what you’re building is probably what inspired you to become an entrepreneur in the first place. But no matter how much people like to attribute success to a radical idea, the fundamental key to survival for any business isn’t its concept, its strategy or even its execution
This isn’t to say that things like development and positioning aren’t important when building a business. They are. But who you know — and who knows you — is the ultimate validation in the startup world. After all, everyone who interacts with your business — investors, customers, clients — they all need to buy into your vision and your ability to execute it first.
Put yourself out there
There is a reason why there are so many networking events for founders. Building a successful network requires putting yourself out there again and again and again. It means reaching out to friends of friends and sending countless cold emails. It means not shying away from taking a seat at any table. This may feel uncomfortable at first, but with every interaction, it becomes easier to make that introduction.
At the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey, this process didn’t come naturally to me either. New to this kind of networking, I started out with a mechanical approach. I created a spreadsheet with all of my contacts and made note of every meeting — and way that I could follow up. While this process initially helped motivate me to continue to reach out, the more I practised and the more I talked to new people the easier it became to find an authentic rhythm with each connection. And that was the real key to making my professional relationships even stronger.
In short, don’t be afraid to tap into the networks that you do have — and don’t be afraid to ask who you should meet next.
One size doesn’t fit all.
That said, it’s not enough to just put yourself out to the world. Meeting someone once doesn’t mean that they’re suddenly a reliable part of your network. But, on the flip side, you need to be sure that the relationships that you continue to put time into are the most valuable for you and your business.
The biggest and most frequent mistake that I see fellow entrepreneurs make is treating their contacts as if they’re all in one bucket. They spend as much time drafting an email to a lead investor as another founder, which is just crazy. Everyone you meet as an entrepreneur doesn’t warrant your same attention — and your strategy for interacting with them and cultivating those relationships shouldn’t be one size fits all.
Segmenting your network
Instead, you should be focusing your attention on the segments of your network that most deserve it. As an entrepreneur, I’ve discovered that there are three main types of people in your network — your advocates, your helpers and the lurkers. And they all deserve different amounts of your time and attention.
The most important segment of your network is made up of your advocates and sponsors. These are the people who are putting their own social capital on the line by making introductions and advocating on your behalf. They could also be putting financial capital on the line by investing money in you and your idea. The main thing is that they are taking on risk to support you and your business. Needless to say, these relationships can be a huge propellor of success and, personally, you should spend about 90 per cent of my networking time managing and deepening these relationships through regular check-ins and updates. This isn’t to say that your advocates and sponsors should be your closest friends. But you should be keeping them up-to-date regularly enough that they’re keeping you in front of mind.
Your helpers are the people who like to give you advice and whose advice you respect in return. They probably won’t do much for you other than that — either because they’re not comfortable doing so or they don’t have the network or capital themselves — but they do provide useful insight. I turn to these helpers to seek advice when needed, but I also make sure that I’m giving back to these relationships. They might not be investing the capital to get you to seed or series A, but the startup community is incredibly strong. There’s no such thing as a one-way street, and you can probably help them put things in perspective as well.
No matter how careful you are with the relationships that you build, the last part of any entrepreneur’s network is made up of lurkers. Lurkers are people that see you hustling, but won’t show up to help. These are the investors that keep blowing you off with no real explanation, the people who you thought were your friends but never come out of the woodwork to support your new endeavours. With these people, you have to be careful. Most of the time, they are dangerous and true sucks of both time and energy. And yet, it’s easy to get caught up with these folks even when we know that we shouldn’t. Instead, I focus on quickly identifying who is a lurker so that I don’t waste my time.