Much of the startup world relies on personal connections. But how do you bootstrap a personal network (and your credibility as a founder) without already having it?
Four suggestions that have worked well for me:
Plant a flag. I met my most recent co-founder because he found one of my hobby projects which showed I cared enough about the space (education) to have built and shipped something. Later, while we were doing our early customer development meetings, we were able to point back to that hobby project as evidence of our activity and ability. Instead of starting from scratch, we were building on top of previous lessons learned.
Build an advisory (or non-exec) board. You’d be amazed at the quality of people who will join the team as an official advisor if you get them excited and ask. Being able to reference these experts does wonders for your credibility and a whole new world of connections will open up to you. You can find advisors everywhere — whenever you get along with someone who is able and willing to be helpful, they’re a potential advisor. Even if they decline your offer, they’ll be happy to have been asked. A “typical” deal (with the caveat that every situation is super-unique) is somewhere between 0.25% and 2.0% equity (vested with full acceleration on exit) in return for some combination of their name, insight, and introductions.
Embrace your peers. Startups advance at unpredictable speeds. The guys who are at the same stage as you today may well be ahead tomorrow. Help everone you can, learn from them, spend time with them, and plant the seeds that will allow you all to benefit from each other’s growth. In London we do a startup burger night each week. We have founder & VC poker games. We do small braintrust or mastermind groups where half a dozen founders meet every other week and sanity check each other. It’s fun, you meet great people, and paying it forward always ends up being a good move.
Tank a startup. The truth is, right out of graduation, you’re simply not going to have access to the same people and reputation that enabled the colour founders to raise $40mm before launching. But not every idea requires that sort of capital. Problem-centric ideas which sell to small businesses are much less connection-dependent than consumer sites with network effects. Some ideas require less social capital (since they rely on neither funding nor big partnerships, both of which depend on who you know). Tackle one of the more accessible ideas first, and regardless of whether it fails or succeeds, you’ll find yourself with far more connections afterwards.