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How Early-Stage Entrepreneurs Can Create Meaningful Relationships: Six Steps


Stephanie Coughlan, Founder of Image Intelligence

When I left a mass media company to start my first business, which I sold after 17 years, I was very naive. I had no idea that running a business and making money were two different critical tasks that were required to be successful.

My business partner and I worked out of my basement and only got paid when one of our deals was signed. We were commission-based and had a staff of three, health insurance to pay, office rent and salaries for each employee. My partner and I made no money in our first year, and we had no health insurance for ourselves, no tech department and no human resources team. We lived hand to mouth, making nothing and paying one employee by borrowing money. 

At the time we started the business, there was no such thing as social media or LinkedIn. My entire strategy depended on my relationships from the previous 14 years. I borrowed money from friends, and I relied on my ability to gather information from every prospective client. I also had asked every business colleague I encountered, at the start of every conversation, “How can I help you?”

Finding ways of truly connecting with people is more important than ever today. I believe many people are craving human interaction after experiencing the loneliness and isolation created by the pandemic. Today, this is a true opportunity for every entrepreneur. 

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What is the difference between a “contact” and a “relationship?” 

A contact is someone who might accept your LinkedIn invitation, while a relationship is someone you can tap for advice, support and help. They are also someone you can support, advise and connect to others. A relationship is less transactional and more meaningful. The following points describe how I have made meaningful relationships throughout my more than 25-year career—and how you can do the same.

1. Develop a constellation of connections (not a static network).

These connections are overlapping friends, colleagues and contacts who have a meaningful impact when threaded together thoughtfully; they can help you achieve goals like fundraising. Every single person in your “constellation of connections” is worthy of connection, compassion, depth and care. They add breadth and vitality to your network and your community. Commit to being a better connector by starting with small gestures that show you care and are a valuable resource. Send an article that might interest someone, send a post or congratulate someone on a promotion or a birthday. 

2. Research your contacts and find out how you can help them. 

Reflect on your business goals and values to determine both who you can help and who can help you grow. Determine how you can expand your community beyond those who look and act like you and gather as much information about your new contacts as possible from every angle and source. Make helping them one of your mantras. Find out what boards they sit on, if they have a family or if they volunteer their time outside of work. Find a shared passion or goal, and use it or a common interest you discovered so the new contact has a reason to remember you.   

You can also make yourself useful to your new contact by taking notes during an initial call and following up as quickly as possible. This will create trust, therefore, making you reliable and dependable. 

Another way of standing out and being helpful is to figure out your new contact’s chief differentiation factor or the secret sauce that makes them unique. In my experience, if you can reflect on your contact’s special qualities in a way they can clearly see, they will be forever grateful, and the door will be open to you always. By finding out how you can help others, rather than thinking about what you can get out of the connection, you will establish genuine interest and trust. This is the root of a genuine relationship.

3. Show some vulnerability.

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Self-disclosure and affection require vulnerability and can help move a relationship along. If you can open up a little bit in the workplace, when you meet new people, you will notice how fast your connections grow. I find that others will warm up to you and your ideas sooner. 

4. Use small talk.

Use small talk to break the ice with someone new. In my experience, this is the safest place to start a conversation with a new connection. 

5. Really listen.

Don’t half listen. You will miss key insights about a person, their business or a basic tidbit about someone’s personal life. Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand; we listen with the intent to answer. But when you are really listening to a conversation, collaboration happens organically. Make it your goal to learn three new things about a potential new relationship before walking away from the conversation.

6. Ask questions.

Asking someone, “How can I help?” and other meaningful questions can help you learn about their hopes and dreams, and it will give you the chance to connect on a deeper level and truly determine how you can best help them reach their goals. 

It doesn’t cost money to ask for help and advice from your network. As I learned from my friend and colleague, you need to learn how to foster your network so your business can succeed.


Forbes Business Council is the foremost growth and networking organization for business owners and leaders. Do I qualify?

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