Too many entrepreneurs fail because they ignore the resource they have in greatest abundance: their relationships.

Why don’t entrepreneurs go to the people they know to help them achieve their dreams? Some simply don’t appreciate the number and variety of relationships they can access. Others are uncomfortable “asking people for favors.” Entrepreneurs are often fiercely independent and believe they can and must do it alone. These illusive reasons can kill a dream before the journey even begins.

For the first-time entrepreneur, early success rests on a vital and ever-evolving foundation of relationships. Failure to grasp this fact makes failure inevitable. It’s crucial to understand that while friends and family can make a big difference, it is the friends of friends (and the friends of friends of friends!) who have the largest impact.

Contrary to popular notion, most successful entrepreneurs do not just “dive in.” They start by building networks, sometimes even several years before their formal entrepreneurial efforts—and they do so consciously and purposefully.

Building Your Purposeful Network

The networking practiced by the best entrepreneurs I know bears little resemblance to popular notions of after-hours socializing or fortuitous random encounters (although they can help too!). Instead, these people apply a purposeful set of actions that flow directly from the core goals of building a business—what I’ve termed Purposeful Networking™.

Purposeful Networking starts with understanding when, how, why and where to deploy, create and manage your network.

The essence of entrepreneurship is the ability to make something from nothing; to do big things when you lack the formal authority and financial wherewithal to do so. Think back to when you helped get a friend elected or launch a job search. You probably relied on the help of volunteers who were mere acquaintances or even strangers. Odd as it may seem, strangers and acquaintances will always comprise the bulk of your Purposeful Network.

For most of us, our networking efforts are ad hoc at best. The only time we think about networking is when we have an urgent and specific need, such as finding a job. After we accomplished the task, we let the network wither away. Purposeful Networking breaks out of that self-defeating spiral of wasted energy by generating continuous interaction between you and the people in your network.

Most people find “networking” frustrating because the results of the countless meetings, coffees and drinks can be, and often are, unpredictable. Yet that is the point. Purposeful Networking is not about controlling people to achieve your goals. It is about freeing people to help you achieve those goals by giving them the what, why, who and when, while letting them supply the how. It encourages and capitalizes on the inherent complexity of networks, taking full advantage of the positive serendipity and unpredictability inherent in every relationship.

Skills of Purposeful Networking

Networks form partly from forces beyond our control. However, Purposeful Networking gives us the tools to shape our network, achieve our goals and serve the collective interests of the very network we depend on to achieve those goals. In fact, you will find that as you master Purposeful Networking, your network will grow stronger every time it is deployed, resulting in still greater opportunities for you and the members of your network to do more.

Creating your network requires mastery of several skills.

First, you must learn the capability and capacity of your network. Capability reflects the varied skills, backgrounds, geographies and points of view. Capacity is your network’s ability to do real work. The ability to set and align your goals with those of your network is another essential skill. Managing your first contact (first impressions matter a lot more than you might think) and emulating highly connected people (e.g., “Bridgers”) round out the skills for creating your purposeful network.

Managing your network requires a different set of skills.

First, you need to balance efficient and effective communication. You cannot meet face-to-face with everyone, yet e-mail and voice mail are poor substitutes for live contact. Keeping your network motivated and having a strong sense of self-organization are also critical skills. Generating intellectually honest feedback from current and prospective members of your Purposeful Network is another critical skill needed here.

Deploying your network is the business end of Purposeful Networking.

One of the key skills used here is thinking in scenarios, or alternative stories about the future. These help you understand the implications of what you’re asking people to do before you ask them to do it. Another skill needed is the ability to deploy one of several networking strategies. This is akin to tactical planning in the military. Who among the people in my network should I ask for help? What are the best occasions to ask people to help? Where might they be best deployed? Finally, you will need to constantly reassess your network, what it looks like and where it is headed.

Networks are often our best source of ideas and information. They can help us create and shape our own unique personal brand. They provide us with options when our back is against the wall. They can give us the ability to take action at a distance. They even have the power to start, stop or alter important decisions that affect our lives. In fact, our ability to get anything important done in our lives is in proportion to our mastery of Purposeful Networking.

MARK DeSANTIS, Ph.D., spent 15 years in Washington, DC
as a Capitol Hill staffer, White House policy analyst and corporate lobbyist
for a Fortune 100 company, and eight years as an entrepreneur and consultant.
Dr. DeSantis is also an Adjunct Professor at Carnegie Mellon University
and lectures widely on the topic of Purposeful Networking.