Blake is a co-founder of FoundersBoost, a global pre-accelerator company that helps startups achieve acceleration, investment and revenue.
One element often separates those who struggle in the venture capital and startup space from the success stories—their network.
As the CEO of a program that mentors startup founders, I’ve found that first-time business founders are often under-networked, lacking quality connections and resources to guide and nurture their entrepreneurship path. Despite having an outstanding idea, under-networked founders may struggle to find success without the right connections. To be “under-networked” means that individuals are missing key ties to the venture capital and startup world, either from professional affiliations or from friends, trusted acquaintances with past startups or venture-capital experience. In my experience, under-networked founders are in the majority and are often women, non-white males and/or individuals with little or no college education.
Grow your network.
Connecting under-networked founders to a stronger support network is vital at the early stage of launching as they attempt to launch an idea, product or company. If you’re finding yourself without a strong network as you launch your next venture, you don’t need to go far outside your local community to begin effectively growing your professional network.
Connect with local chambers of commerce, trade associations and small business associations.
Your local chamber of commerce, trade associations and small business associations have a shared key goal: to support the best interests of business owners and organize activities to engage the local community. See what organizations are available to you locally. Chambers of commerce often have boards and committees you can volunteer for, offering additional opportunities to expand your network. Small business associations such as SCORE, the Women’s Business Development Center and the National Federation of Independent Business can be incredible local assets for founders looking to connect with a wider business network.
Attend startup and technology community events.
When it comes to technology and tech startups, innovation is fast, and the speed of change is even swifter. Entrepreneurs must be continuously learning to keep up with latest trends and technologies, and many of them turn to their local community to keep their skills up to date. Your local tech and startup community will likely have many opportunities to share the latest tech, learn together and of course, connect around many relevant topics. No matter where you are, you’ll likely not be far from meetups and conferences on many topics that might be relevant to you, from no-code to marketing SEO to blockchain or fundraising. Networking opportunities at tech community events can be found in many different places, from meetup groups to hackathons, to regular events hosted by local accelerator programs or business angels, or tech conferences. Look for these events online, through platforms such as Meetup and Eventbrite, or through social media networks like LinkedIn and Twitter.
Turn to local maker hubs and co-working spaces.
Local maker hubs ensure equitable access to workspace for local entrepreneurs to help support their endeavors when office space and expensive supplies are not an option at the startup stage. Maker hubs support innovation by providing space to fabricate, create, design and more. Similarly, co-working spaces provide space to execute the business functions of companies on similar journeys. In these creative spaces, you can connect with fellow entrepreneurs who can become your biggest cheerleaders and supporters. Both often host open nights and regular events, which allow anyone to benefit from the local amenities provided by the space, without becoming a member.
Leverage support organizations (such as startup accelerators and more).
Take the time to research organizations that nurture small businesses and spur their growth. (Disclosure: My company helps with this.) Look for organizations with a strong track record in the communities they serve and connect with the individuals who organize and attend them. Be picky, but also sample what is available in your neighborhood. This will ensure you’re spending the time to engage with the organizations that best fit your needs at the moment.
Understand the value of mentorship.
Once you’ve begun to establish yourself within the local business community, finding a mentor is the next step. Actively engage your new networks to find a suitable mentor. Mentorship offers incredible value to early and aspiring business owners, as these veteran entrepreneurs will have a keen insight of all those pain points you’ll experience as a newly-minted startup founder. No question or piece of advice is off limits in a mentor-mentee relationship. The purpose is to grow and understand what it takes to be a founder and business owner.
A good mentor will meet with you regularly, hold you accountable, challenge your ideas, keep you focused and introduce you to vital contacts. Learn from your mentor and absorb their feedback, experiences and knowledge so you can apply it to your business.
Get yourself out there. Actively pursue opportunities that allow you to give back to your local community, and you’ll likely discover that your efforts are reciprocated with support when you need it. As you’re building your network, make an effort to facilitate introductions between new contacts and pay it forward. This is related to the critical “many ask, few give” mentality, where many small business owners only seek help and never offer help. Be value-add with a give-first mentality, and position yourself as founder who genuinely cares about your local community.
Seeking opportunities also means stepping outside your comfort zone on a regular basis. Unless you’ve worked in sales or have an extremely extroverted personality, the idea of cold calls, showing up at events as an unknown and reaching out to fellow business owners spontaneously can be uncomfortable at first. Reach out earnestly, and leverage all your resources—from local happy hours to social media. It won’t take long before you become a natural.
When entering startup world, the best thing you can do for yourself is to establish a strong network and learn from it. Educate yourself through the various resources you discover, ask the uncomfortable questions, learn the correct language of entrepreneurship and put the hard work in. It’s critical that you understand the environment you’re entering so you can grow and thrive, and a strong network will get you there.