The internet is abound with advice for startups and entrepreneurs. It’s gotten to the point where every time you turn your head there’s a new buzz word and a new set of proclamations about its importance. Recently this got me thinking: If I could only recommend one thing to new startups/entrepreneurs, based on my experience, what would that one thing be?

Surprisingly, even to myself, this wasn’t a question which required a great deal of pondering. In fact the immediacy with which it popped into my head was such that I wonder, now, why it’s not something which is talked about far more often.

This week, Hubspot founder Dharmesh Shah summarised it best:

This is the secret sauce that many (most?) either don’t understand, or don’t want to believe is true.

People Work with Friends

That’s the 4 word answer to why this is important. It’s fundamental human nature. We don’t do business with people who have the best skills or the best product. We do business with people who we know, like and - most importantly - trust.

Early on in your career it’s easy to scoff at this and think of it as unfair. “Why did he get that contract, he’s not even good!” or “Why are they getting such a large seed round, our product is so much better!” - It all feels like an unfair system designed to keep existing people in, and new people out.

It’s not, though. You just haven’t figured out what motivates people yet.

It’s easier (and humans do like easy) to work with someone you know than someone you don’t. You’re aware of any pre-existing conditions (eg. insanity) and you’ve established whether or not this is a person who complements or contrasts your own set of knowledge and skills. So if I have a choice between two equally talented designers - where the only difference is that one is a friend, and one is a stranger - who do I take? The friend, every time. Not necessarily because they’re better, just because I know what I’m getting into. I know I can work with this person.

The second part is that I actually genuinely do want them to succeed. That’s what friends do. I want them to feel wanted. I want them to have a career. Despite all of the selfish aspects of human nature, we do fundamentally wish good things upon those we care about. So the key is to be cared about. And the best way to be cared about is to care about others. It’s funny how that works, isn’t it?

When I look back on what I’ve done so far, and each big piece of work I’ve completed. In the last 10 years or so there was precisely one “lucky break”. Other than that, every single big thing I’ve accomplished has been as a result of getting to know (and becoming friends with) people both inside and outside the industry.

A few examples.

  • In my freelancing days I landed contracts with Microsoft, Nokia, EasyJet, Ubisoft, and whole variety of national tourist boards. Every single one of them was due to inadvertently getting to know people who worked at those companies - and them thinking of me the next time they needed some work.
  • When we launched the Ghost Kickstarter campaign, we completely sold out of the top (~$10,000) level sponsorship slots. I had a prior relationship with one of the founders of almost every single company in that list. Not a coincidence.
  • When I started contributing to WordPress core I quickly learned that patches generally get merged based on who makes friends with the core team. Making myself liked and trusted by people with commit access was what eventually got me managing the whole UI team. (This is consistent across most Open Source projects)

It’s important to note that when I say “make friends” - I don’t mean some nefarious slimy marketing bullshit. I mean genuinely get to know people and have a relationship with them. Caring about them and developing trust and basic understanding. It’s not always possible to “make friends” as it were, because your values don’t always match. More often than not, however, you’ll probably be able to find something you have in common that’s worth talking about.

Everything is About Relationships

The sooner you figure that out, the sooner you win.

It is of almost no consequence how good your product, your business, your writing, your music or your photography is. The question is: Who gives a shit? As Dharmesh said, who wants you to succeed? Who cares about you? Because everything comes back to this.

I can trace almost every success (and, conversely, every failure) in my life to a relationship with another person.

So how do you go about having more relationships with more people? There are lots of ways, and none of them are right/wrong. But here are 5 quick ones that have worked for me.

  1. Tweet / blog / say something. When you do these things, you have something to discuss. It’s easier for people to approach you when they already know some things you have in common.
  2. Go to meetups, conferences, camps, hack days, whatever. There is 1000x more impact to having a 5 minute in person conversation than 5 months of emails.
  3. Further to the above, try public speaking. It’s not for everyone, but nothing has had a larger impact on my career in terms of the number of people I’ve been able to meet than this.
  4. Email people. If they don’t reply, email them again. It’s surprisingly easy to get to know surprisingly successful people if you actually just try to get to know them. Many people just assume “they’re probably too busy” and never hit send.
  5. Ask for help. Not sure what basis to start this new friendship on? Ask for some help or advice. You’ll be surprised. People care.

There are two disclaimers to that list.

First: People are competitive by nature. As in they enjoy comparing themselves to others. Good developers like and respect other good developers. Smart people like smart people. Talented designers like talented designers. Go put in the work to become good, smart and talented. It doesn’t just fucking happen by accident.

Second: Not everyone is going to like you. That’s what most people get hung up on. The fear. There is no way past this one. It’s a fact of life. You cannot please everyone and that’s something you have to learn to live with. Yes, it’s hard. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.

He didn’t get the bigger contract cause he was a better designer. She didn’t get the keynote cause she was a better speaker. They didn’t close a giant Series-A because the product was a game-changer.

They just had more valuable relationships with people that wanted to help them succeed.

The secret sauce is this: Make more friends.