Successful collaboration are not the result of random encounters. They are not. Encounters that appear like coincidences are in reality the workings of social network mechanisms. I don’t mean social networks as in social networks sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter), but as in the connection between individuals, connections that existed well before network sites visualized these connections (e.g. remember the story of Paul Revere).
A couple of forces are working behind the scenes. But let’s take a step back. When creating a company, you’re looking for people with whom you can work. This means two things: First, you want to get along with them and secondly, they need to add value to the company. You don’t want to have a bunch of mini-me’s running around
Like seeks Like
One of the better known mechanism is the fact that like attracts like. At events, without noticing it, you find yourself interacting with those that are similar to you. At the beginning this is based on visible characteristics: Your gender, your ethnicity, your age, your style of clothes. Over time, these outward appearances make space for individual characteristics that you discover through interaction: Their interests and knowledge, their work values, their alma mater. What tends to happen is that individuals seek partners that look the same, but have different expertise. You’ll end up with a team that on the outside looks homogenous, but on the inside compliments each other. But, there is always a but. Think about the tech industry currently plagued by a lack of outward diversity. You might just say that this is normal human tendency and we can’t change it. Here is a twist. If you are in the minority, you will seek others who look like you. Female or black MBA students in a mass of white, male MBA students connected with each other based on their outward appearance. If in the minority, the group (e.g. gender, ethnicity) you are part of, decides with whom you connect. That’s why we see talented female or black engineers quit, because they are seeking role models that look like them.
Around the corner
Proximity matters. It matters a lot. Everyone who uses video conference systems, emails, chats etc. on a daily basis knows that face-to-face is better. If you have the chance to meet someone in person, do it. Being physically close to each other makes it easier to work together and get to know each other. In other words, it is easier for you to maintain a relationship. Think about all the friends and acquaintances you have lost because you moved away. Distance matters. Living nearby means that your interaction is not only focused on work related topics, but extend outside work settings. The reason why firms whose headquarters are located in the same city have common board members is not their physical proximity, but board members frequent the same places outside work (e.g. exclusive upper-class clubs). The relationships that build up in those places extend to the workplace. Similarly, hanging out with your colleagues outside work (and becoming friends) increases trust in each other and creates the right links for future work collaboration and promotion.
Shared business partners
Some encounters are the result of introduction from friends and business partners. We transfer some of the qualities of the friend or partner who made the introduction to this stranger. I recently moved to the US and went through many of these introductions. Some bear fruit, others don’t. Once you become friends with your friend’s friends, clusters are forming. There are more and more links between each other. You might even end up forming a tightly knit group of friends. Sharing many friends and acquaintance also makes your network of connections more stable over time. The more common collaborators two scientists have, the more chances there is for them to keep on collaborating over time. By having more shared collaborators these two scientists have a higher chance of meeting each other. And as we saw, proximity breeds connections.
What does this all mean for creating and sustaining a startup ?
These three mechanisms can be translated into tips you can implement to be in control of your ‘random encounters’ and intervene in your network:
Like seeks Like:
- Be aware of your outward appearance and approach those who look differently. If your expertise is complimentary, you have a match.
- If you have employees who do great work, but look differently than the rest, help them to find role models they can relate to. A role model doesn’t need to be at the top of the company, you can also start further down. Another option is to develop a mentor program in which the mentors are from a different company, but in some way tight to your company (e.g. financial remuneration for mentorship).
- If you have power to change the industry, create the infrastructure that connects people together. Create industry-specific local mentorship programs, fund startups whose members are diverse, give minority members leadership roles, and make minority members visible.
Around the corner
- Check out your local meet-ups and events. And remember social relationships can turn into work relationship and the other way around.
- Check for local investors. In early stages you need the familiarity and profit that proximity brings.
Shared business partner
- Map your network. You can do this as a team or individually on paper. Think about the connections you have. Draw this like a mind map with you in the center. Then think if you know how your connections are connected. This can get easily very messy and hard to see. An easier way is to use technology. Syndio does this for companies. But you can also use NodeXL to map your personal network using Twitter. With socilab you can map your LinkedIn Network. Unfortunately, drawing your Facebook network is not possible anymore.
- When in need of help, ask your network. Chances are somebody knows somebody (who knows somebody) who can help you.