Everyone’s heard the cliché that you’re the average of the five people you see most. While I haven’t come across any scientific proof of this, common sense says that if you spend time around successful people, you’ll learn some valuable things from them. “The people you associate with definitely determine your level of expectations of yourself,” says Jimmy Hendricks, co-founder and CEO of DealCurrent, a San Diego-based company that makes software for daily deal sites.
How do you meet the kind of entrepreneurs, investors and mentors who will inspire you to raise your game? You’ve got to make the most of the time you put into networking. Here are some ideas on where to spend some time building your brain trust.
Join your local tech Meetup
“I think it’s generally useful for any major city,” says Brad Feld, a serial entrepreneur and investor who is co-founder and managing director of the Boulder, Colorado venture capital firm the Foundry Group. “The Boulder [New] Tech Meetup has become very large—about 500 people a month. The New York one is about 800 people. That’s the best way to build the network you don’t currently have."
Share some java
In many cities you can make great connections at OpenCoffee Clubs, first launched in March 2007 to bring together entrepreneurs and investors in local communities. “These are informal gatherings of entrepreneurs, usually every other week—a coffee shop, breakfast-type thing, from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. or 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.,” says Feld. “The networking tends to be very, very good. It’s entrepreneurs that are all close to each other and very inclusive of anyone new who shows up.”
Hit your local campus
Even if you bypassed college or it’s been years since you sat in a lecture hall, don’t ignore the resources available at colleges and universities in your community. Many larger schools will have an entrepreneurship center that is either run by the business school or as a cross-campus effort. Often, they host talks by leading entrepreneurs and investors and offer free workshops to local business owners on topics like sharpening a business plan.
Participate in a business plan competition
Run by business schools, venture capital firms and other entrepreneur-friendly organizations, these contests can be a great place to meet others in the entrepreneurial community, get feedback that will help you improve your business and raise your profile. DealCurrent's Hendricks says his firm enters them as often as possible. “We started early and built our reputation,” he says.
Lounges at airports and hotels
Instead of staying glued to your laptop on business trips, spend a little time in these gathering spots, suggests Eric Sedransk, founder of The Early Birdie, a group discount site for golfers based in Jersey City, N.J. You’re likely to meet other business people who have experienced flight delays and have time on their hands. “If you introduce yourself and hit it off, you may have two hours to solidify that relationship,” he says.
Join a structured entrepreneurship group
If you run a substantial-sized small business, consider joining Entrepreneurs Organization, a worldwide group, advises Feld, who founded two local chapters. “If you are a high-growth entrepreneur, it’s probably the best way to find your peers and actively engage with them in a deep and consistent way,” says Feld. “When I was in my 20s, it was incredibly valuable to me professionally.”
Get on top of LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook
Sedransk says the social media sites have been invaluable for expanding his network in his industry. Even if someone has no time to meet in person, you can still get to know him or her by e-mail or phone, notes Feld. “For many people, `face time’ is not actually that key,’” he says. “There are a lot of people who have developed very significant relationships with me and we’ve never met.”
A final word: No matter where you network, you’ve got to be consistent about showing up to make real connections. Say you like in-person gatherings. “It will probably take you three or four months before you feel like you are part of the community,” says Feld. “It’s important to keep showing up.”
And once you do get there, look for ways you can help the other members, instead of asking for things or selling something. “If you show up with a mentality of giving more than you get, you’ll be welcomed into the community and lots of doors will open for you,” he says.
Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist specializing in entrepreneurship whose work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, BNET, Crain’s New York Business, CBS Moneywatch, Good Housekeeping, Inc., Working Mother and many other publications. A former senior editor of Fortune Small Business magazine and editor of its website, she does editorial consulting for online and print publications.