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Harvard Business School professor Tom Eisenmann explained in his assessment that the success of a business doesn’t ride on the shoulders of its founders alone. It’s not even entirely dependent on that founder’s main mission or idea. Instead, many stakeholders are often accountable for a startup’s demise.
I’ve seen this ring true time and time again in my own experience as an entrepreneur. I couldn’t have started my business without my network of supportive partners. It comes down to the fact that without people, you’ve got nothing. So if you’re not actively focused on building solid, trusting relationships first, then you’re already headed in the wrong direction.
Of course, developing the right relationships to help your business succeed is no easy task. The people who can help you the most are likely the busiest. Plenty of top performers barely have enough space on their calendar to take a breather between Zoom meetings. They’re protective of their time, and rightly so. If you want their time and attention, you better show them a damn good reason to give it to you.
Even as people are busier than ever, however, there are some upsides to our current working circumstances that make building quality relationships a bit easier. Our new world of primarily virtual connection opens new possibilities. We can connect with anyone anywhere, whereas before we might have put off conversations to have in-person later.
The time to set the groundwork for building solid relationships that will help your business grow into the future is now. These tips helped me along the way:
1. Treat time like currency
The National Bureau of Economic Research reported that the length of the average workday, along with the frequency and number of meetings, has increased since more people started working remotely. The need to be respectful and thoughtful about others’ time is greater than ever, so forget the chitchat when you’re meeting with a mentor or partner. Come prepared with an agenda, have a plan for how to get what you need and be sure to follow up as needed. You want to show the other person that you care about their time and are committed to taking up as little of it as possible to get what you need. You’ll also want to show them it’s not a one-way street by delivering value in return.
At real estate operating company North American Properties, managing partner Mark Toro puts a great strategy into practice to keep meetings as direct and efficient as possible. He ends meetings with the question, Who will do what by when? Make sure your agenda answers these questions by highlighting what you need and when, then summarize it at the end to make the next steps clear.
Of course, even with the best time-focused strategies, your first meetings might not always go how you’d hoped. Some will be misses, and some will require you to keep circling back. You’re unlikely to close anything in one deal, after all. Just remember to be thoughtful in your approach and spend every minute wisely.
2. Offer a value exchange
A relationship that really helped me get my business off the ground was with a connection in Hong Kong. Her name is Irene, and she came out of retirement to help me. She helped expand my network by connecting me with a packaging partner, a manufacturing partner and others. And she mentored me along the way.
With Irene and each new partner she connected me with, I thought about how I could offer them value in return. There’s a commerce element of building strong relationships. It’s about keeping the value wheel spinning for everyone who’s connected to your business. That value can come from multiple dimensions. Of course, I paid my packaging and manufacturing partners, but I also recommended them to friends and colleagues and gave them props on social media.
Research people before you meet with them. Check out their social media accounts to uncover some details. What do they like? What schools did they attend? What do they seem to enjoy or value in life? That information can help you figure out how to give value back to them. For example, I learned that Irene loves to make paper designs, so I asked her if I could share some of her work. Small gestures that show you see someone and value their passions can go a long way toward strengthening relationships. And even when the professional nature of the relationship comes to a close, it’s still nice to circle back later on and check in to show them you care.
3. Get clear on your mission and share it
A McKinsey analysis shows that successful partnerships tend to share a mission and general direction alignment. Essentially, people can’t buy into what you’re doing until you make it very clear to them.
Present your mission to every potential stakeholder from the get-go. Craft a clear and concise elevator speech that describes the why and the what. Include the immediate goal, the longer-term cause or vision and how you’ll make a difference. When you share that with stakeholders, they can make an informed decision about whether to be in or out. And if they’re in, you know it’s because they believe in your mission and are committed to helping you deliver on it. This can circle back to your value exchange as well. Especially in the entrepreneurial world, people find a lot of value in ideas that invigorate them. When people genuinely care about what you’re doing, conversations can be part of that currency.
Remember that successful entrepreneurial journeys are not solo trips. Find people who believe in your mission and want to join the ride, bring value to the table in exchange for their help and show your appreciation every step of the way.