How to think in networks

8 min read
11 Dec 2018

rowing a network of like-minded people takes time, but once you build it, you may just find it’s one of the most valuable assets you can have.  

This article was written by the original owner of, Ryan Allis, and published on his website in 2012. Read more about why Ryan was happy to hand over his website domain to us here.

One of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned in my life to date is this: Who you surround yourself with is who you become. The networks you align yourself with and become part of have a tremendous effect on your ability to make a positive impact on the world or to achieve anything you set your mind to.

Networking is not about handing out business cards; it’s about building authentic relationships with people and finding ways in which you can help them. Building a valuable set of authentic relationships is a lifetime project. It’s not something that can be done in a few weeks, or even a few years. It takes time, commitment, and dedication.

I place a lot of importance on building my networks. I’ve made a habit of carefully keeping track of all the people in my life, both personal and professional.  

Below are the lessons I’ve learned so far on building relationships with lots of amazing people over a lifetime.

Who you surround yourself with is who you become.

Making sure everyone in your inner circle is positive, caring & inspiring

The first key to creating a great network is to put yourself in an environment in which you are surrounded by highly competent, smart, and very positive people every day. The last point is particularly important: there are plenty of smart and competent people out there who simply don’t have positive energy.

The problem with these people is that they discourage you and tell you that you can’t achieve your dreams. So surround yourself with people who will remind you that as long as your motivations are good and you’re treating other people fairly and well, you can achieve anything you set your mind to.

The second key to creating a great network is to take a long, hard look at who is in your current friend circle.

Take a few moments to write down the names of your top 20 friends—the people that you spend the most time with. Once you’re done, circle all the names of the people you still want to be on that list in a year (the positive, inspiring, supportive, caring ones!).

Hopefully you’ll find that you circle everyone on the list. But often you’ll see that there are people on that list who perhaps shouldn’t be. How many didn’t you circle? It’s really important to be able to identify the people who build you up, who encourage you, and from whom you can learn.

Once you’ve done that, focus your efforts and spend time with those people you circled (and endeavour to find more people like them!). Life is just too short to hang out with people who are negative and bring you down.

It’s absolutely worth inculcating this habit of choosing friends carefully. I consider this a long-term investment in your ability to grow, to be mentored, and to take in ideas.

The above may seem like slightly obvious advice. But do you find yourself consciously putting yourself in the right environments for personal growth? And have you consciously developed a friend group that stretches you, challenges you, and keeps you accountable to achieving your dreams?

Put yourself in an environment in which you are surrounded by highly competent, smart, and very positive people every day.

Choosing the place you call home

Growing up I lived on Anna Maria Island and in Bradenton, Florida. The west coast of Florida is an absolutely beautiful place, with beaches, manatees, and some great people. Some of my most influential mentors taught there at Manatee High School.

When I turned 18, I was excited to move to the Triangle of North Carolina, home to UNC, Duke, and N.C. State. There, over nine years we were able to build iContact into a 300 employee company. I found being in a community that had lots of tech startups was thrilling.

In 2002, through the Center for Entrepreneurial Development in Durham I was able to plug right in, even as an 18 year-old college freshman into the North Carolina entrepreneurship scene. I loved my time in North Carolina and have nothing but praise for the State and find it’s one of the best places in the world for combining an intellectual climate with technology, nature, and low costs of living, which are especially important for first time entrepreneurs.

Now, I’m finishing up my first year in school at Harvard Business School in Boston and will soon be heading to San Francisco to build Connect.

This time around, being in San Francisco is essential, as it’s the epicenter of the Internet industry and the social enterprise/conscious capitalism movement and the home of Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and LeapMotion, which are all companies we are integrating with to build Connect. The area around Soma/Mission/Dolores in particular is a highly vibrant melange of creativity and inspiration.

Life is just too short to hang out with people who are negative and bring you down.

