My daily commute is filled with dozens of routine interactions. There’s a certain comfort to the repetition of my daily walk to the office. Almost like a sitcom, the people I see and hear have become a regular cast of characters in my life.
From our friendly office security guard who remembers everybody’s name, to the barista downstairs who knows just how strong to brew my coffee, this is my community.
It’s also the scientists and entrepreneurs who fill the halls of my organization, the University City Science Center in Philadelphia.
It’s up to you, the entrepreneur, to coalesce and champion your own personal and professional networks. A startup CEO is only as strong as the resources he or she is provided and, early on, commodities can be limited. Leverage what you’ve got. Here’s how:
1. Don’t forget to say thanks.
Say thank you to that helpful angel investor who listened to your pitch — and gave you feedback on how to improve it. Tell your friends and colleagues about the supportive IP attorney who helped you out pro bono.
2. Preserve your social life.
Don’t neglect your social life. It’s especially important for solopreneurs to take time out to network, attend events and meet the people embedded within the community. The random collisions that networking offers often spark collaboration and new ideas. And there’s a certain hum to being part of a thriving innovation ecosystem.
3. Be inquisitive.
Ask questions and learn what really matters to those in the community. As you do so, you may identify challenges you can solve together. Often, your first focus group or product beta testers are right in front of you. When the time is right, your network can act as a base of early adopters and endorsers. It can also serve as a hiring pool. A rite of passage for any rapidly-growing business is when the first community-based hire is made. It’s a sign of true collaboration and emblematic of a larger, healthy environment for economic development.
4. Prepare to give back.
Look beyond the daily grind. As your company begins to find its footing, figure out how you can give back to the wider community. Can you join forces with other startups to volunteer for local causes or organize a food drive? How about mentoring a young person interested in entrepreneurship? Or taking the time to just listen to somebody who might not feel like they fit in?
That was a familiar feeling for me as an Asian-American growing up in Delaware during the 1970s. I’ve never forgotten it, but I have learned from it — and paid it forward. Whenever I felt stuck in my life, I found people who needed me to listen to their disappointment of not belonging, or feeling just plain stuck.
In each case, I tried to listen carefully and help them out. You see, in the questions that I heard from each of them I found the answers to my own impasse in my career. It’s proof positive that “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else,” so said the great Booker T. Washington. That’s the virtuous circle of elevating others: On the quest to put the needs of others first and help people develop and perform to the best of their ability, I found the path to enlighten myself.
In my own experience, this artful, nuanced mentorship is invaluable to some smart kid or young adult who may be overwhelmed by seeming unfairness or can’t see the bountiful opportunities ahead of her or him.
Please share your wisdom with that person and help inspire her or him with your experience. They may not always make the right decision, but it’s important that for better or worse, they take ownership of those decisions. Our role as mentors is to guide, advise, and for me, to help them adopt the Science Center’s adage of “succeeding… or failing, faster and cheaper.” Whether they succeed or not, you would have done a great service to their time and efforts.
Ultimately, the unexpected highs and lows of a company’s lifespan can be navigated with the right support infrastructure. So, take a second look at the nametag in front of you and save a seat on the bus for a new member of the community. The math is simple; these gestures will add up. Relationship capital is the foundation of investment capital. Spend freely — and don’t forget to tip your barista.