“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
When we moved to Fort Worth, Texas from Virginia, one of the first things that I did was join a couple of local business networking groups. Having recently started my financial planning firm, you might think that I was looking to find new business. After all, isn’t that the purpose of a business networking group – to find people who might need your services?
Actually, that wasn’t the case at all. While finding new clients as a result of connecting with those business groups would have been a boon, it wasn’t my primary purpose.
Instead, I wanted to find out from that group who the best local service providers were. I wanted to know where to take my car, who the best chiropractor was, and what handyman would actually show up on time and do good work without overcharging.
Why did I do that?
Back in Virginia, we had a lot of friends, and several close ones. They would have helped us out with almost anything when we were there. However, aside from family, none of whom lived in the city we moved to, we had no such connections in Fort Worth, Texas.
Instead, we had to rely on the knowledge of people who were outside of our normal circles to provide useful information. Our existing circles didn’t know the information we were seeking, so I went to the business networking groups to tap into their tribal knowledge.
According to Johns Hopkins University’s Mark Granovetter in his seminal research paper “The Strength of Weak Ties,” I was simply establishing a connection to new weak ties in order to gain new information.
What is a weak tie?
Granovetter outlines three main types of connections we have in our lives:
- Strong ties: Those are the people with whom we interact on a frequent basis and feel a strong level of affinity. If you’re married, your spouse is a strong tie. The best friend with whom you go to all of the games is a strong tie. Your nuclear family is a strong tie.
- Weak ties: Those are people whom you know but don’t frequently interact. It could be the coworker you meet for coffee once a quarter or the coach of your kid’s soccer team. You know them, you know of them, and you know what they do, but you’re not inviting these people over to your house for family dinner.
- Absent ties: Those are people whom you either don’t know at all, or you’re just on a nodding acquaintance, such as the mailman or the person you see on dog walks who’s working in his yard and you wave to, but you don’t know his name.
The power of strong ties
The power of a strong tie is that this person will do what they can to help you out and are willing to do so. Is your close friend moving this weekend? You offer to go help move as long as he provides the beer, even though you normally wouldn’t volunteer to go lift heavy furniture and boxes just for fun.
Strong ties are strengthened by affinity and proximity. You share a lot in common with your strong ties, and you typically enjoy the same things. It’s easy to find topics of conversation and mutual ground where you agree on how the world should be. You choose to spend time with these people in your free time and are happy that you’ve made those choices.
The weakness of strong ties
While these are the people who are willing to drop everything and help you out, since you share the same connections and affinities, they generally know what you know and vice versa. People who have faced losing a job realize the limitations of these ties. They tell their close confidants that they are facing a job loss. The close friends feel bad, drink a beer with them, and generally commiserate. If one of them knows of a job that’s available, then he goes to bat with the hiring manager and shares the information. However, most of the strong ties work in the same locations, so they’ll all know about a few opportunities, and once that small set of potential job openings is exhausted, that’s it.
The strong ties tend to cluster together and form their own little micro communities. When you need new information or different insight, then the strong ties can’t provide it because they all think and know roughly the same thing, which leads us to…
The power of weak ties
Weak ties are the ones who bridge communities together. They transfer novel information from one community into another community. Think of the weak tie as the merchant who went from town to town in the old days. Communities were strong, and they all pitched in to help each other out, but they were isolated from the news of the rest of the world. It was the merchants, whom each community knew but didn’t have a strong connection to, who would pass on new information because they bridged the communities together.
Finding a job is one of the most widely cited examples from Granovetter’s research. Only 16.7% of new jobs in a survey he conducted came from strong ties: that’s 1 in 6. The other 5 came from weak ties. The strong ties had the motivation, but the weak ties had the information. In this instance, and in business in general, information trumps motivation.
How can you use this as a business owner?
When I ran my last company, I used weak ties in several ways:
- To find new customers. This is the obvious one. We’re in business to generate revenues and profits, so everything has to have a profit motive. You can only tap friends and family for so long before either a) you exhaust their desire to purchase from you, or (more importantly) b) it gets icky. They will do what they can to help you out, but, unless your best friend is Bill Gates, their resources are limited. Eventually, their desire becomes limited too. That’s why you need to tap into the weak connections, as they can bridge you to new sources of demand for whatever you sell.
- To find employees. Given that the weak connections work well in the opposite direction – 5 out of 6 jobs came from weak ties – then it makes sense that they work well as someone doing hiring. Weak connections to you may be strong connections to a person who is unhappy in their current situation and looking for a new challenge. Having an openness and a willing to entertain discussions, even if you’re currently not publicly hiring (by the way, we didn’t publicly advertise jobs) means that people are always willing to refer you to others who are looking to change jobs.
- To build credibility. Trust often has a transitive power. If I don’t know Bob but my best friend Joe says that Bob is a good guy, then I’m going to trust that Bob is a good guy unless he proves otherwise. If I didn’t have Joe vouching for Bob, then it might take a while for me to develop my own independent opinion on how good of a fellow Bob was. Therefore, if I could get some of my strong connections to vouch to my weak connections that my company was good, then that transitive power of trust would extend to their networks as well. That’s what LinkedIn does with its endorsements.
- To act as a bridge myself. I often looked to find people’s pain points and solve them so that eventually, if their pain point involved something my company could do, they’d think of me. Most of the time, their pain points had nothing to do with what we did, but I knew someone (who knew someone) who could solve the pain. I got to help two people out, which had its own altruistic positive vibes, and they both increased their valuation of me, meaning that if they knew people in their strong ties who needed something that my company could help with, they’d be more likely to point them in our direction. Reciprocity at its finest.
If you look to build your network with an egocentric focus, then you’ll never build any ties, much less ties that are useful to you. Remember, people like to talk about themselves and their problems, so take that approach when you’re building out your network. Find out their stories. Find out what causes them emotional pain in their lives, and what could make their lives easier. If you can’t do it yourself – which, 99% of the time, you won’t be able to do so yourself – then make it a point to connect them with someone who can solve the problem, or, at least, can help them take steps towards improving their situation.
The best networkers are the helpers. You think of them as people with the largest networks, and while this may be true to some extent, they’re the ones with the most weak ties who know about them and value them. Be one of those people who makes connections, who helps, and who solves problems and you’ll find that your weak ties are the ones that make the strongest case for your business’s growth.
Have you used weak connections in your business or your personal life? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!