Every founder in Asia has been through various parts in relationship: the person asking for the introduction, the person making the connection, or the person being sought after. For the longest time, I also obeyed this tradition. I asked people in my network for introductions to everyone from employees and clients to partners and journalists.
After a while, I noticed that I had met most of them in my local community through these Silicon Valley-style introductions. While I liked having the social validation of a trusted friend’s endorsement, the pool of people within our second-degree network was limited. I was thus limiting the connections I could make by relying only on people I could be introduced to by someone who I already knew.I noticed that this pattern often held true across the local ecosystem. We can be very insular. When we need something, we most often look for it within our ecosystem, toward people we may already know, or can easily meet with a quick introduction. Just as undergraduate students are encouraged to study at another institution for their graduate degree, startup founders must learn from people across different communities. We must be able to reach out to and build relationships with people outside our network.
In the parlance of social network theory, I was relying too much on my strong ties — people I already know, interact with often, and spend time with. By virtue of our closeness, these people were bound to resemble me — we went to the same universities; worked as colleagues at the same companies; belonged to the same industry organisations; or attend the same events and conferences. As connections, there is little we can bring new to the table for one another because we are already raised and immersed in the same business environment.
The Beauty of Weak Ties
I thus sought to cultivate more of what are known as weak ties — people on the periphery of our typical circle, who have a greater chance of bringing new information by virtue of their uniqueness. They were not like me, nor my typical friends or colleagues. I specifically tried to develop weak ties with people abroad — e-commerce entrepreneurs in Singapore or fintech entrepreneurs in Indonesia. These were the kind of people who could bring insights that I could not glean from people who lived in the same bubble as me.This strategy is much more difficult than the traditional introductions that founders usually depend on as a way of life. I had to work up the courage for cold emails, cold calls, and even cold approaches to some of these people at in-person events. This takes the same guts that telemarketers have to muster up on a daily basis, but your results will be much better. Assuming you approach with a positive demeanor (hint: don’t hard-sell), people will generally be receptive to your reaching out. Most will be flattered that you specifically sought them out.
In time, my efforts paid off; I noticed that my knowledge of the tech community became more regional than local. Some of my weak ties eventually led me to clients or channel partners. Still others gave me referrals for people who would eventually become full-time employees, part-timers, or freelancers for us. This diversity became a strength for us because our team hailed from all different sectors and markets, we brought much more experience, knowledge, and domain expertise to the content marketing we did for our partners.
Too often, we rely on seeking people within our own network, even if it’s masked by the illusionary effort of asking for an introduction. We instead must consciously find people on the periphery of our own social networks and those even further removed, as these will be the people who bring us new ideas and information.
They’re the living embodiment of the 80/20 rule: They will bring us a disproportionate amount of strategic benefits relative to what little it took to reach out to them with a hello.