Someone once told me that if someone knew what it took to start a company, they’d never start. As an entrepreneur, you often find yourself in uncharted territory, unsure what the “right” answer is. But here’s the good thing: no matter how innovative or cutting-edge your big idea is, chances are there’s someone out there who’s been-there, done-that. If you were going to climb Kilimanjaro, you’d seek out the smartest people who had been there before—those who could tell you when to go, what to pack, and who to hire as your guide.
The same is true for startups. So how do you build your startup network, even if you’re starting from scratch? Ask yourself these three questions:
What do you need help with now—and in the future? Before you figure out who can be most helpful to you, you need to understand what you need help with. Is there a functional challenge you’re stuck on? For example, maybe you’re a creative, brand-building genius, but you could use guidance on product development or building out your engineering resources. Is there an objective you have no idea how to reach? Maybe a partnership with a Fortune 500 company is what you need to hit your growth targets, and you’re looking for someone with insider know-how of how that big partner operates. Did you just take the jump from passion project to full-time founder and need to find an angel investor who will back you? Start by figuring out what issue you’re trying to solve.
Who are the best people to help you? As you build out your startup network, specificity is key. You can start general (maybe you’re founding a beauty company and want to meet senior leaders from Estée Lauder, Sephora, and Glossier)—but you want to land on actual names. LinkedIn is your best friend here, along with industry news. Read interviews to understand who has the smartest things to say about the areas you’re looking to understand. Figure out which venture investors are the leaders in your space. Find the employees who were responsible for the creations you’re most impressed by (e.g. the head of product development at the company with the products you wish you created).
As you start to ask around—in your own personal and professional circles—an interesting thing will happen: the same names will come up over and over again. When I started LearnVest, everyone told me I should talk to Ann Kaplan, a former partner at Goldman Sachs who shared my passion for financial literacy. When we met, we instantly clicked. She’s not only become a lifelong business partner and mentor, but a dear friend.
How can you get introduced to the “right” people? For anyone you’re interested in meeting, a warm intro is always best. Comb through your social networks to see if you have any mutual connections who can put you in touch with an ideal contact directly. If not, don’t be afraid to send a cold email. Just be sure to make it a thoughtful note, which means: it’s short and to the point, clearly explains why you’re reaching out, and has a clear ask (like a 10-minute phone call). On my podcast, I spoke to Aaron Levie, founder and CEO of the tech company Box, who sent a cold email to Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban. Mark responded, and better yet, he invested in Aaron’s big idea.
Every time you have a networking conversation, one of the most important questions you can ask is, “Who else should I be talking to?” This is an easy and organic way to keep your connections growing—and those people are likely to make thoughtful introductions that set you up for productive conversations.
Conferences and events are great places to network, too. But because tickets can be a huge investment, ask around to understand which ones are the best. While massive events might have a better speaker roster, consider whether you’ll have a chance to introduce yourself to the speakers. Smaller, more intimate events tend to provide better opportunities for real connections. At Inspired Capital, we love to host founder dinners with no more than 10 people—so everyone can truly get to know each other.
Your startup network won’t emerge overnight. But I can attest to the fact that your professional contacts have the potential to become some of the most meaningful in your life. Someone you cold email could become your future Board Member or the C-Suite hire you go on to spend endless hours with, working through the tough stuff.
One final piece of advice? A diverse network is the best network. Look for people of all backgrounds, ages, and locations. Diverse thinkers have been proven to drive better business outcomes, so surround yourself with a true mix of people to build the best possible company.
Originally Appeared on Vogue