I haven’t had a lot of jobs in my life, but the ones I’ve had have been in very different fields:
Farmer. Opera singer. Personal finance blogger.
I’m not sure if there are any 3 businesses out there that are more different (#gauntletthrown), but one thing I’ve learned from all of them is the importance of community.
Community is one of those words that gets tossed around a lot in business. Sometimes people call it their network, or their contacts. People born before 1970 refer vaguely to a Rolodex… but what most people will agree on is that, no matter what you call it, there is little that is more valuable to your business than the connections you make, the people you meet, and the ‘community’ you can draw support from.
But it can turn out to be a real hurdle for small businesses. How to you build that support system? How do you create a network? How do you make contacts in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re just trying to ‘get something from them’?
It’s something I’ve really struggled with, both as as artist and on the blog.
So today, we’re going to talk about why a network is so important, the myth of the self-made man (person), and a few ways that you can build a killer network/community/contact list for free.
Why a community is essential for business (and also life):
Farming, opera singing, and blogging. That’s my resume.
While it doesn’t really qualify me to work a serving job at Applebees, it does qualify me to talk about community. In those three worlds I have learned some specific lessons about community that I’ll never forget.
Some of these lessons are about the ‘business network’ side of community, and some of them are about the ‘support’ side of community… but I believe that both sides of the coin help build a successful infrastructure for business.
Lessons from the farm
I grew up on a small farm in Southern Manitoba (right in the middle of Canada for those of you who have no idea), which is worlds away from way I live now in the ole city of Toronto.
On the surface, everything about where we lived was more isolated than in the city where I live now. Instead of being a few feet away from my neighbour, we were miles away. The closest town had 2 streets and boasted a church, and… that’s basically it.
The crazy thing is that I talked to more people in a day on the farm, than I do most days in Toronto.
People would constantly be driving onto our yard. Neighbours wanting to talk about the weather. Sales people wanting to chat about seed or chemical prices. There was never a shortage of people.
That’s where I learned my first few lessons about community:
Lesson number 1: When times are tough community is NOT optional
Why are rural communities so tightly knit? Well… I have a theory. When farmers first settled the bald prairie, life was hard. Really hard.
A bit of bad weather could wipe out your crop. A disease could take away the livestock you depended on for food.
Alone, farmers were vulnerable, but together they were stronger… together they could make it through those 6 month winters and, even after the worst of years, try again.
And still now, while farmers are way more independent than they used to be, you see the collective-good attitude in action every year. When someone’s machinery breaks right at the peak of harvest… there will be a handful of neighbours who take time away from their own work and finish that farmer’s field… no questions asked.
They learned that they needed each other. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
I don’t live on the bald prairie, but I do live among a generation of people who are having a hard time making it on their own. It’s hard to find work, hard to pay down student debt, hard to actually build any real kind of wealth.
In our post modern independent mindset, community can feel like a weakness.. Like a crutch… but I learned from the farm that you can accomplish things together that you couldn’t dream of doing alone.
Lesson #2: Even when it’s all about business… it doesn’t have to be about business
I was reminded about this just this last Christmas.
A salesperson stopped by my dad’s farm a few weeks into December. It’s a slow time for farmers, and she just wanted to touch base and deliver a gift from the company.
They sat there for an hour and chatted over coffee.
Never once did they talk business.
They talked about the community, they talked about restaurants, and family.
And when she walked away, even though I have no need to buy fuel in bulk, I knew that if I ever needed to… I would call her first.
It’s not always about selling, it’s just about connecting. Real connection is what builds a network.
Lessons from the world of opera:
“It’s not what you can do… it’s who you know.“
How often have I heard that in a opera ‘business’ class?
At first I took that to mean conductors, directors, and wealthy patrons… basically anyone that could possibly have hired me or influenced the person hiring me. But over time I’ve realized that my opera network/community is soo much more than that.
Lesson #3: Your network is (potentially) everyone… not just the people that can do something for you right now
This has been a huge thing to learn (and then forget, and learn again).
It’s easy to focus on building a professional community. One that will help you grow your business.
But I found that my community had to be so much more than that. It was everyone: colleagues that I worked with, the people backstage on gigs I did, the admin staff at companies, and OF COURSE the audiences that come to the show.
