Strong relationships are the secret weapons of any great business. They are what get co-founders to work together with nothing but an idea and pluck. It’s how the first bit of capital comes in without a product to speak of or the whisper of a sale. The first customer is a friend of a friend. And behind every recruitment coup is a warm introduction and every PR blitz are lunches and drinks. These weapons are secret because winning on ingenuity and perseverance make for a better story, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that relationships are what put merit in front of the right audience and separated the victors from the also-rans.
Strong relationships aren’t luck. Creating and maintaining them require ingenuity and perseverance. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point describes how Connectors have a natural predilection for successfully cultivating many relationships. Gladwell offers Roger Horchow as an example, saying he “has an instinctive and natural gift for making social connections.” This gift led to Horchow’s desire to compile a database of 1,600 contacts with details about how they met, including their birthdays and anniversaries so he can send them cards. He did it long before email clients began automatically adding everyone you email to your contacts. Horchow’s natural gift and immense data entry effort led him to meet the Gershwin family and to getting the rights to produce the Broadway hit Crazy For You. He didn’t contrive the situation. The opportunity arose because he created as many strong relationships as he could, generating an enormous amount of potential serendipity.
Many of us have our Crazy For You moments: unexpected referrals, valuable information from unlikely sources, and long time acquaintances who eventually become target customers. However, most of us don’t have the desire or the time to meticulously compile details of all our relationships in a database or come up with charming ways to stay in touch. We’ve probably forgotten more people than we realize we know. In fact, Dunbar’s number suggests our brains can’t handle the cognitive load of maintaining more than roughly 150 strong relationships. But could we with help?
Social networks are the obvious major steps forward in this realm. LinkedIn has become a reliable map of my business network. But, the one to many status update fosters weak ties better than strong bonds. Furthermore, it’s far from the only way I communicate with professional relationships. There’s also email, Twitter, the phone, meetings, notes, and shared files. The histories of our relationships, the details that comprise our shared memories from which we build deeper connections and collaborations, are scattered across many databases. We’re too busy solving problems to organize it ourselves, certainly can’t keep it all in our heads, and it’s more fun to spend the time and energy on creative work. What if it wasn’t on us to compile the databases and remember when and how to reach out to someone? Could we push the limits of Dunbar’s number? Could more of us enjoy the benefits of a Roger Horchow-esque network?