I’ve not always been the most publicly visible of business owners, and I often get asked how I’m able to attract clients and run a profitable business without thousands of Instagram followers (I have 376), a huge email list (I’m not even going to tell you how small my list is) or a 50k Facebook custom audience to target.
My answer? While it may feel like we’re all living our lives out loud and publicly these days, there are still some things that happen behind closed doors.
Or, in my case, over personal email and private messages.
The secret is in my network. And if you use the simple system I outline below, you can have the same.
Building a strong, thriving network makes building your business exponentially easier. Problem is, it’s also an unfair advantage: people are either natural networkers or they’re not, and when you’re not a natural networker the building of your network can feel like pulling teeth. I know, because it’s pulling teeth to me.
Fortunately I was schooled in all things network building in business school, and not only did that experience teach me how critical it was, it also broke down a system to use for those of us who are not natural network builders. For me that system has made all the difference, taking me from no network to thriving network.
Here’s how it works.
Step 1 :Your Network
For the purposes of this system, your network is composed of 4 categories:
Friends + Family
Clients + Customers
The first 2 categories in that list are obvious, but the last 2 may not be, so let me explain them.
Strong ties are colleagues, acquaintances and anyone in your network that you’re strongly associated with but is not a friend or family member. I think of them as the people who know what you’re up to 75-90% of the time.
Strong ties are valuable because they know so much about you, and therefore they’re able to help you because they already know what you need help with.
Looking for a job? Your strong ties already know that you’re looking, so they’ve already sent you any leads you have before you’ve asked for them.
And while Strong Ties are incredibly helpful because they’re helping you all of the time, a network built of only Strong Ties becomes weak as soon as your Strong Ties aren’t able to help.
And since there can only be so many Strong Ties in your network (because it takes an effort to maintain them) you will regularly run into times when your Strong Tie network is tapped out.
Think about it: Have you ever needed something like job leads or prospect leads, and when you read over your list of people to ask for help, you felt like it was tapped out before you even asked?
If you’ve felt that way (and most of us have) this is why: your Strong Ties are not only relatively small in number, but they’re also so close to you and (most likely) the rest of your network that they’re likely all in the same circles. So not only have they probably already helped you as much as they could, they’re all able to help in the same way because they all know the same people.
Return to the job search example: Your Strong Ties will bring any leads to you whether you ask or not, but they’re all likely to bring the same leads to you since they’re all from the same circle. And if those leads aren’t the right fit, you’re tapped out and left wondering where to find help.
Enter Weak Ties
Weak Ties are the secret sauce of any great network builder. Weak Ties are the people on the periphery of your network: they’re acquaintances (or acquaintances of acquaintances) and not friends. They (kind of) know who you are (if they don't, they know someone who knows who you are who recently made an introduction) and they don't know what you're doing all of the time.
And this is what makes them valuable: because they don’t know you well, they don’t know what you’re looking for until you ask them.
When your Strong Ties are tapped out, it’s your Weak Ties who can save the day with fresh leads and new ideas. Because your ties are Weak and therefore don’t take as much to maintain, this group also numbers much larger than your Strong Ties, which increases their power because there are simply more of them.
And more ties = more opportunity.
Let me challenge you: Think of the last time you were looking for a job or even a relatively random recommendation or referral. Did you ultimately find what you were looking for from a Strong Tie? Or a Weak One? I know when I look back at the last 2 proper job searches I went through, I ended up finding each of those jobs through an introduction to a Weak Tie who in each case introduced me to my future boss.
Moral of the story? Powerful networks are built of both Strong Ties and Weak Ties.
Interested in learning more about Strong and Weak Ties? (you’d be shocked at the research, I took an entire semester’s class on this in business school). Start here.
Now that you know about Strong and Weak Ties, your next question, I’m sure, is how to build out this type of network. There are many different ways to do this, and I’ll share mine below. Feel free to tweak it to what works for you, or google away and see how others have approached the design and building of their own.
Design Your Network
The first thing you need to do is design your network, that is determine who you want in it. I do this by first thinking of different categories I want, and then making a specific list of people (or types of people) I want to fill each category.
My network is categorized as follows:
I decided to include Mentors as a separate category outside of Strong and Weak ties because I’ve found that finding mentors takes a different mindset than finding Strong and Weak Ties. More on that below, but again brainstorm your own categories, and don’t be afraid to make adjustments in your categories when you find, like I did, that a certain kind of connection you’re looking for requires its own specific type of outreach and nurturing.
I also don’t have Clients + Customers as a network category because I tend to those leads through a sales nurturing system that is separate from my network nurture system. Again, do what’s best for you and your business.
