Entrepreneurship is a paradox. On one hand, being an entrepreneur is incredibly lonely. Not many of us are crazy enough to start a company and, inside the business, you can’t share everything with your team or you’ll scare them off.
On the other hand, after moving to Silicon Valley three years ago, I can also confidently say that being a successful entrepreneur is all about networks. You need networks to do deals with partners, networks to make key hires and networks to raise capital and get critical advice at critical times.
Creating these networks isn’t easy. To pursue my entrepreneurial vision, I moved not just to a new city but to a new country. But even if you’re starting from square one, without any network, you can build a really valuable network to help your startup succeed sooner.
1. Join an accelerator. Accelerators work by giving you advice, mentorship, some investment and, most importantly, an instant network, in return for some equity in your startup.
Accelerators come in lots of shapes and sizes. There’s something out there for everyone. Accelerators have equity in your company, so they are literally invested in your success. Quality accelerators will bring in A-list mentors to advise and train growing company personnel.
Still, there’s always going to be more companies and challenges than there are mentors and time for meeting with them. To get the most out of it, make the effort to connect with mentors and build networks through them. Their ongoing mentorship and initial capital will be a vital component of your company’s growth.
Beyond mentorship, you will also gain privileged access to investors who trust accelerators to accept only the top talent. Because they believe in the program, investors are willing to hear as many ideas as possible on the pitching day that concludes the program.
2. Go to events and talk to other attendees. Silicon Valley and other tech hubs consistently offer networking events. Meetup and Eventbrite are great ways to discover new gatherings in your area of interest. To broaden your connections, go to a mix of general and hyper-specialized gatherings.
Just going to the event, however, is not enough. Be prepared before arrival. Look through the guest list and do some background research. When you recognize a guest at the event, you will more confidently introduce yourself. Simply saying, “I’m glad to meet you because I loved what you did at Company X,” can be a tremendous icebreaker.
The next day, follow-up with any new contacts via a friendly email. No one uses business cards anymore.
3. Seek out people who’ve trodden your path before. When you’ve moved to a new place and need to build a network, look for people with whom you share some history.
When I moved to Silicon Valley, connecting with other Australian entrepreneurs was really helpful. When you cold-request an intro via LinkedIn or email, sharing a common history makes it more likely they’ll read your email and, perhaps, give you a hand. Your request for a coffee or some help will remind them of when they were starting out in a new, unfamiliar place, trying to build a network themselves.
This isn’t just something patriotic. It works just as well with someone from your hometown or who went to your college. It isn’t going to guarantee a positive response from everyone you ask, but your hit-rate is going to be a lot higher.
4. Comment on influential articles and blogs. Internet trolls have made reading online comments a dangerous practice for many writers but the recent trend toward non-anonymous commenting on posts, via Facebook, for example, has made readers more accountable and writers more responsive.
Do not be afraid to engage in intelligent, opinionated discussion on credible online forums. Connecting with a writer is what led to me and my co-founder staying on the TechCrunch couch when we first arrived in San Francisco. We remain friends with TechCrunch founder, Michael Arrington, to this day.
Getting your ideas into print will solidify your voice and begin the slow process of establishing yourself as a thought leader in your field. These comments are great practice for future pitching opportunities. You will establish your voice and grow more aware of other important opinions in your business sphere.
Inspiration and future collaborators, as well as competition, are found everywhere when you pay attention.
5. Just. Say. Yes. This could be the most important one. While I’m not advocating you say “yes” to everything that comes across your path, since that’s a sure way to lose focus and fail, first ask “why not” when an opportunity presents itself
When I’d just moved to the US, I was asked through mutual friends to MC the TechCrunch hackathon. They were in a bind, and while I didn’t have any direct experience, I asked the “why not” question and quickly agreed.
That experience helped me connect with journalists, investors and other people who are now my friends. It is just one example. If an opportunity presents itself, make sure you’re biased to say “yes,” even if it is outside your comfort zone or you can’t see an immediate benefit. Building a network is about building relationships. You’ll never get anywhere saying “no” by default.
Connections are always helpful in business, even more so when you’re building a startup. Creating a quality product is important but understanding your audience, competition and allies will solidify your startup’s presence in a new location.