I grew up in a family that was not connected to successful people. We didn't have political connections, famous friends or well-established business relationships. My dad spent his career helping families with at-risk kids and most of his contacts were probation officers, principals, parents and high school kids.

Despite this, he made sure to teach me about the value of a strong professional network.

After college I was invited to an event celebrating local leaders. Because of where I lived, this was not an ordinary event. Some of the world's most powerful people (Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and Eric Schmidt to name a few) call Santa Barbara home. While those exceptional people were not in attendance, it was filled with power players and others well within reach.

It was here that I realized that successful people spend time with successful people. And to improve my odds of success, I needed to figure out how to get into those social circles.

1. Find successful people.

I started looking for events where the executives from large local companies were speaking. The first event I found was a small lunch a local CTO was hosting.

After the event, I waited to talk to the speaker. I asked him about his experience, built some rapport and asked for his email address so I could reach out for additional input in the future. A few weeks later we met for coffee. A couple months after that he was an advisor and investor in my fledgling business.

The total cost of entering the power-players' social circle was a $100 lunch ticket and a few cups of coffee.

2. Build the network.

Strong networks aren't built by accident. They take hard work and time to execute.

Some relationships are harder to attain. Most of my network building and fundraising success has not come from public events, but instead by way of lily-padding, which I define as asking one contact to connect me with another.

Every meeting ends with questions like, "Who else should I be talking to about this?" or "Will you introduce me to person X?" or, "I noticed on LinkedIn that you are connected to person Y. Do you know her well enough to facilitate an intro?"

I have used this technique, jumping from one lily pad to another to find investors, advisors, employees, partners and even friends. These relationships would have been unlikely or even impossible if I had remained confined to my existing social circles.

Not everyone is willing to be gracious with their experience or time. When you encounter these people, don't fret. Do what the apostle Matthew suggests, "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet."

The total cost of taking my social circle to the next level was copious cups of coffee and an occasional tea.

3. Flourish.

Now, when I have a problem or need help, I have many experts I can turn to. I have friends and contacts who have built public companies, are go-to-market masters, technology gurus or turn-around pros.

There was a time when my company was struggling. I reached out to my network and was connected to a powerhouse CEO who had been in the same position before. He was more than generous with his time and experience, spent a few days in the office with our team and literally helped us turn everything around.

Keep your focus on what makes you unique.

So if you want to make it big, put yourself in the same social circles as the experts and start building your network today.

And when you are the expert, be generous with your time and your experience and help guide the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Published on: Mar 6, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.