One of the cofounders of the start-up accelerator TechStars told me recently about an entrepreneur who reached out on Twitter to introduce himself. The two met and talked as a result of that initial contact and the angel eventually backed the new company. I heard a similar story about Ohio entrepreneur Ed Buchholz who sent a pro-Midwest shout-out to Chicago-based VC firm Lightbank's Twitter handle to introduce himself. The firm eventually funded Buchholz.

Twitter is by no means the new shortcut to venture capital, but it can be a valuable networking tool for entrepreneurs. Many quickly write it off as a time-sucking distraction with a nominal and vague pay-off—I did, initially—but Twitter is worth a second look, especially when you're just getting going.

Why it's valuable

The good thing about Twitter is that if someone is mildly interested in what you're all about, they can 'follow' your tweets with a single click. (If your tweets aren't compelling, they can also 'unfollow' you just as quickly.)

You can squeeze Twitter into the corners of your day. I catch up on it when I'm waiting for my daughter to get out of school, when I need a short mid-day break, or while I'm watching Hawaii 5-0. (I tweet from Twitter handle @familiesgo.)

Twitter is also useful for getting up to speed on a sector that's new to you, establishing yourself as an expert on a topic, and networking with a geographically diverse group of people. Because access to most feeds is open it's possible to get the attention of people you might never otherwise have access to.

Follow, Follow, Follow

Because I'm starting a a travel website for parents, I follow people whose tweets are related to family travel and entrepreneurship. They include angel investors and people who are smart on topics like social media and app development. They also include editors of parent magazines, influential parent bloggers, travel writers and publications, hotels and airlines. 

I got started with twitter feeds of interesting bloggers. I searched for tweets with key words like #familytravel and followed the people posting them. From there I would add people who follow the same people I do, or people whose posts I frequently saw other people retweeting.

I usually un-follow people with too many personal tweets. For me, Twitter is primarily a professional network. If you identify yourself as an app developer I want to know what you're reading on Mashable today; not how late you were up with a sick kid last night.

I don't exchange 'follows' just for the sake of doing so. I'll follow you if I think what you have to say is interesting and I expect you to do the same. I follow some 260 people, and at last count 516 people were following me.

How the networking happens

When I retweet other people's travel-related posts I comment on them.  I also respond directly to people's posts, especially if someone poses a question.  This is a great way to bring yourself to someone else's attention and to develop a rapport with them.  Have enough witty or insightful responses to what they're putting out there and they'll want to know what you're about and follow you.  Working Mother magazine, Frommers, Fairmont Hotels and some great travel bloggers—all key influencers in my space—began following me this way.

Almost all my tweets are aimed at parents planning vacations and offer the same kind of information they will ultimately be able to find on my web site: road tripping advice from AAA, deals from hotels and rental car companies, travel apps I like, and my own tips for traveling with kids. Staying on topic is a good way to establish expertise, have your posts retweeted and wind up on other people's lists of Tweeters they like. (I'm on 25 such lists; modest by Twitter standards, but still good exposure). This means my posts are seen by hundreds of people who follow these lists and are more inclined than the general public to be interested in the kinds of tweets I write. This is a good way to pick up followers who are most likely to be engaged in what I'm doing and will click through to my website or be interested in doing business with me.

Turning tweets into relationships

I take Twitter relationships off-line when I really want to cultivate them. I've done this maybe half a dozen times so far and hope to do it more.  For example, when I wanted to learn how travel bloggers work and make money I used Twitter to invite a few who are also in the New York City area for coffee. They responded—and turned out to be enormously helpful—because they either followed me or knew me from my comments on their posts. I've also introduced myself to app developers in Washington and San Francisco. We talked on the phone and emailed, and I hope to work with them down the road.

When I'm ready to approach travel companies for advertising or marketing relationships I'll start with the ones who follow my Twitter feed. They already know who I am and a little of what my website, FamiliesGo!, is all about. That will make getting an audience and selling my idea that much easier.