You think you want to be an entrepreneur, but you have no idea what to do or how to start. Maybe you are a great leader, good under pressure and able to make difficult decisions with limited information, but you find doing market research and financial projections mind-numbingly boring. Or perhaps you enjoy the numbers, but are clueless about long term strategy or identifying an appropriate target market. Regardless of your specific challenge, one thing is true for all entrepreneurs. You need a support network.
Building your network is crucial, even if you will be a sole proprietor. You will not launch and grow your business by yourself. In my experience coaching entrepreneurs, there are a number of areas where entrepreneurs need support that they will not find in a book, the most obvious being funding sources. But in addition to funding, most entrepreneurs need help from mentors and peers, whether it is for legal advice, accounting support, or market research, just to scratch the surface. And a mentor with an existing network is exponentially more valuable. They may be able to connect you to buyers or distributors, big clients who will be willing to sign a letter of intent, or funding sources that they can provide a recommendation for. And down the road, after you have identified your target market, the most important group you will need to bring into your network are your customers. You will need a personal relationship with your key customers and influencers in your industry to inform the design of your product or service. It all starts with networking.
If you are a first-time entrepreneur and don’t know where to begin, start at Meetup. Attending several different meetup groups is a great way to start growing your entrepreneurial network, and it may not take as long as you think, especially if you are in an area with an existing entrepreneurial ecosystem. If you are in the Ann Arbor area, here are a few to get you started.
Ann Arbor lean startup circle
I have attended this once and plan to attend again in the future. It is a group that focuses on learning, and whether you are a fan of Lean Startup or not, it is a great place to get fresh ideas and inspiration. They have annual dues, but it is affordable at $20.
Ann Arbor Spiritual Entrepreneurs
This is a great discussion group for finding your way as an entrepreneur, especially if you are a spiritual person. The group focus is integrating your spirituality with your business. There have been great discussions about self-limiting beliefs, personal challenges with “selling yourself”, and other ethical and spiritual topics as they relate to running a business.
Ann Arbor Entrepreneurs
This group meets once a month at Conor O’Neill and have recently added monthly discussion topics, including websites and eCommerce, marketing and social media, sales and CRM, and funding your business.
If you are not in the Ann Arbor area, there are Lean Startup groups in several cities worldwide. You can search for your nearest group at the Meetup site or at the Lean Startup Wiki. If you are in an area that doesn’t have a lot of meetups, start your own! I started my own informal meetup group for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers last year. It started small and it’s still small (three at the first meeting and the largest group to date has been five), but everyone who attended has had a great time and some have attended every meeting. You are most likely not the only one who would like to have a group for aspiring entrepreneurs in your area, and some people have even transformed their meetup group into a business!
A note on networking (for those who believe they are not good at it)
When networking, your goal should be to start and foster a real relationship with someone. I know several people who have a negative view of networking and I always tell them they must be doing it wrong. When networking, it often helps to focus on quality over quantity. If you know ahead of time who will be at the event, you can plan two or three key people that you want to speak with. If you do not, go and see if you really hit it off with one or more people. I find it helpful to break away from the crowd and have a one-on-one conversation with someone intriguing. Everyone in my network is a person who inspires me that I consider a friend. It is never about using someone. If networking does not come easy for you, try approaching the relationship from a perspective of giving. What can you offer the person? How can you help? If you do good things for people in your network, they will do good things for you, too.
Most importantly, do not get discouraged if it feels like you are not meeting the right people at first. You may not connect with the first few people you talk with, or even make a connection at the first few events you attend. Give it time. The important relationships are worth your patience. Hope to see you at a meetup!