On the one hand, I’ve gotten more work from colleagues recommending me for gigs than I ever did from cold auditions, and I’ve also been exposed to great projects by audience members I’ve met who suggested companies that I’d never heard of before. But that’s just the business side of things.
The true worth of my network so far has been the dozens of couches that I’ve stayed on. The seemingly hundreds of meals that have been made for me by friendly patrons, and colleagues. The support sent by email and text, or delivered in person that gets you through the thousand moments when this business is really hard. It’s the worldwide network of artists that I’ve met, so that whenever I’m in a city (anywhere in the world) there’s someone to call… for a beer, or a word of advice…
It’s worth more than any ‘one job’ could possibly pay.
It’s easy to get blinded by who can help you get to the next level professionally, but that can cause you to miss out on building a real community/network that doesn’t just pay out ‘right now’, but continues to support you for years to come.
Lesson #4: Learning how to give generously…. And how to receive generously
I’ve talked a lot what you can ‘get’ from a community.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned through opera is how to ‘give back’ to a community, and how important that is.
Almost everything about the life of an opera singer is variable… and so sometimes you can afford to give, and sometimes you can’t.
The benefit of my community is that when I’ve needed help, someone has always been willing to give it. And so when I can afford to give: a room, a meal, or a bit of support… it’s my job to give it right back.
Some people will feel more comfortable with giving, and some with taking… but it’s been my challenge to get used to both sides of the coin: to accept that I am not a failure for accepting help, and to embrace the opportunities when I have enough to help someone else.
A community is sustained by giving into it AND taking from it. It’s that give and take that keeps it balanced.
Lessons from the blogosphere
When I jumped into blogging I had no idea what I was doing (there’s a very good chance I still don’t know).
I was under the delusion… even though everything I read told me otherwise, that just by writing good stuff … the magic lords of Google would bring me a hand-delivered perfect audience.
I was, for the first time, tasked with figuring out how to build a community from scratch. Not just how to function in an already well-established one like in farming and the arts.
It’s one of the things that made me think really hard about the lessons I’ve already talked about, and also made me learn a few new ones.
Lesson #5: Connecting with people isn’t about saying the ‘right things’, it’s about authenticity
I know that a ton of people swear by the ‘fake it till you make it’ mantra… but it’s never worked for me.
I think that people can smell ‘faking it’ a mile away.
People don’t want to hear you tell them sweet little lies… they want an authentic connection.
What does that mean? Just be you.
For me that meant not being afraid of showing my inexperience, but it also gave me permission to show my completely dorky passion, and my very real desire to help people figure out their money.
It also taught me that being authentic means that when you stop worrying about saying the ‘right things’, some people leave…. because authenticity gives people a clear choice:
Do I like this, or not?
Authentic connection means that you won’t connect with everyone, but the ones that you do connect with will be real contacts, real resources, and real sources of support.
Lesson #6: The best thing to ask somebody for (when you don’t know them at all) is nothing
It’s tempting to want to cold email every blogger and internet guru on the internet and say:
“I’ve got an amazing site with killer content and you should tell EVERYONE about it…. Also… buy my e-book… and can I guest post on your site?”
I’ve written a few forms of that email.
I thought that’s what I was ‘supposed’ to do.
But lately I’ve started writing another kind of email. When I find someone that I really want to connect with… I’ll send them a note that simply explains how I found them, why I really like their work, and introduces myself.
Because they don’t know me… and I don’t know them. We don’t have a relationship… and I’m not going to start things out by asking them for a favour.
For me, it just does’t feel natural.
The crazy thing is that I’ve gotten a way better response from these emails than I have using the first style. I’ve really connected with people, and slowly built relationships that resulted in a bunch of really cool opportunities – things I wouldn’t have ever thought to ask for.
Take it slow. Community/network/contacts are built on relationships. Relationships take time.
Why community is essential:
So that’s a weird jumble of lessons for you. What are you supposed to take from that?
Well, you may have noticed that no matter where I learned them… the lessons are basically the same…
- You can’t do it alone (no matter what ‘it’ is)
- Community is built on real people talking to real people (not people saying the ‘right things’ or working ‘their agenda’)
Community is a huge, multi-faceted thing, but it’s the thing that’s sustained me over the long haul.
