As any entrepreneur will tell you, there are few things in the world of business that are more valuable than a great network. After all, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. And when it comes time to start a new enterprise, expand a company, raise funds or even find a co-founder, you’ll be relying on the value of your network to help you accomplish these milestones. Here are three steps to make sure you have the strongest network possible:
1. Make yourself uncomfortable.
No, I do not mean wear a wool sweater in Phoenix in August. I mean put yourself out there. Unless you are one of those rare people who can meet a random stranger on the street, strike up a conversation and get a stranger’s life story within 30 seconds of meeting them, approaching someone you have never met before can be nerve-racking.
But if you want to build a great network, you have to do it — a lot. The more you do it, the better you will get. Make it your goal to get people talking about themselves, while genuinely listening to what they are saying. If you fake it, they will recognize it and you will have burned a potential valuable connection. Dale Carnegie’s classic “How To Win Friends and Influence People” is an incredible resource built largely on this idea. If you haven’t read it already, I highly suggest you do. Twice.
Next time you meet someone new, smile, introduce yourself and ask a simple question; i.e. “Where are you from?” Proceed with small follow-up questions. You will find them talking at length and naturally warming up to you. It’s basic, but it works.
2. Build your network before you need it.
Far too often, aspiring entrepreneurs get to a point in their business when they need advice but have no clue who to go to for direction. I call this the I-wouldn’t-even-know-where-to-start dilemma. It is the result of one simple fact: they do not have a network.
You have to put in the necessary time to build genuine relationships with the right people. Successful people are always connected to other successful people. Join local business networking groups or venture associations (i.e. Los Angeles Venture Association, LAVA) and immerse yourself in rooms full of them. You want to be a millionaire? Surround yourself with millionaires. You want to be a drug addict? Surround yourself with drug addicts. This might sound ridiculous, but it’s absolutely true.
On a related but important note, do not go to someone you have recently met and start asking for favors. It will appear that you’re trying to take advantage of them and they will pick up on it. Invest the time to build real relationships, and thus, your network.
3. Follow up, every time.
You know that person who says they are going to do something, then doesn’t? You do not want to be that person. In fact, you want to be the opposite of that person.
When you meet someone, even if you do not think they can help you directly, ask if you can keep in touch. Send a simple follow-up email the next day saying that it was nice to meet them and that you look forward to staying in touch. Finally, stay in touch.
Just because you don’t think they might fit your idea of an important connection does not mean they don’t know 10 other people who are perfect for what you may try to accomplish in the next month or year.
This last point is what a great network is all about. Networking is not just about the people with whom you are directly connected; it is about getting those people to tap into their networks on your behalf when you need it most.