Forget Product-First: A Lesson in the Value of Networking

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A 2010 analysis by the Harvard Business Review revealed that investors placed more money into companies in “which they were connected through an education network…[and] companies within their alumni network that were better investment targets.”

For startup founders who prefer to be heads-down focused on product development, they may be making a mistake by not placing more emphasis on network development. That is: they’re missing out on opportunities to connect with customers, resources and investors to build their business.

Building a Community; Building Your Business

“In my experience, there is no such thing as luck. When building a business, it’s about people, and [startups] forget that,” said Frank Gruber, Tech.Co CEO and author of Startup Mixology.

Similarly, Jenni Blake, author of PIVOT: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One , said building relationships is one of the best assets to growing your business. According to Blake:

“It remains true that meaningful connections with others are one of the biggest business accelerators you have.”

While being a product-first company has led to several successes, there are also many ways through which a product-first approach can be a detriment to a company’s success. A big part of what makes a product successful is the company’s ability to let their audience know their product is needed and fits within their current lives; however, in order to get that message across, you need to create a community of supporters.

“The wise business owner knows that they exist within a community of other people,” said David Klow, a psychotherapist and the owner of Sky Light Counseling Center in Chicago. “No matter how much know how or sweat equity you put into your operation, you will need good, solid relationships to make it thrive. Even if you have a very specialized business, it still involves people on some level. Building trust and crafting relationships early goes a long way towards future success.”

The consequences to focusing too much on your product versus people could be the sound of crickets when the company is ready to launch or find funding and your six-month burn rate is staring you in the face.

“Innovation goes in waves. At times, we are hunkered down in our proverbial garages, tinkering and creating undisturbed by human interaction. Eventually, we’ll want to share our products with a wider audience,” Blake said.

One-to-One VS. One-to-Many

Staying in the networking game may not be completely comfortable for every person or it might feel like a chore. When you come to that realization that it’s time to get out there, Gruber said there are two types of relationships that can help build in their network, one-to-one and one-to-many.

“One-to-ones are the most underserved relationships. These people are potential mentors, peers and new connections. Within these personal conversations, it’s important to listen and learn, be patient and be a good listener; eventually, the opportunity will present itself to ask for help or other connections,” Gruber said.

The one-to-many is where you begin to extend your brand, offer your knowledge to others, become a thought leader in your industry and connect to people on and offline.

To get started, Blake suggests making a list of 15 people broken down to where “five people are in your field that you’d love to reach out to, five peers you can deepen relationships with, and five people in a sideways industry that would be interesting to connect with and exchange ideas.”

Focus on What You Have to Offer to the Community

Klow said that while not everyone is comfortable with networking, focusing on what you have to offer within a community can help you get to know customers and peers, extend your brand and build relationships:

“Keeping your attention on what you have to offer helps counter the distractions of self-consciousness or social discomfort. When it’s your company, you are putting yourself out there on the line. Building a business and forgetting relationships is like building a house without plumbing!”

The key with either type of relationships is that you stay authentic and build a good rapport with everyone. According to Gruber:

“You never know where people will end up. When you are talking with people and making friends, create friends and lasting relationships – not just network at people. As you are building products, focus on the network development and enjoy the journey together.”

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Written by:
Tishin is a technology journalist and correspondent. She has written for TechCrunch, Demand Studios and Fitness, and has regular network segments on local Phoenix affiliate stations. She holds a Master's degree in Clinical and Sport psychology, and has covered many areas of technology ranging from 3D printing and game development to neurotech and funding for over 15 years.
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