The email popped up in my inbox on Monday at 9pm: “Greetings from Cindy” it said, from a Cindy I didn’t recognize (name changed). I almost sent it to spam, but clicked just in case, and then immediately groaned to myself. It was a prospective student who had found me on LinkedIn and wanted to learn about my business school experience – and she was in a time zone 13 hours ahead of me.
We’ve all been there. Despite our desire to be helpful and kind individuals, following through can be difficult. You’re already juggling a thousand responsibilities at work and home, and the last thing you have time and energy for is a stranger. Yet strangers – sometimes loosely connected, sometimes not – are precisely the people who might bring the biggest boost to your personal life and business, and therefore the people you should be helping.
Call it karma, psychology, or plain business savvy – all the evidence points to the fact that humans are naturally inclined to reciprocate positive actions. In my own experience with entrepreneurship, founders at all stages have displayed great generosity in giving advice, sharing resources, or simply being a sympathetic ear. I consistently walk away from my exchanges with other founders with a new idea, fresh energy about the work I’m pursuing, and relief that I’m not alone or crazy.
A robust professional network is full of these “weak ties”: 1st and 2nd degree connections that I don’t have a close relationship with, but whom I wish well and support with my actions. People who are weak ties act as bridges to people and information that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise. They lead to introductions, job opportunities, and partnerships more effectively and frequently than strong ties like your close friends and family.
Entrepreneurs and freelancers should be actively investing time in fostering weak ties, by asking what you can do to help strangers. Through my extended founder and alumni networks, every week I’m receiving, reciprocating, or paying forward generosity, which ultimately provides me a critical support base from which I can build my own business.
So that Monday, with just the smallest tinge of reluctance, I set up a Skype call with Cindy at 6pm my time, 9am her time. Not surprisingly, she turned out to be awesome: she was smart, friendly, and a go-getter carving out her own career path. We bonded genuinely about the overlap in our professional backgrounds and motivations for business school, and at the end of one hour I offered to read over her personal statement. I hung up happy to have made a new connection that I could be useful to, and that might eventually come in handy in the future.