How to think about your network when it comes to startup success

Founders sometimes underestimate how a great network can help them succeed.

In some cases, and in particular with deeply technical Founders with limited business experience, networking might seem like something that ’sales people’ did to gather business cards, travel around the world and enjoy long lunches at the companies expense. Not only is this wrong, but it can be quite damaging if networking opportunities are not considered valuable when assessing various investment and development opportunities.

I quickly learnt that the best way to dispel any resistance to networking, and equally recognise its value, is to first reflect on how networking has already impacted your own life. For example, to perform your own simple network audit

  • Think back about the highs and lows of your life so far
  • How did you get to that high? Was your network involved? Did someone in your network believe in you? Advocate for you? or push you to do something you might not have been able to achieve on your own?
  • How did you get to that low? Could a better network have helped you navigate or avoid that situation? Could a network have helped you learn those hard lessons faster, sooner?
  • How did you meet the most important people in your life? Your best friend, partner,  Co-founder?
  • How did you get that job, first pilot customer or lucky break in your career?
  • How have you given back to your network? Did you ever connect someone to their spouse? dream job? or best friend? How does that make you feel?

My bet is that your network will already be at the heart of several major events in your life (not all, but some). If I look back at some of the highs and lows of my life I can see ‘the hidden hand’ of my network at work.

  • I got my first part-time jobs as a teenager via my network… or more precisely via my mother’s network :) who knew the local pub and cinema owners where I got a chance to interview.
  • I got my first overseas summer job in the states at Nantucket Bank as a J1-visa student via my network. I ended up spending 4 brilliant summers in Nantucket and this led me to launch my first startup in 2001 J1Summer.com … which was a vertical social network for students, employers and landlords to connect and share experiences, jobs and accommodation :)
  • I got my first ‘proper job’ via my network. Thanks to Larry O’Donoghue, who I had interned for at Sun Microsystems, I got introduced to PA Consulting. PA gave me the soft (strategic thinking, presentation, Top Down Thinking, negotiation, facilitation, coaching) and hard (Enterprise sales, Technical Architecture, Product Management, and Software Development) skills along with the confidence I needed to build and sell Datahug.
  • While ironically I founded my next startup Datahug on my own, it’s sole purpose was to make the world a smaller place by discovering the hidden networks in communication data like emails, calendars and phone calls :) I did eventually recruit a co-founder, team and our first 6 figure sales deal for Datahug via my network though :)
  • Like many people, I met my wife via my network. We have 3 great kids and her career brought me to Washington DC, then back to Ireland (where I had time to start Datahug) and then on to Berlin.
  • I was first got introduced to Techstars via my network – thanks Jon Bradford and Brian Daly… where I joined as mentor before eventually becoming an EIR and then Managing Director.
  • I look back at some of the failures and biggest mistakes of my career. And at every point, I can painfully see and feel how my lack of network and mentors in certain areas at crucial moments hampered my success. With hindsight I made some terrible mistakes. Mistakes I’m sure the right network would have helped me avoid or recover from faster.
  • Finally, I get alot of personal satisfaction connecting people in my network to each other. Making the world a smaller, more connected place is how I like to help everyone in my network succeed.

It will therefore come as no surprise that I think networking is one of the greatest force multipliers for helping startups succeed – especially at the early stage.  It is where the magic of serendipity, luck, insight and optimism collide. This is why all startup founders, whether they initially like it or not, need to embrace, plan and invest seriously in how they plan to accelerate and grow their startup’s network.

One last thing; Network = Techstars :)

What first, and still to this day, attracted me to Techstars was how they put their network at the very heart of who they are, what they do and how they measure success. Let me show you 3 real-world examples;

  1. Techstars is the worldwide NETWORK that helps entrepreneurs succeed. Network is in our DNA. It is who we are. It is how we help startups.
  2. Our origins and core product is our ‘mentor driven accelerator’. Our whole acceleration model is built around connecting our Founders to over 100+ mentors with a #GiveFirst mentality in just a few weeks. This is our secret sauce to unlocking acceleration. On their own, Founders would probably need 18-24 months to meet as many experienced and trusted mentors who care about helping them succeed.
  3. ‘Strengthen the Techstars Network’ is my primary OKR as Managing Director when not in program. My performance bonus is directly tied to how well I help build, strengthen and protect the network. Every role today requires networking, but I cannot think of any other organisation, that aligns performance and networking so directly and formally.

Feel free to share this with your network – or let me know what you think via twitter :)

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