California has its share of famous streets: Sunset Strip, Rodeo Drive, Hollywood Boulevard. But for entrepreneurs, the real main drag is Sand Hill Road. Lining this stretch of asphalt outside Menlo Park are a who’s who of elite venture capital firms. Nearly every top Silicon Valley company has started here.
So I was understandably a little intimidated back in 2009, on one of my first fundraising trips to the Valley for Hootsuite. Would investors give me the time of day? Would they share my enthusiasm for building a social media management platform? Would I even be able to get in the door?
But something unexpected happened — almost eerie. Time and time again, inside conference rooms, at coffee shops or huddling in hotel lobbies, I heard the same four-word phrase from investors and entrepreneurs.
How can I help?
VCs like Geoff Entress from Voyager Capital asked me. Angel investor Dave McClure asked me. Kissmetrics CEO Hiten Shah asked me. These were powerful and extremely busy people. And yet here they were offering up their time and expertise, their connections and critical thinking power, to a new entrepreneur.
Fast forward almost a decade and I heard that same four-word mantra recently while on another trip to the Bay Area. At Startup Grind’s Global Conference, the entrepreneurial all stars on stage were using it. At Google, special projects lead Gia Scinto sat down with me and asked the very same question.
I had an “aha” moment and had to stop and ask myself: What was so special about this four-word phrase? And why were so many incredibly successful people using it?
The secret strength of “How can I help?”
The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. If business is all about who you know, then this simple line — How can I help? — might be the ultimate networking tool. At it’s heart, it’s a powerful way to fast-track relationships and build goodwill. By offering to help, you cultivate instant rapport and establish an immediate sense of trust. Rather than waiting for someone to prove themselves to you, you take the bull by the horns and prove yourself to them. A foundation is built — with striking speed and efficiency — for future interactions.
It struck me that all these wildly successful people had probably been offering a helping hand long before they were successful. In fact, it was likely their willingness to help — the connections built and doors opened as a result — that accounted in good measure for their success.
The key to cementing relationships isn’t just offering help, of course. It’s following through and actually providing it. I’ve seen this throughout my career. From our earliest meetings, for example, one of my investors has always made a point of asking me how he can help out ... with advice, employee referrals, you name it. In fact, I owe half of my executive team to his Rolodex. John Ruffalo, incidentally, is one of the best connected and most successful investors around, with an uncanny track record. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Why does it work?
What’s the mysterious mechanism at work here? How, exactly, does helping others help you? Well, you could equate it to business karma. I truly believe that helping other people sets you up for cosmic success at some level: whether that’s in business or in everyday life (in fact, the less distinction you make between the two, the better). What goes around almost inevitably comes around.
But if you prefer more hard-boiled business terminology, you could think of the help you offer as an investment. Like any investment, it might pay off in the short-term, you may have to stick around for the long haul or it might be a bust altogether. But I’ve found — more often than not — that you do see a healthy return from the help you extend ... though usually in ways that are more complex, mysterious and powerful than you might imagine.
Close to home, for example, I mentor more than a dozen entrepreneurs each year as part of an initiative called The Next Big Thing. Some of them need help bringing their product to market, others are looking to find partners and collaborators. I try to give my advice and time (at least the minutes I can spare) freely. I expect nothing from this other than the satisfaction of seeing young entrepreneurs find their path.
But over the years, these entrepreneurs have gone on to start companies in my backyard here in Canada. They’ve done their part — in big and small ways — to begin building a new tech center in Vancouver. Each year, the critical mass of talent and investment in the region grows. Ultimately, we all benefit. The rising tide truly does lift all boats.
We tend to think of business as calculating and sometimes ruthlessly Darwinian. But the truth is that self-interest and a cold shoulder will only take you so far, in business or in life. Regardless of how busy things are or how cutthroat the competition is, I’ve found that real success often starts with four simple words: How can I help?
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About Ryan Holmes