Christian Gap Year for Entrepreneurs

Career fairs were a big deal at my university. Twice a year, the ballroom was filled with recruiters from all sorts of companies. Our professors constantly encouraged us to “network," so, my friends and I printed stacks of resumes to hand out to every corporate table we could strike a conversation with.

Networking is the buzzword of any business school. And while I realized there was value to this, there was a disconnect for me. What good did it do me to shake hands with an employee from a dozen fortune 500 companies? I only needed one job, not 20. Plus, 2 years from now, even a week from now, would they really remember my five minute interaction? Probably not.

Hear that I’m not saying you should put all your eggs in one basket when it comes to looking for job opportunities. Strategically building relationships is important and WILL take you far. However, if you are looking for a job out of school, I hope to point out that it doesn’t matter if you create 4 relationships or 50 companies. At the end of the day you’re only looking for one job, and maybe that means you don’t have to speak with every recruiter in your city like many will suggest. On the other hand, if you’re not looking for a job, but you’re planning to start a business, project, or some sort of art portfolio, then networking is part of your lifeblood, but it looks different than the traditional networking they talk about in school.

So, let’s discuss how networking comes into play for us entrepreneurs.

Word of mouth is the "golden goose" of all marketing. Next time you make a purchase, especially a large one, consider how likely are you to be influenced by a recommendation from a friend rather than an instagram ad. This also applies to media like podcasts, news, and music as well. For me personally, most of the music or podcasts I listen to come as recommendations from my friends or co-workers.

Let’s say you’re starting an activewear line for young adults. The first thing you’ll need is customers. Consider your “radius,” or, how many people you can individually reach out to about your new clothing line to get the word out there? After you have the specs for your first product, you might have an “oh-shit” moment. You’re ready to get the word out there. You go to make your first instagram post, send out an e-mail, or text people in your phone about your new clothing line only to wish you had double the friends, advocates, or following that you currently have. You are going to want to have the largest “radius of influence” possible.

Now, say you’re trying to grow your sphere of influence to therefore grow your brand. For the sake of measurement, let's say it takes a total of 4 hours to build a strong enough relationship with someone to get to the point where they have entered your sphere of influence. But, rather than trying to add people to your sphere of influence, what if you focused on gathering select people who were dedicated to your mission. So much so, that they wanted to spread your message, product, or vision? To find and build these types of relationships is a bit more of an investment. in fact, it takes on average at least 10 hours to build. On average, each person you add to your network with this type of relationship has their own radius of 100 people.

So, this begs the question, "should you focus on adding people to simply your sphere of influence, or should you spend more time investing in advocates who can influence on your behalf?" These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, I just want you to consider these buckets that people in your network can fall into. You have limited time and need to strategize accordingly.

Here are some things to keep in mind about these two buckets of people in your network:

  1. The product you are selling will greatly determine whether you should work on gaining invested influencers (people dedicated to your mission and are advocating on your behalf) or 1st degree, direct connections (people in your sphere of influence). If you are self employed as a remodeling contractor, it might be worth it to invest more of your time in building your direct network. You’re probably selling a smaller volume at a higher dollar value and the direct trust will be very important because they are going to need to rely on you to do their work. If you are running a podcast and are looking to go viral, you will have to be dependent on others advocating for you.
  2. You will never find someone else as passionate as you are about your product. Therefore, those who are advocating/influencing on your behalf will never speak with quite the same enthusiasm or spunk as you do. They will also not put in the amount of work that you would. If you are trying to scale/grow quickly and are in need of invested influencers, you have less control over that type of influence because you're passing that responsibility to someone else who's life does not revolved around the product like yours does.
  3. A good product, service, etc will inherently breed more networking connections. If people had a good experience with you and/or your product hopefully they will be expanding your network by telling people about it.
  4. Relationships are like a living organism. If they are not fed, they die. Identify people in your network and create a schedule of how and how frequently you should keep in touch with them. It doesn’t have to be every week, maybe it's every 6 months or every month for people you desire to keep closer to. Regardless, connections fade after so long so continue to look for ways to keep your network close and engaged.
  5. REMINDER: one of the greatest blessings about building businesses/ projects is that it forces you to connect with others, and specifically those you care about. You don’t need to push your business/project every time you talk. In fact, you shouldn’t have that intention at all. Instead, you should focus your time on investing in your friends and caring for them. Your business/project is something thats a part of who you and it will come up in conversation at the right time.

We just spent some time on how to leverage your network in terms of growing your customer base, but it can be terribly helpful in a number of other scenarios as well. Your network can assist in looking for new hires, getting questions answered about your industry, collecting feedback, or finding contractors.

I also want to highlight that you don’t need to limit your network to really important people. Yes, in some circumstances or professions (like politics), you might need to network exclusively with people who have high up positions in society. And, there are ways where a few of those celebrity connections can be useful. However, if we return to our clothing line example, a really good friend who is well connected on her campus might be more beneficial to you than making connections to the governor of your state. Your network includes anyone you know, so don’t count anyone amongst your friends, family, or community out.

For some people, networking comes easy. Do your friends thing you’re crazy for your natural ability to talk to strangers? Are you outgoing and have a big friend group? Do you find yourself always surrounded by people or consider yourself a “social butterfly”? If you answer yes to any of these questions, then my guess is that the networking ingredient comes easy to you. For others of us, it's harder to build new relationships, I also want to break the stigma that you need to be “extroverted” in order to build a network. You can effectively collet friends and build relationships in a one on one setting.

If networking doesn't come easy for you, remember that networking brings exponential growth. Consider time you spend with friends, family, or catching up as an investment to your network if you get nervous that you aren't learning or doing enough.

So, get out there and invest in your friends and find more people that you love and want to build relationships with! Keep a selfless attitude and ask God how you can serve them. Not only will you bring some joy to your life, but you'll build a group of people that see and care about what you're doing!