3 Proven Strategies for Growing Your Network Successful bootstrappers never start with nothing -- they start with a network.
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Working with entrepreneurs, I'm often asked, "How do entrepreneurs go from nothing to something?" The journey of an entrepreneur seems to start with only an idea and a heck of a lot of determination, but here's the thing: entrepreneurs never start with "nothing." We all have relationships. We are all part of a network, embedded in a complex system of connections that bridge us to human, social and financial capital. And, while you might not have the network connections you need right now, you can grow your network into a thriving suite of human, social, and financial capital by following in the footsteps of successful entrepreneurs.
Start from networking from where you came from
The question of how entrepreneurs go from nothing to something so intrigued me that I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on the subject. (You can read it here.) It may surprise you to learn that attending lots of startup events and investor pitch days is one of the less useful strategies for entrepreneurs to make connections.
Successful entrepreneurs start with relationships they already have in place, lily pad hopping from point to point, expanding their networks quickly. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, sums it up when he says, "One of the challenges in networking is everybody thinks it's making cold calls to strangers. Actually, it's the people who already have strong trust relationships with you, who know you're dedicated, smart, a team player, who can help you."
Mr. Hoffman isn't the only one who gets the importance of starting from where you come from. Take for example Sydney Alfonso, the founder of Etkie. After graduating from Middlebury College, Sydney came home to New Mexico with a vision of creating economic opportunities for Native American women on reservations. Her first stop was to see a friend who worked at a large jewelry supply outlet. "I asked her who she knew in the Native artist community and she introduced me to one of the best beaders on the Navajo Reservation." From that first artist, Etkie has grown to employ 15 artists. "I'm always talking about my business, getting people interested, telling our story and why it matters. I talked the ear off of a guy sitting next to me on a plane and he ended up introducing me to the head of sustainability for Gap. She became my mentor for several years!"
Help others first
Lewis Howes, the pro-athlete-turned-entrepreneur, and founder of the School of Greatness podcast series, understands the importance of value-added networking. He advises, "One of the most powerful networking practices is to provide immediate value to a new connection. This means the moment you identify a way to help someone, take action."
Great networkers are investing today to be ready for opportunities tomorrow. Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and co-founder of Ellevest, explains the value of giving before receiving further: "My advice for folks on networking is give, give, give. You will later receive. But you are really planting these seeds. Some of them will die, and they won't become anything. Many of them will take many, many years before they pay off for you if at all." Ms. Krawcheck is not alone in her approach: the most successful entrepreneurs I've worked with usually don't expect anything in return. Genuinely interested in the success of others, entrepreneurs generate value in their ecosystem and nurture useful connections. Over the years, the favors often find their way back, giving patient entrepreneurs the help they need when they ask for it.
Make the right Introductions at the right time
One of the best ways entrepreneurs can build their networks is to connect people who might be helpful to one another but move in distinct networks. It's well known that serving as a "broker" in this sense is a characteristic seen commonly among successful entrepreneurs. Yet knowing when to make truly useful introductions can pose more challenging. One founder I interviewed shared this observation: "I used to just make introductions -- like because people shared hobbies or graduated from the same college I thought, oh they would like meeting each other. Now I think about it more -- I ask what problem they are solving and I tell both people what's up, like why I think they should meet each other. I waste people's time less this way, I think." Entrepreneurs use their ever-growing networks thoughtfully, match-making when there is a clear sense of value for both parties, becoming a central, trusted node among networks.
Starting up is a daunting process and can feel impossible at times. The one thing research consistently shows can help put success in your grasp is other people. If networking feels like an amorphous task, filled with rubber chicken dinners and pitch events, focus on the three proven strategies outlined above. Start with your existing connections, do favors for people who have the potential to someday help your business, and make valuable connections for others. Your network will flourish and your startup will, too.