This chapter is a free excerpt from Confessions from an Entrepreneur (Volume 1).

Alana Muller: CEO of Kauffman FastTrac

If I could offer just one bit of advice to any professional—especially to a budding entrepreneur—it would be this: Don’t go it alone.

Here’s the deal: Entrepreneurship can be a lonely business. Often, a lone individual with an idea and the passion for bringing it to fruition starts out in her home office with only a laptop and her own thoughts to keep her company. Maybe she has a business partner—maybe not.

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Alana Muller: CEO of Kauffman FastTrac

If I could offer just one bit of advice to any professional—especially to a budding entrepreneur—it would be this: Don’t go it alone.

Here’s the deal: Entrepreneurship can be a lonely business. Often, a lone individual with an idea and the passion for bringing it to fruition starts out in her home office with only a laptop and her own thoughts to keep her company. Maybe she has a business partner—maybe not.

Enthusiasm for the project is always tempered by the realities of funding needs, of vendor needs and of the need to acquire customers. In fact, the loneliest time can be when she is in the throes of decision-making without the support of others who can provide upfront input and help put an end to second guessing and self-doubt on the back end. It can be scary. However, this flood of emotions can be managed best by acquiring one critical secret weapon—an extensive, supportive, personal/professional network.

To be successful—in any endeavor—you must surround yourself with mentors, advisors, experts, and champions who will prop you up, cheer you on, protect you from the naysayers, provide reality checks along the way, and help keep you focused on your vision.

I discovered this important lesson myself when I prepared to leave my old corporate job in search of a more entrepreneurial path. After a decade with the same firm, I had an extensive network to be sure, but it was filled with professionals exactly like me; all with the same company, all working toward the same product goals. It occurred to me that to achieve my goals, I would need to branch out and build relationships with others who would provide that solid support network that I would need to attain success.

Starting with just five individuals during brief face-to-face meetings over coffee or lunch, I began amassing my network—a broad, diverse network comprised of professionals from a variety of industries, disciplines, geographies and backgrounds. Upon meeting with each of them, I asked who else they would recommend that I connect with—and I did. During the nine months between leaving my corporate job and establishing my own consulting practice, I had 160 meetings and met 200 new people. I still don’t know if that number was a big or small number—but it was my number and it is what served to propel me forward to begin advancing toward the vision I had outlined for myself.

The most effective touch points, I quickly learned, were those for which I had no preset notions or expectations of benefit for myself going into the meeting. Rather, the more selfless I became, the more reward I reaped. The bidirectional nature of my interactions with others not only brought me enormous personal satisfaction, but also came back around bearing gifts in ways that I could never have imagined on my own: First, a major consulting gig—the result of a series of networking meetings with people of whom I has no previous knowledge. Then, my next opportunity came along—consulting for a private foundation that led me to my current position as the president of a company that trains entrepreneurs around the world.

Networking got me a seat at the table of local community organizations that help set the tone and culture of our city—a city that I am now helping to shape. Ah, and respect from a vast and diverse group of professionals from around the world—people in whose lives I have played a meaningful role—the best reward of all.

If you recall nothing else, keep these points in mind:
  • Don’t Go It Alone. Surround yourself with others—partners, peers, mentors, advisers, investors, friends, customers, etc.—who will form the foundation of your world. It is this community—this ecosystem—that will help to ensure your success. Think of others whose skill-sets and experiences differ from your own so that you can leverage one another’s expertise.
  • Set a Goal. Determine how many people you want to connect or reconnect with in any given month. Make a commitment to yourself to achieve that goal. Structure your days and your outreach to ensure success.
  • Start Now. Think of 3-5 people with whom you would like to connect or reconnect and do it! These folks are all around you—at work, in the community through volunteer efforts that you are involved in, the parents of your children’s sports teammates, at your church, synagogue, temple or mosque. Reach out to them. Ask for a few minutes to touch base and to get (re)acquainted. Request referrals to others to whom you should reach out for networking interactions. Offer referrals in return.
  • Add Value. The best networking experiences are those that are bidirectional in nature. Ask every one of your networking contacts what you can do to help them. Your most important connections will reciprocate by discovering what they can do to help you.
  • Network for Life. Networking is all about relationship building. Make it part of your daily routine—establish connections everywhere you go. Remember that networking is not about collecting other people’s business cards. Rather, networking is about getting to know others and determining, over time, how you can add value to one another’s lives.
So where will you start? Maybe you have done so already. Wherever you find yourself in the process of building your relationship base, keep going! Whether new to the networking scene or more seasoned in your efforts, build networking—relationship building—into your DNA. Make it part of who you are and how you want to be perceived by others. Go on—get out there and network, network, NETWORK!

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Alana Muller is an entrepreneur and president of Kauffman FastTrac (fasttrac.org), a global provider of learning curricula that equip aspiring and existing entrepreneurs with the business skills and insights, tools, resources, and networks to start and grow successful firms. Kauffman FastTrac was created by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the largest foundation in the world devoted to entrepreneurship. Alana has a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Chicago, where she was the recipient of the Mike and Karen Herman Fellowship for Women in Entrepreneurship, and an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Smith College. She is author of the book Coffee Lunch Coffee: A Practical Field Guide for Master Networking and related online blog, CoffeeLunchCoffee.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AlanaMuller.
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