What you know is important, but let's face it, the breaks you need to achieve greater success are often based on who you know. Perhaps it's unfair, and it wreaks of inequality, but referral-based opportunities are more likely to help you get what you want.
Entrepreneurs often ask how to "get a foot in the door." Studies show that if you didn't grow up in an affluent neighborhood, attend a top school, or begin your career at a Fortune 500 company odds are slimmer that you know the people in power. However, with perseverance and confidence, you too can rub elbows with the right people.
Don't underestimate your current list of contacts.
Most of us are more connected than we realize, since it's not only about who you know but also who your connections know. Here are three steps to making your database work for you.
1. Create a very specific ask.
The more targeted your ask the more likely it is to trigger something useful in the minds of your listener. Rather than asking for "anyone who," ask about who they know at a certain company or job position. Treat this exercise as though you are creating a niche, the narrower the better. Others want to help, but they don't want to connect the dots for you. Make it easy for them.
2. Make a list of people you know personally and professionally.
One of my clients came into her session feeling a bit deflated this week. She is ready to seek funding, but where to begin? Mentorship is where to begin. She needed to find someone to answer questions and offer a few words of sage advice. I asked her who she knows who has been funded and may know an investor--someone who may take a few minutes to speak with her. She was surprised when she came up with three names--a great start! When you look through your connections with a specific goal, I trust you'll have a similar experience.
3. If you don't ask, you'll never get an answer, so get brave and reach out.
Reach out to someone you admire, even if they are popular and unlikely to respond. You never know, I've seen this work many times and I do it myself with great results. Ask for ten-minutes of their time to answer one or two questions. This is not about selling, it's about connecting.
Write a book or launch a podcast.
People in high places are almost always willing to share their expertise with an audience. I strongly support the use of a platform like a podcast or interview-style book to break down the network barriers. I had a very popular podcast for seven years and I've been writing for Inc.com for at least nine. These platforms have earned me the privilege of interviewing people from all walks of life. This approach is great for marketing and building meaningful relationships. And, don't worry about how large your audience is. Most people don't ask and there's only one way to grow--just do it.
Go deeper than connecting on LinkedIn.
Recognizing social inequality, LinkedIn has developed a program called the Plus One Pledge. Aside from using smart relationship-building strategies on the social network, these programs may have something to offer you. The intention of Plus One Pledges to encourage others to share their time, talent, or connections with people outside their network who may not have access to the same resources. LinkedIn also offers mentorship and learning opportunities. Dig into these programs to see if one of them is a fit for you. This may put you in direct contact with an influencer who has the connections you seek.
Seek out for high-level programs.
If you're an established entrepreneur there are programs available to support your continued growth. Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program helps entrepreneurs to gain access to education, capital, and business support services. Ernst & Young helps driven entrepreneurs with resources through their Entrepreneur of the Year and Strategic Growth Forum, the largest gathering of entrepreneurs in the U.S.
Join a CEO mastermind or peer advisory group in your area.
These groups aren't always easy to find, and you must be selective, but it's well worth it. Connect with local business owners and ask about the groups they belong to. Or, form a group of fellow business owners whose businesses target the same audience. People will share their connections and, who knows, you may end up sharing opportunities if your skills complement one another.
Get nominated or apply for an award.
A local "Best of" award will bring attention to your business and aid your networking efforts. There are also many national recognition programs to consider, like the Inc. Midwest Fastest Growing Companies and Forbes 40 Under 40. Honorees of such programs have access to powerful networking opportunities.
If any of these suggestions feel out of reach to you it's a worthy goal to work toward them. Meanwhile, there are plenty of opportunities right in your own backyard.