When entrepreneurs ask me for advice, they often want to learn how to find resources to build their first product, grow their customer base, or raise money.
While tactical, how-to tips are certainly important, much of the guidance I offer founders is based on one important lesson that I learned through my own entrepreneurial career and my time at the Harvard Innovation Labs: The more effectively you’re able to build relationships with a diverse group of people, the more successful your business will be.
Sure, most entrepreneurs understand that networking is part of the job. But many founders think they can build their products in relative isolation, and seek outside help only when they absolutely need something. Or, they’re happy to network, but only with like-minded individuals who are working in the same industry or have similar backgrounds.
Entrepreneurs who limit themselves in relationship-building are missing opportunities to meet people who could add immense value to their business. Particularly for first-time entrepreneurs, here are a few types of individuals you should try to connect with:
1. Founders at a similar stage of growth
Getting to know founders who work in a different industry, but are at a similar stage of development, can be extremely helpful for discussing aspects of your business that transcend industries.
For instance, if you recently raised a seed round, you and other founders who were just funded will be making similar decisions about how to hire and build out the appropriate finance and operations structures. You’ll likely find that bouncing ideas off of someone who is facing the same challenges as you to be extremely helpful.
Also, speaking with a founder who is not directly involved in your industry could give you a different perspective on what you’re trying to build, and why it’s important. Throughout my career, I’ve found that entrepreneurs who are not in the weeds of my industry often offer the most valuable insights.
In terms of where to find these communities, joining accelerators, incubators, university entrepreneurship centers, or co-working groups are good places to start.
2. People with completely different backgrounds and interests
I’ve seen countless examples of people with different interests and areas of expertise come together to create something truly innovative. The ideas for these businesses are often the product of people with diverse backgrounds putting themselves in a place where they have the opportunity to meet individuals outside of their industry.
Vaxess, a biotech company working on a technology to stabilize vaccines so they can be stored and shipped to developing countries without refrigeration, was formed by four Harvard students and two Tufts University professors. The students were in grad school for business, chemistry, law, and government. In 2011, they attended a class at Harvard on commercializing science, which was led by the two Tufts professors. This diverse group of people came together to share their ideas, and a startup was born.
If you’re starting a business while attending undergraduate or graduate school, sign up for classes where you have the opportunity to meet people studying different topics. If you’re an entrepreneur who is no longer in university, consider spending some time attending events related to industries or topics that, while not your specialty, genuinely interest you.
3. Entrepreneurs in the same industry, but further along in development
People who have built a business in a similar industry can be extremely helpful in giving advice on the best ways to achieve what you’re trying to accomplish, and how to avoid common mistakes. If they are truly excited about what you’re doing, they might also want to join your team as an advisor or mentor.
Industry peers are also great for asking very detailed questions about what you’re doing, and the impact you’re trying to have. While it’s great to meet people in your industry who generally agree that your company will succeed, you must seek out people who challenge your assumptions, and push you to justify what you’re trying to achieve.