Wednesday night dinners of your closest friends

In my early 20s, once per month I would go to a three hour “forum” for eight entrepreneurs who were part of the Raleigh-Durham chapter of Entrepreneurs’ Organization.

Once per month we would share with the small group what our biggest personal and professional challenges were in a confidential caring environment. Being part of these EO Forums as I built iContact and encountered entrepreneurial challenges so many of my forum peers had seen before, was so helpful.

Using the “forum” model, every Wednesday night at 8pm at Harvard Business School I’ve pulled together my six to eight closest friends for a weekly one hour roundtable dinner in the Spangler dining hall.

We use the time to share a weekly update and any personal or professional challenges we’re facing. We turn off our mobile phones and make sure everyone is fully present. Five of the group are moving to San Francisco and we plan to continue the weekly roundtables this summer.

Intentionally building your educational network

Your school is one of the most important networks you’ll ever have, whether that’s your high school, college, or grad school. Your college and grad school in particular are critically important networks.

That’s why, even though I only spent two years as an undergraduate, I found going to the University of North Carolina to be extremely transformational in terms of the people, networks, and ideas I was exposed to.

If you can, ensure that you prepare yourself, (or your kids), well, and get into the best schools possible. Of course, you have to factor in the costs and opportunity costs of attending those schools. But remember: getting into a great educational network, whether it’s now or in the future, can be a worthwhile investment in your future ability to recruit top quality talent as your startup grows.

If you can’t afford to go to the best schools, keep building your network in other ways and still take the courses. There’s a great website called Coursera that enables you to actually enroll for free in some of the top classes from institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, and Stanford.

Another site, Khan Academy, offers hundreds, if not thousands, of videos on every academic topic you can imagine, from learning a new language, to quantum physics.

On EDx you can take a number of Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley classes free of charge. These are just three of a wave of great free or affordable resources using video to educate anyone anywhere with access to the cloud. Others include Sophia, Skillshare, MIT’s OpenCourseWare, iTunes U, and Codeacademy.

Moreover, once you save up some money and have your investments generating passive cash flow, you can go to a program at an Ivy League school in the United States or one of the top institutions around the world. Harvard Business School’s Executive Programs start at around $20,000.

Another great long term investment is the Singularity University Executive Program in Mountain View, CA. I attended their four day program in April 2012 and was blown away by how much I learned about the future of genomics, synthetic biology, robotics, artificial intelligence, healthcare, and natural user interfaces!

Too often, people will take a job because it’s the first one offered to them after blasting out resumes. Don’t do that.

Intentionally building your professional network

After your school, your next most important network is your professional network. Choose the company you work for very carefully. Or, if you are entrepreneurial, build your own.

It always puzzles me that young people spend 16-17 years in school, from kindergarten through grad school, and then spend just a few weeks trying to get a job, when in fact, the job is the foundational element for what they are going to do with the rest of their lives.

Don’t just send out resumes using the career services database. Spend time researching companies that are working on solving problems that you’re passionate about.

If you are currently employed and you don’t like your job, find an organization whose mission you care about, and do whatever it takes to work there, even if it means showing up in the lobby and simply waiting until someone takes a meeting with you.

Very few people have that type of determination and persistence. In my nine years at iContact, no one ever showed up in the lobby insisting on having a meeting with me. But if they had, and they had waited there long enough and were friendly toward the receptionist and my executive assistant, I would definitely have taken that meeting. I would have been impressed by their persistence. Do whatever it takes.

Finally, never take a job unless you’re working directly for someone of high integrity from whom you can learn a lot. Too often, people will take a job because it’s the first one offered to them after blasting out resumes. Don’t do that.

Consciously and carefully, over the course of months or maybe years, build your network, find companies pursuing things you are passionate about, and build relationships with individuals of high integrity who are ten or fifteen years ahead of you.

Main photo: Unsplash/Toa Heftiba

*This article was originally published on October 17th, 2018 and updated on December 11th, 2018.