You don’t need to look toward the coasts to grow your network.
6 min read
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In today's startup world, it's easy to feel left out if you're not in Boston or New York or Silicon Valley or Seattle. That's where the talent often migrates, where the media spotlight is centered and, most importantly, where the money is: According to a data analysis by Richard Florida and the Martin Prosperity Institute, the vast majority of venture capital money still flows primarily to the startup hubs on the coasts, and very little trickles to the cities in between.
But great amounts of money don't automatically produce great businesses. One of the most recent examples is the high-end tea infuser brand, Teforia, which shut down operations last October after dismal sales. Despite huge venture capitalist investments, this $ 1,000 internet-connected tea-maker never caught on with consumers.
Even still, you may assume your own business is at a disadvantage based on its location. So where does that leave those of us who are growing businesses outside of California or Massachusetts or New York? Luckily, successful founders and CEOs between the coasts can look to their own roots to help them grow.
Building a local network
Every city in America has opportunity, even those in so-called "flyover" states. Seizing that opportunity is what's important. Forget the startup mythology in movies such as The Social Network: Investors hardly ever go begging, no matter how good the business idea is. Investors, partners and vendors are generally secured only when entrepreneurs pick up the phone, type out an email or pound the pavement.
Luckily, there's never been a better time to be an innovator or entrepreneur. Startup ecosystems are developing in nearly every city in America.
In my own city, St. Louis, for example, weekly Venture Café events give our local entrepreneurs a chance to congregate in person. At the University of Missouri-St. Louis, we host programs such as the Ameren Accelerator, which connects a large corporation with customers, students and startups in the area. And in 163 communities around the country, the coffee-themed program 1 Million Cups seeks to "educate, engage and connect entrepreneurs with their communities."
Even cities without dedicated entrepreneur programs have opportunities for creating connections. Visiting your local chamber of commerce is always a good start. Rotary International, which has clubs in nearly every city, has been bringing philanthropically minded business people together since 1905.
Also consider manufacturing associations, marketing associations, luncheons and so on — all happening in even the smallest communities across America.
Forging connections that last
Networking in most cities means entrepreneurs learning from one another. No matter where you are, once you find a networking group or event, the rules for making strong, profitable connections are the same. Here are my top three tips:
1. Comb your hair.
Everyone knows it, but it bears repeating: First impressions matter. They're powerful, and they're formed in less than half a minute, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
When you go out to network, you are the brand. Whether you like it or not, people will judge your business by what you wear and how you carry yourself: A study by Great Business Schools found that 72 percent of people it polled said they were influenced by looks and handshakes when networking. Mark Zuckerberg built his personal brand on the notion of comfort over style, and now he's known for his t-shirts and hoodies; regardless, I'm a firm believer that overdressing will never hurt your image. Don't buy into the idea that outward appearances don't matter. Put some effort into your wardrobe and grooming.
2. Don't let your business card haul go cold.
It's exciting to meet new people at networking events, especially when there's a strong personal connection. But an initial conversation is just like a blueprint — informative but useless on its own. On the other hand, repeated follow-up is like pouring a foundation for a building: It's something solid that a profitable relationship can be built on.
Attending Rotary club meetings and trade shows won't change anything if you don't follow up with the people you meet. Thirty business cards aren’t an impressive haul when they all go cold. Just make sure that you act quickly. In one analysis in the Harvard Business Review, researchers found that people are seven times more likely to forge a strong connection with a lead when they reach out within an hour. You might not always be connecting with potential customers, but it's clear that a proactive approach yields results.
After 25 years with my company, I wanted to give back to my entrepreneurial community, so I reached out to the dean of the UMSL College of Business, Charlie Hoffman. We weren't familiar at the time, so I made an introduction via email and then followed up by phone. I did so because I wanted to show him that I was intentional about catalyzing future entrepreneurs. Thanks to my follow-ups, we formed UMSL Accelerate with the senior leadership team's help.
3. Be a gift to somebody.
If you are looking for great business partners, clients or investors, you must first become a great one yourself. No matter who you are or where you're from, you can be a "gift" to somebody. What this means is that when you're engaging, stop talking about yourself and, instead, understand how you might help that person. Ask questions that go beyond the surface and listen to people's responses. According to studies analyzed in the University of California-Berkeley's Greater Good magazine, curious people connect better with others and ultimately cultivate more meaningful relationships.
Let me illustrate: In March 1988, I walked into an event and didn't know a soul. I told myself: "I'm going to meet five people, and one person is going to become a friend." That summer, I went back and did what's called a Two-Minute Forum and secured an investor through it. Because I focused on forming a relationship rather than just finding someone to fund my business, I gained not only a lifelong friend, but also a happy investor in my company.
It's easy to assume you need to pack up and head for the coasts to forge connections that can help your budding venture grow. But that's a misconception. To create a thriving startup ecosystem, you just have to start watering the seeds that others are already planting in your own community.