Build Your Network
Now that you know who specifically you want to reach, it’s time to, well, reach them.
This is broken into 2 parts:
I combine both of those stages into a consistent weekly routine that each day has me reaching out to someone for something.
Here’s what it looks like:
Sunday: Get Smart Day.
More on this below in the authentic engagement section.
Monday: Connector Note.
On Mondays I focus on Connections, and I alternate between making a valuable connection between 2 people in my network and asking for a Connection. When I make a valuable connection between 2 people in my network (especially between 2 Weak Ties) I’m strengthening my relationship to those Weak Ties and increasing the odds that they’ll in turn help me. It’s a win/win.
Asking for a Connection is harder and needs to be done with discretion. When I ask for a Connection I’m looking at my list of who I want in my network but isn’t yet (again, either specific person or type of person) and then I’m reaching out to someone in my network (preferably a Strong Tie or a Weak Tie that I’ve recently been in touch with) to ask if they’ll make the introduction. This is still a little awkward for me, but I find when I’m also making Connections for others karma takes care of itself, and this has been very fruitful for me.
Tuesday: Thank You Note.
On Tuesdays I keep it simple and simply find someone (or preferable multiple someone’s) to say thank you to. Tuesday is my favorite day because these are easy and full of gratitude. And keep in mind, simple is fine! People see Thank You day and assume it has to be a big formal thank you. It doesn’t, this is not thanking grandma for a birthday gift. You can thank someone for making you laugh. Or for making you think. Or for doing a favor for you or for someone else in your network. Thank you notes are the easiest way to stay connected with Weak Ties and make your day so much better. I regularly cheat and send Thank You Notes as many days of the week as I can, and I urge you to do the same.
Wednesday: Mentor Note.
While Tuesday is easy, Wednesday is not so easy. This is the day I’m looking to connect with someone I consider to be a mentor. Sometimes this is a note, but other times it’s leaving thoughtful feedback or a great question on their content. Or sharing their content. Or somehow bringing value to a mentor in a way that’ll make them sit up and take notice. This is not sending an email or leaving a note saying ‘wow great point, needed to hear this today’. They’re likely hearing that 50 times a day. Instead, this is having something smart and insightful to share. More on how to pull this off below in Smart Sunday.
Thursday: Weak Tie Note.
On Thursdays I make it a point to connect to a Weak Tie. This is done many ways, it can be commenting on a post, sending a DM in response to a post or dropping an email. It’s a light and easy interaction designed to remind them that you’re around and paying attention.
Friday: Strong Tie Note.
Friday is the same as Thursday but with a Strong Tie instead of a Weak Tie. I know my Strong Ties well so this interaction tends to be more personal than a Weak Tie one, but it’s light and easy nonetheless. It’s saying hi, checking in, cheering them on.
Saturday: Friend Note.
Saturday is easy as well. This one isn’t necessarily all network building, but it’s my way to end the week strong by keeping up connections with friends who are important to me. They may or may not be able to directly help with my business, but I know enough to know that I’m happiest when connected with those most important to me, and when I’m happiest my business does the best, so I make time to connect with friends. Non-negotiable in my book.
Nurture Your Network
(ie how to always have something intelligent to say)
The feedback I always get when sharing this system is ‘yea that’s great, but how do you know what to say to these people? Especially people you don’t know who are ahead of you, like Mentors?”
Welcome to Smart Sunday. I love to read and geek out on all things business, and the people I want as mentors are writing smart things about business, so I set Sunday aside to read. Throughout the week I save emails to a folder marked ‘Smart Sunday’ and on Sunday morning I dig in to emails, articles, Facebook posts, podcasts, whatever I want to catch up on.
That gives me a sense of what people are talking about, and then when the day comes to connect with a mentor or a Weak Tie, I’m thinking about what I read the Sunday before that had me thinking all week. And just like magic I’m ready to respond with depth because it’s been marinating for a few days.
When I first started this system I’d try and scramble on Wednesday mornings trying to find something someone wrote, and then think of an intelligent comment that would get noticed, and it was a disaster. Didn’t work at all. I’d end up with the generic ‘great post!’ that got me nowhere.
I’ve found splitting the time leads to better interaction from me, which leads to more noticing and more connecting from them. And bonus! Having focused time to read the good work that comes out each week means my own work gets better because I have the time to absorb and incorporate it into what I’m doing.
Wondering what I read? Here’s a sample:
Farnam Street Blog: https://fs.blog/
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org
Morning Brew: https://www.morningbrew.com/?kid=7a15ab