The Secrets to Building a Great Startup Network

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When you’re running a startup—especially in the beginning stages—networking isn’t just something you do to bolster business. Networking is your business. It’s the duty of every entrepreneur to network, not only because it’s important to know people but it’s essential to know the right people.

And even that’s not really enough. An extensive professional network is only part of your equation toward startup success. Ultimately it’s the goal of every dedicated entrepreneur to cultivate meaningful relationships that eventually turn into thriving business collaborations.

To get you on the right track, here are some tips to help you build a widespread network of professional contacts, and nurture those connections so that they become friendships with people who’ve got your back.

Before you get started

Make a plan

Every successful business begins with a good business plan, and the same goes for networking. Instead of leaving it to luck, ask yourself some important questions:

  • Who do I need to connect with to grow professionally and as an entrepreneur?
  • What groups, people, or companies would be beneficial to my startup’s future success?
  • Where are the events that I’m likely to meet these people?

Write down your answers, and then use them to prioritize your networking activities for the next several weeks and months. Create a calendar and commit to a timeline for making certain connections happen.

Be selective, but don’t limit your network

Time is your most important resource as a startup owner, so you need to spend it wisely by targeting your efforts toward connections that will help your startup prosper. However, that doesn’t mean you should limit your efforts to connecting to people within your industry. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs have the broadest networks, spanning various occupations, geographies, and industries. Frequently, it’s people completely outside of your immediate sphere who provide you with the most valuable connections or advice, which ultimately propels you onwards and upwards.

Also, always aim high. Don’t miss opportunities because you’re intimidated by people who are much more senior. From time-to-time, you may be rebuffed, ignored, or flatly turned down. However, other times you might find that people really surprise you. Never let the fear of a bruised ego inhibit your progress.

At meetings and events, make yourself memorable

Engage in substantive conversations

Whether you’re at an event or having coffee with someone you’ve been introduced to, aim to make quality connections right from the start. To that end, it’s important to be genuine and honest, actively exuding warmth and energy so that the person you’re engaged with feels that you like them as an individual. Above all, pay attention to what they say to learn something new.

Most people let their minds wander, tuning out of the conversation to think about their to-do list or scanning the room for the next person they’re hoping to meet. Differentiate yourself by being an active listener. That means: 1) demonstrating you’ve heard them by rephrasing some of their important ideas, 2) offering brief encouraging responses (like “yeah, I get that,” or “totally”), and 3) asking follow-up questions.

Approach every interaction seeking to add value

During your conversations, listen for what would be of value to the contact. Perhaps it’s simply your unvarnished, professional opinion. Many people shy away from speaking out because they’re afraid of being disliked or inviting an uncomfortable exchange. However, not only is this is a great way to differentiate yourself, it’s also something that may be very valuable to the person you’re speaking to. It’ll also help set up the expectation of honesty in all future conversations.

Besides honesty, there are numerous other ways to add value. You might offer ideas to help the person’s business, or offer to introduce them to a connection that would help them move their startup forward. Perhaps you’re organizing a conference and can offer them a speaking gig, or you write a blog and can feature them in an interview on your website. Whatever’s going on in your professional world, seek ways to create and reinforce goodwill and trust between you. That way, they’ll always be glad to hear from you.

Stay in touch

Follow through; connect on social media

While it sounds easy, this is where a lot of people drop the ball. After your interactions, do what you said you’d do. If you had a bunch of ideas for people to introduce them to, make sure to make those introductions. If there was an article you mentioned sending over, don’t make the mistake of thinking they’ll forget. Nine out of 10 people will make passing promises during networking conversations and then never follow-up. At that point, the relationship stops and you’ve made an unfavorable impression.

Another way to follow-up is sending an invite on social media like LinkedIn or Twitter. That’s a good idea, but don’t let it become a substitute for taking real engagement seriously. These days it’s easy to build connections, which encourages people to get lazy. Connecting on social media is an excellent way to ensure you don’t lose track of someone who could prove valuable down the road. Just make sure you also keep in touch in more personal ways too.

Limit requests

A good rule of thumb is to give three things and ask for one. So, if you’re looking to make a great impression and create a lasting relationship avoid asking for anything in return early on. When you finally do ask for something, make it short and sweet. Ask for something that won’t take the contact more than 10-15 minutes of their time, like a brief phone interview.

If you’re asking for an introduction to someone in their network, make it easy for them by writing a self-contained email introduction to yourself that includes information about who you are, what you want, and why. That way, they can simply forward it to their connection. People enjoy helping others, but they often don’t have time to invest significant resources.  

To build a great network, play the long game

Oftentimes, people approach networking as transactional. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, aim to build your network just for the sake of growing professionally and sharing information without any expectations. In the long run, making your reputation a priority is worth it. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll build a solid group of people who will be glad to see your name in their inbox. It’s a great feeling to know that they’ll lend a hand when you need it.