When it comes to starting your own business, the first hurdle is often at the very beginning. We talked to experts in entrepreneurship Maëva Tordo and Rand Gerges Yammine on the key to starting out as you mean to go on. The secret? Finding – and building – your community.
Head of Blue Factory ESCP Business School
Rand Gerges Yammine
Assistant Professor Entrepreneurship ESCP Business School
Successfully building a business or freelance career requires a number of ingredients. The right skills, a healthy dose of self-confidence – and a strong community of peers and mentors.
For many entrepreneurs, however, getting their business idea off the ground is only the first step: to truly unlock the keys to success, it’s essential to factor community support into any long-term business plan.
On a concrete level, a strong business network offers significant tangible benefits.
A 2017 US study found that successfully utilising peers and allies was a significant causal factor in ensuring the longevity of a startup, from advice and support with day-to-day tasks to help with investment and growth. On a wider scale, spending time with fellow professionals or industry contacts is likely to change your business trajectory for the better.
Refining ideas, sharing best practices and useful tools, avoiding common pitfalls or even scaling your business into unforeseen territories: taking the time to invest in building strong business relationships is likely to have a hugely positive impact on your business.
But where to begin? And more importantly, what do the experts say?
1. Start with acceptance: you may feel alone sometimes, and that’s totally normal
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that launching your own business is often something of a lonely process. And that’s OK! Maëva Tordo, director of the Blue Factory, ESCP’s European incubator, remarks: “The first thing would be: not considering that being alone is a problem. Entrepreneurship is, by definition, a solo activity. By observing reality, you’ve come to the conclusion that X solution could solve Y situation – something that necessarily involves thinking, initially, by yourself.”
My top three pieces of advice for any entrepreneur: be open to the unexpected, give back to the community without expecting anything in return, and establish yourself as an expert in the field.Gerges Yammine
2. Get to know yourself, and then get out there
The next step? After taking the time to develop your idea on your own, it’s time to share your thoughts with friends and peers – their feedback is often valuable!
ESCP Professor Rand Gerges Yammine comments: “It’s definitely important to put yourself out there. There’s nothing more powerful than being active in the startup ecosystem. A tip I always give to entrepreneurs just starting out in a new ecosystem would be to search for networking events around topics that interest you and where you know you can contribute to the conversations, whether about a new technology or a specific unique skill you have. This ties into my top three pieces of advice for any entrepreneur: be open to the unexpected, give back to the community without expecting anything in return, and establish yourself as an expert in the field.
3. Prioritise quality over quantity
Resist the temptation to add anyone and everyone who seems remotely involved in your industry on LinkedIn.
Rand Gerges Yammine is clear: “Quality over quantity is key. What counts is the quality of the relationship you are building with any stakeholder along your path.”
Maëva Tordo agrees: “An effective community is composed of individuals you can count on, and who can count on you in return, which means each of you is equipped to offer the best possible answer or support. Most of all, a community is composed of individuals who are much more than their individual roles or skills – who are human beings before all else.“
4. Think outside the box, your best ally could come from where you least expect it
For example, on the corporate level, global companies are beginning to recognise the value of encouraging entrepreneurs to engage with their peers. PWC’s successful networking initiative, Startup Bootcamp, aims to place entrepreneurs and freelancers in contact with peers within their industry, facilitating shared knowledge and common best practices.
Even solo entrepreneurs and freelancers are likely to benefit from building a strong community around them: the recent rise of multi-skilled profiles and ‘slasher’ culture has been matched by an increased interest from debuting entrepreneurs in networking events, coworking spaces and digital peer-to-peer initiatives.
5. Don’t be afraid to take matters into your own hands
If you’re not interested in anything that’s happening in your industry, why not take the lead? Rand Gerges Yammine agrees: “Networking events are often hit or miss – it could take hundreds of events to meet one person who could benefit your business – but a great way to help build a community is to create your own! At ESCP, we’ve talked to multiple entrepreneurs who were not necessarily satisfied with the existing events and decided to create their own. It could be something really simple, such as inviting a group of experts around a dinner table with a common discussion theme. You could expand the scope and open it up to the public – for example, by bringing in speakers around your technology or idea.”
Or in the case of Alexandre Bonnetti, founder and CEO of Simplébo, a shared entrepreneurial vision might be the strongest common ground to build from.
As an entrepreneur, paying attention to every encounter equates to taking care of the present and the future at the same time.Maëva Tordo
6. Accept that building a community is a career-long endeavor, and, above all, stay true to yourself along the way
Of course, this doesn’t always translate into guaranteed success. For Maëva Tordo, community is a state of mind: “It’s important to look at things more holistically. Every time you meet or are introduced to someone new, you never know where the relationship may lead. A new friend? A future investor? A potential collaborator? A client or friend of a client? As an entrepreneur, paying attention to every encounter equates to taking care of the present and the future at the same time. It doesn’t mean that you have to be artificially nice to everyone because we never know, it means that you have an opportunity to decide on the relationship you’d like to build. Looking at it from this point of view, a solid community is a world of opportunities and resources that you alternatively give and receive from.”
Great advice for any entrepreneur, without a doubt, and a sentiment echoed by Rand Gerges Yammine: “When you deem others as uninteresting because they do not directly contribute to your immediate goals, not only are you potentially damaging your reputation in a relatively ‘small startup world’, but you are certainly missing the bigger picture. Building a community of support takes time.”
Tordo adds: “Before spreading the word, make sure you have something worth being said! Your community starts with the first person you ever told about what you are building, and then grows with all those that you will meet or who will meet someone you have met. The important thing is to prioritise clear, authentic communication that conveys what you do and how people can participate in it.“