My team and I have grown YEC, an invite-only organization devoted to America's most successful young entrepreneurs, to more than 1,000 members in just three years. Today, our attrition rate remains far below the industry standard, and our growth--we presently have about 15,000 applications--is fueled entirely by warm introductions and community recommendations.
People often ask me how we did it. They mistakenly assume that it’s a numbers game, but YEC’s growth (and low rate of churn) is attributed to the exact opposite principle: That it’s vital to build vetted networks that offer real and tangible value. In other words, if you want to build a business from scratch, you must focus relentlessly on quality, not quantity.
Unfortunately, most people approach their own network- or community-building efforts all wrong. They focus on vanity metrics such as head count and social-media sharing instead of the meaningful relationships and targeted introductions that produce real results.
In the age of social media, social capital is the most valuable form of currency on the market, no matter what kind of business you’re building. Here are five principles we live by at YEC that can help you build a powerful community around your business:
1. Find your core belief.
All networking starts with you--and the core belief that defines the work you do. Once you have that down, prepare to instantly attract like-minded people. At YEC, our core belief is simple: Entrepreneurship is vital to our economy, and empowering the next generation of entrepreneurs benefits us all. This shared belief binds us together and leads to open, frank conversation with every new member I meet, allowing us to move the conversation quickly to other areas.
Define the core mission that sets you apart and talk about it to the people who share your perspective; a shared belief creates trust, which is the building block of a strong professional and personal relationship.
2. Always be asking, ‘How can I help you?’
Don’t go into every conversation thinking, "Is this person valuable to me?” but rather, “How can I be valuable to them?” When you ask someone how you can help, you aren't just building a relationship--you're getting important context and background information about that person, which is vital for unlocking trust and loyalty in the long term. You're also making it clear that you're someone who is willing to help, increasing the chance that they will return the favor later.
Whenever a YEC member needs support, we use our community-management insights to find and introduce them to the entrepreneurs who can benefit them the most. This process is built into our membership offering. As an indirect result, days or even months later, we’ve had these same people come back and introduce us to future members, investors, partners, and even government officials.
When you create value for people, they will remember it--and the long-term benefits far outweigh the time it takes to genuinely help someone.
3. Initiate meaningful introductions.
A big Rolodex is nice for your ego, but knowing people well is what counts. The most masterful networkers aim to make the kinds of concierge-level introductions that lead to business opportunities and long-term relationships, not just an exchange of business cards.
This starts with systems. To ensure the right people are meeting one another through YEC, we use such systems as colored nametags at our in-person events and an online CRM that serves as a repository for important data about the people in our organization.
We’ve found that the important thing is to get to really know the people in your own network so that you're collecting useful information. Ask them questions not just about their businesses but about who they are and what makes them tick. That way, when we make a warm introduction, we know there's both a professional and a personal fit. And by remaining cognizant of each individual’s history, we can make introductions that create value based on where a person is at that moment in time, not six months ago.
4. Seek connections outside your industry.
Networkers who establish relationships beyond their industry are more effective at making connections that matter. Last year, I introduced Ciplex founder Ilya Pozin to Threadless founder Jake Nickell because I believed that Ilya’s new business idea (now OpenMe) was a unique business opportunity--one that could benefit from Jake’s extensive experience in retail and community building. They had never met in person at that point. Today, they’re working together to disrupt the greeting-card industry.
Connecting across industry lines (including to areas you yourself may never be involved in) helps you build a network with more varied social capital within its ranks, minimizing overlap and expanding your network organically in new directions at the same time.
5. Don't let quantity stand in the way of quality.
Industry events, conferences, and tradeshows can be powerful but are too often wastes of time masquerading as high-value networking opportunities. (Think about how many events you’ve gone to that may be well-organized logistically--may even have hundreds or thousands of attendees--but no one provides any context for you to meet or genuinely connect with like-minded people.)
A great event isn't just about getting people in the room. It’s about getting the right people in the room together--and then enabling them to connect in a vetted environment. Case in point: I spoke at a conference recently with a panel of speakers. But the organizers hadn't booked a private event connecting us to each other. Having researched the speakers prior to the event and then spending time listening to and learning about them in person during their panels, I arranged a private get-together at the last minute, personally inviting each speaker and making warm introductions based on what I knew about each of them. Attendees later called it the most meaningful event of the trip.
So when you plan your next event, don’t ask, “How can I throw the biggest event of this week?” Ask, “How do I take a large group and pare it down to the top few?” Elite isn’t a bad word--it means you’ve done your homework and created a curated experience. Plus, the right people will pay more per person for a valuable experience than the masses ever will for a merely good one.