Open all posts

All posts

With Paul Zelizer

It’s Who You Know: How to Build Social Capital to Unlock Your Business’ Potential

Fundraising, and other elements of running a business, often depend on who you know. Your social network, or your social capital, is a critical tool for raising capital, building a robust sales pipeline, growing your partner base, and even hiring. There are countless ways that you can build social capital, but only a few would be considered “high leverage”, i.e. the return (number of valuable connections) generated from a given investment of time and money.

For his top three strategies on building social capital, we sat down with Paul Zelizer. Over the past 15 years, Paul has gone from social worker to social entrepreneur and now works as a social entrepreneur coach and impact business mentor.

It’s who you know

“It’s who you know” isn’t anecdotal: a large body of research on entrepreneurship has shown that businesses with well-developed social networks perform better and are much more likely to receive funding (Check out the end of this piece for sources!). Think about it this way: if you need 200+ meetings to successfully raise an early-stage VC round, and you likely need 500 target investors to get to 200+ meetings, do you think cold outreach will get you there? From our experience, it’s much more likely that your relationships with other founders, investors and LPs are what will get you meetings with investors, big customers and potential partners.

Strategy #1: Maximize value from in-person interactions

While happy hours, meetups, having coffee and other in-person events are low leverage, they can nevertheless be important for your growth as a founder, especially when you are new to the game. In-person meetups and events probably won’t get you a worthwhile number of meetings with investors, but they will provide an important space for you to practice telling your story. And if you’re not an experienced storyteller, you will get incredible value from these early conversations that will inform how you pitch customers, investors, and key partners in the future.

That said, many in-person events will not be worth it. It is often repeated but often forgotten: your most limited resource as a founder is time — use it wisely, don’t waste it going to every meetup and happy hour you can find. When deciding whether to attend an event, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Audience — Who will be there? They should be highly relevant for your near-term goals. If the audience is right, seriously consider attending.
  2. Size — How many people will be there? While having the right audience trumps size, nevertheless, how many people you will be able to talk to in a short amount of time matters.
  3. Format - Does the event have space for organized networking? Is it all talks with no person-to-person interactions? If you get to present, run a happy hour, or even speed date, this will provide opportunities for meaningful engagement. Make sure that the venue and format are conducive to real conversations, rather than just absorbing information.
  4. Cost — What are the benefits compared to your time and financial investment? How much meaningful interaction are you getting given the time and cost to attend?  If you are just another face in the crowd, the bang for your buck will likely be too low to make it worth it.

Note that the answer to these questions will change depending on where you are in your journey. The thresholds will get higher as you find more success and build your social network.

Strategy #2: Show up consistently on social media to build your credibility

Building your social media presence is essential. Find out where the investors, grant makers and other founders are that have the scope, scale and networks you need. Then, make yourself known. Depending on your business, this could be LinkedIn, Twitter or even TikTok.

This doesn’t mean that you will have to generate your own content or build a following. Creating meaningful content is time-consuming and challenging. It requires a lot of persistence and commitment. When you are new, focus on engagement and becoming involved in key conversations. Start small with these three easy tactics:

  1. Resharing — Piggyback others content by reposting. Be sure to add your own insight, but keep it brief and simple (not verbose or overbearing).
  2. Commenting — Share any well thought out questions you have about the content and any relevant experiences you may have that add to the conversation.
  3. Direct messages — Reach out to people directly, especially other founders. Be yourself; they are much more likely to respond if you are genuine in your interest and transparent about your experience. Don’t market yourself, just be candid about where you are right now and what you want to get out of the conversation. And after talking, always make sure to ask “who else should I know?” This often leads to other great connections.

Whatever you do, show up consistently and take small risks. People will start to notice. You will build a trail of credibility and rich social connections that will pay dividends over time.

Strategy #3: Find (the right) podcasts to be a guest on

Being on a podcast offers big leverage, all from the comfort of your living room, but the devil is in the details: How do you find the right podcasts? And, how do you pitch yourself to get on the guest list?

To find relevant podcasts, search these resources:

  1. Best bet: Listen Notes (a search engine for podcasts that indexes across platforms)
  2. Look across social media (LinkedIn, Twitter) to see what podcasts are shared across your network and those of your target audience
  3. Last resort: Google keywords associated with your focus areas, audience, and the word “podcast”

To get on the guest list, do this:

  1. Do your homework: Listen to a few podcasts and look at what people are posting on social media.
  2. Submit an application (most podcasts have this on their page) and make your case. Make sure to provide a few bullet points about what you will talk about and how you will provide value to an audience that is passionate about your topic.
  3. Hire a firm to get you placement; there are a ton of these, so ask your peers for recommendations. Not all are created equal.

Once on the guest list, keep in mind that:

  • You should be yourself — your passion is what will make you a compelling guest. If you try to sound like someone else, your passion will not shine through. People don’t care what you know until they know how much you care. Bring your personality, speak in your voice, tell some stories — show people who you are.
  • You need to add value in a relatable way — think about what you want to say and craft it into clear, digestible points before recording. You are not selling yourself or your product (this will turn people off); you are bringing your insight to an important topic that you care about (and building trust with the audience in the process).
  • You shouldn’t script out what you will say — this will make you sound forced and obscure your passion for the subject.
  • Post-production for podcasts is excellent — they will cut out your ah’s and um’s and make you sound more polished. Focus on your passion, not the minutiae of how you sound.

Keep in mind that you can start small — if you are worried about sounding stupid, do a podcast with 50 listeners to find your voice first (no one will hear it and no one will care). You can listen to it later and take notes on where you want to improve. Then speak on podcasts with bigger audiences to build your network.

If you are also thinking about starting your own podcast, see our Insight with Paul Gambill.

Research on Social Networks Improving Business Performance:

Entrepreneurs’ social capital and venture capital financing

Understanding the Impact of Social Capital on Entrepreneurship Performance

Social competence and social capital of early-stage entrepreneurs

How much do social connections matter in fundraising outcomes?

Leveraging Social Capital for Black Business Success

Paul Zelizer has worked with and led programs for over 30,000 leaders working for positive change since 1993. He’s one of the first business coaches to focus on the needs of social entrepreneurs and impact oriented business leaders. He’s also the host of the Awarepreneurs Podcast, one of the world’s longest running social entrepreneur podcasts.

Want more insights?