05/03/2011 01:58 pm ET | Updated Jul 03, 2011

The Secret Weapon of Successful Entrepreneurs

I give the same answer to at least half of the business advice questions that I am asked.

"How should I get the word out about my new service?"

"What's the best way to reach my target market?"

"What conferences are worth attending?"

"How much should I pay my staff?"

"How do I find a good manufacturer ... sales rep ... or cost-effective printer?"

"Ask your network," I reply again and again and again. In my opinion it's the easiest and fastest way to get the best answers to almost any question.

Veteran entrepreneurs usually nod in agreement, mentally scan their network, ask my help in filling any gaps, and then go along their way.

Newer entrepreneurs often give me an uneasy look. Maybe their network isn't that big yet. Or maybe they aren't yet comfortable asking for help. Or maybe they're still hesitant to share behind-the-scenes details on their business. But more often than not, it's the word 'network' that turns them off.

Believe me, I get it. I too was jaded by "traditional" networking, that is before I was an entrepreneur.

The conventional career wisdom when I was growing up was "It's not what you know but who you know that matters." It seemed that no one missed an opportunity to remind youngsters that the most important ingredient for success was a thick Rolodex. While some people were probably relieved to hear this, I was a bit resentful. After all I had spent years working hard to cram my brain full of useful information and my resume full of worthwhile experiences. Instead of being able to freely focus on opportunity, promise and ability, success seemed to hinge on a few arbitrary acquaintances. To me, networking was a necessary and unrewarding evil at best.

Needless to say when I became my own boss, networking wasn't at the top of my to-do list. I warmed to the idea when I recognized that word-of-mouth referrals were the best way to get clients. But, since I was still a newbie, I only saw my network as a sales tool. I quickly learned however that, as an entrepreneur, my network was much more than that. Instead of collecting 'in case I need to know you' connections, my network became my lifeblood, a never-ending source of experience, knowledge, resources, introductions, ideas, advice, feedback and support.

Aside from connecting me to the right clients and opportunities, it is my strong peer relationships that have:

  • prevented me from learning lessons the hard way;
  • shortened my learning curve;
  • given me honest and hard to come by feedback;
  • enabled me to benefit from the first hand experience of others; and
  • provided inspiration and rich ideas.

I can't think of many of my accomplishments where the contributions of my network haven't been significant. For example, my peers were completely instrumental in the book that my partner and I just finished. Here's a short list of things that my network provided us with for this gargantuan task: an agent who quickly sold our book, critical advice from recent authors on important contract points with the publisher, feedback on our approach and framework, a rich pool of interviewees, suggestions on equipment and transcription services, an inside look at various publicity proposals, ideas and inspiration about viral campaigns and generation promotional ideas, introductions to other writers and journalists, as well as support and encouragement.

I was talking recently to a new entrepreneur who was, unsurprisingly, reluctant to ramp up her networking efforts. Fresh from the corporate world, she was tired of the schmoozing and the 'what can you do for me' routine. As I excitedly extolled the importance of peers and colleagues in the journey of entrepreneurship, I caught myself telling her that it's who you know that really matters. The familiar tone of this phrase almost stopped me short. I was quick to explain the difference between the old quid pro quo style of networking and the kind of support that entrepreneurs engage in, but nonetheless I was firm in my message and underlying meaning:

Invest the time and energy in building a strong network of peers. They will improve your business, save you effort and expense, and enrich the journey. A strong network really is the secret weapon of successful entrepreneurs.