The myth of the self-made person
I love to think of myself as a self-made man.
Someone who worked hard for everything I got. Who didn’t get any of the breaks that other people had. Someone who deserves everything he’s achieved.
But that’s soo not true.
I’ve needed people, and so do you.
- On the farm I needed a community to support my family if (read: when) something went wrong, also to keep me sane in the long Manitoba winters.
- In the arts I’ve needed a community to help me grow my career, by giving me connections, places to stay, and the support to keep going.
- On the blog I’ve needed a community that trusts me and wants to buy the tools and services that I’m starting to make… because that’s how a business works.
Those are just three out of the hundreds of reasons why my community, my network, my contacts have been essential in my life.
There have been times when I’ve tried to be a self-made man. I’ve ignored the resources that other people could have offered me because I wanted to do it on my own.
Those were never the right choices.
In my experience I think the idea of a ‘self-made person’ is complete bullshit. I think we’ve all received help. And instead of being ashamed of needing it… we should be grateful for it… and maybe even pay it forward a bit.
Some tips on how to build a community (for free)
So, community is great. Having a network is essential.
It’s still a hard thing to build. It takes time. It takes effort…
But it doesn’t have to take a lot of money.
Here are three tips to building a great community and that won’t cost you a cent.
Answer your email
Yup. It’s simple, but there is nothing that has created a bigger change in my network than when I really changed my emailing habits.
I’ve historically been a terrible email responder, I’m also bad at phone calls and texts, and so when I would go out and ‘make contacts’… I wouldn’t follow up, I wouldn’t keep in touch, my emails were weeks/months apart.
That doesn’t create an actual network.
Recently, I’ve been much better about responding and it’s been awesome.
I’m talking to so many more people regularly and it actually feels like a network that I can reach out to for support or advice.
If you’re feeling swamped by the idea of catching up on a packed inbox, check out THIS ARTICLE on inbox zero. I started using this method at the end of 2015 and it’s changed… everything.
Take care of the community you have before worrying about making a bigger/better one
In blogging it’s really easy to get sucked into thinking about stats.
The number of email subscribers you have. The number of people visiting your site.
How do you grow those numbers? How do you compete?
It’s the same in lots businesses. How do I get more customers, or get more people to come to my shows?
My advice? Before you start worrying too much about how to increase those numbers… take care of the people who are already there.
For the longest time I was focused on increasing my email subscriber list. I wanted it to be thousands of people. The thing was … I didn’t know what I wanted to do with those people after I ‘got’ them.
Now I’ve completely changed tactics. I’m fully focused on creating a community with the people who are here now. That way, when new people come… they step into something that’s already thriving.
It doesn’t cost me anything to keep in contact with the people who are already here (except time), but the payoff has been immediate. By talking to my wonderful subscriber base regularly I’ve not only had the chance to offer really specific support, but I’ve gotten a lot of support coming back at me.
Take a minute to write down who your network/community is, send them a few check in emails or maybe even make a phone call…. It won’t cost you anything and it might be worth it.
Talk to people
I think about community a lot. I know it’s important… and so I’ve spent far too many hours brainstorming the best ways to build the greatest community ever.
The brainstorming was a waste of time. Here’s the secret:
Just talk to people. All people. Any people. Online or in person.
Learn their stories. Tell them yours. Ask about what they love doing, and what their struggles are.
It may not seem directly connected. It might not even seem like an efficient use of your time and energy, but I’ve started stumbling into ‘contacts’ that I never could have ‘planned for’. I’ve fallen into opportunities I could have never seen coming.
Community is just people talking to people. That’s all. So start talking.
If you’re looking for a finance/money support community/network… try this one!!
So… that’s a lot of writing about community. As you can tell, it’s something I feel pretty strongly about.
It’s always been a huge part of my life, and I will always consider it my biggest asset.
If you’re looking for support, a network, a community I’d be honoured if you joined us here at R2R. We’re a collection of artists, freelancers, and anyone else who’s looking for a more creative way of looking at money.
You’ll get exclusive tools and content, as well as support to make that changes that you’ve been wanting to make.
It can feel pretty lonely when you’re a freelancer out there in the wide world….
But we’re stronger together.