‘Wasn’t he very lucky that he met that investor.’ or ‘Wasn’t she lucky, the way that customer contacted her out of the blue.’ How often have you heard comments like that about successful business owners? But all too often it’s down to hard work, not luck. Successful business owners work very hard to build robust business networks, networks that provide access to customers, investors, advisors and others who are in a position to support the development of the business.
So what should you do to build your start-up business network?
Sowing the Seeds
First off, set targets. Just three new contacts every week adds up to 150 by the end of the year, that’s 150 people who can support and guide the development of your business. And if every one of those contacts is connected to 150 others, that’s a network of 22,500 that you have access to within just 12 months. That’s powerful.
Start with people you already know. Make a list of school friends, college friends, former work colleagues and members of your extended family. Let them know about your start-up. Tell them what you are doing and that you’d welcome their support.
Take a fresh look at those that you meet in your day-to-day start-up activities. If you are on an incubation programme, you’ll meet fellow entrepreneurs, trainers, mentors, guest speakers, enterprise agency executives, investors and more. We have over 100 contributors to every IGNITE programme. That’s a network in itself!
And get out more. There are a wide range of business events, many with a focus on start-ups, happening every week. From breakfast briefings to daytime conferences to evening talks, there is no excuse not to get to one event every week and no reason not to add at least one new contact to your network from every event.
Cultivating the Crop
It’s really important to follow up immediately. A personal email or text, a request to connect on social media or even an old fashioned hand written note, received shortly after the meeting, makes a big impression.
Maintain a database that records name and contact details with maybe a note on the context of the meeting. There are lots of good Customer Relationship Management packages out there but an excel spreadsheet does the trick just as well, at least at the start.
Look for ways to follow up. The reality is that people help people they know and like, so they must get to know you (and they must like you)! In some cases it might be a follow up meeting over coffee or lunch, in other cases it might be a short chat at the next event. In all cases make a point of putting out regular updates by email or on social media. It’s very important to bring people with you on your start-up journey. Just three or four updates a year is all it takes.
And most important of all, remember that it is not a one way street. Keep an eye out for opportunities to help others. An introduction to a prospective customer, a link to a relevant website, the name of a useful book, a recommendation of a pertinent article are all great ways to develop relationships.
Reaping the Harvest
And when it comes to the request, it’s important to be as specific as possible. ‘Can you introduce me to Joe Bloggs at Acme Venture Capital?’ is a far better ask than ‘Can you introduce me to any VCs that you know?’
Make it as easy as possible for them to act. Providing a business profile and with a short cover note to be forwarded is far more likely to produce a result than if you leave it to your contact to write it.
And it’s always worth asking if they know anybody else who can help.
Finally, don’t forget to thank them for their help and to let them know the outcome. There is nothing that motivates a good business contact more than knowing that you took full advantage of the help they offered. And the more feedback they get, the more likely they are to respond to future requests for help.
And a last word of advice. The Irish start-up community is well connected. Never underestimate how far a reputation, either good or bad, will travel.
Eamon Curtin is Director of the IGNITE Graduate Business Innovation Programme, UCC. http://ignite.ucc.ie