How do I find people who can guide me through the startup process?

Gregg Fairbrothers:  People who can help you are more plentiful than you think, and more willing than you would guess.  The best way is through networks—who you know and who they know. You’d be surprised how many people will help you if you just ask.

  1.  Unless you want to learn everything for yourself the hard way (remember, 85% doing and making mistakes), building a network of relationships should be a high priority for you. Lots of good contacts and advisors are not just a good resource for navigating your entrepreneurial experience; good ones help you navigate life, period.
  2.  Advice and guidance can’t be better than the character of the people you deal with. What’s good character? If you aren’t confident you know, that’s a good thing to stop and figure out. And then decide how you will tell who has it and who doesn’t. It’s never easy, and you never will get them all right, but it’s awfully important to give it your best try.
  3. The best paths to people who are qualified and motivated to help you are through people you already know. You know more people than you think, and they know many people as well. Everyone is tied to some kind of affinity group, whether through schools, workplace, clubs, churches, even events. With tools like LinkedIn, Google, and Facebook, it’s easier than ever to find your way to people who can help you through the people you already know.
  4. It’s surprising how many experienced people will help someone out with advice, even contacts and access to resources, only because they are asked (nicely). Note: if they don’t, they’ve probably failed the character test. Most people will say they are glad to give someone a hand because when they were coming up in business someone did it for them.
  5. No help or advice can be much better than the questions you ask. Getting the right questions is an experience and judgment thing in itself, but you always should try your best to do this right. Good advisors often can help you focus you on the right questions—to a point—but you can’t count on it. Think long and hard about what are the important questions.
  6. You should plan to recognize and acknowledge help when you get it. “Thank you” is a good start. You would be amazed how often people get the help and forget to even follow up with a sincere “thank you.” If you get enough help, formalizing relationships into an advisor role or even more (director, investor, partner, employee) is wise.
Linda Tomb (Founder, LT Coaching & Consulting, LLC): Building your network is one of the smartest things you can do when launching your business. No one has time to reinvent the wheel so utilize the experience and connections of others as much as possible.
  1. You may think you don’t have a network, but you do.  Start with those you know – alumni associations, neighbors, church community, etc. Be a walking advertisement for your idea and the right people will show up to help.
  2.  Be clear with people regarding exactly what you’re looking for (is it encouragement, good hires, business plan development, cash)? They can’t help you or introduce you around unless they know what you need. In my role as the DEN CT President, I can more easily and quickly connect people to one another when I know what the need is.
  3.  Remember, people like to help, so give them an opportunity to do so. Not asking deprives them of contributing to your success.
  4.  Note of caution: If you run up against those who are not excited for you about your idea, move on. Not everyone is thrilled when hearing someone else’s dream being put into motion. It reminds them of all their dreams that are collecting dust.

Rainey Hoffman (Vice President-Counsel, The Carlyle Group):  The New Yorker recently did a profile of Facebook C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg, and how her relationship with Larry Summers helped to advance her career.  Larry Summers was Sandberg’s thesis advisor at Harvard.  But finding a sponsor or mentor is not about trying to hitch yourself to a powerful business or political figure.  Most people have a keen sense of when they are being used merely for social or organizational climbing.  Instead, you want to create a virtuous cycle in which friendship and career are interconnected, and the energy from the interaction benefits both mentor and mentee.  Sponsors, especially those that are in senior management roles or retired, enjoy hooking into the energy and passion of youth, and learning how the next generation is thinking about the world.  One of your value adds is to be the connection to the next generation of business talent.

In a recent profile of Ted Leonsis, Internet pioneer, former vice chairman of AOL, currently head of Washington Sports and Entertainment, he emphasized the importance of being happy for success:  “You can be successful and not be happy — just watch the news every night. . . . But if you are happy, you are more likely to be successful.”  He went on to outline what he calls “the science behind happiness”.  One key trait, according to Leonsis, is to be an active participant in multiple communities of interest.  In other words, find outlets outside of work in which you have a passion.  (Another key trait:  always be in pursuit of a higher calling.)

If you are happy and confident, you will naturally attract talent, friends, mentors, investors.  Especially for entrepreneurs, building a strong “inner game” will have direct and positive consequences for your business ventures.  A natural corollary to this line of thought is to align your motivations with your values.  If your principal motivation behind being an entrepreneur is to get rich and retire, you have stacked the deck against you.  Randy Komisar, a partner at esteemed VC firm Kleiner Perkins, wrote a book called The Monk and the Riddle, which is essential reading for entrepreneurs.  He discusses aligning your values with your work, what social psychologists call living a fully “congruent” life.  In the book, you can hear the strong influence of Zen Buddhism on Komisar’s thoughts.  He asks what kind of business would you want to do for the rest of your life.  (Don’t confuse this with advocating running a “lifestyle” business.)  If you choose a line of work where the journey is the reward, you have dramatically increased your chances of success.

Study sales and marketing technique.   They have direct application to starting a business (selling your ideas to investors, attracting engineers to work for a thinly capitalized enterprise) and human dynamics (when you are networking, you are essentially “selling” yourself).  The style is a bit old school, but Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is a masterwork of how to create positive human interactions.  You will increase your odds of getting helpful advice if you start an interaction with a genuine smile and a compliment.  In general, people are flattered if you seek their advice.

You should also be ready to field questions about yourself and your business ideas.  One of the most effective ways is through stories that have innate human interest.  For example, tell the story behind how you got the idea and why you are passionate about it.  You should also be intuitive with the basic numbers behind your business (size of market, margins, etc.).

Be in the habit of writing thank you notes.  Writing a note longhand and sending it in the mail is old school, but it often has more impact than an email.  But at the very least, send a thank you email.  And if you personalize the note and reference the conversation, it will be more effective.

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