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The Art of Earning Favors
Why great community builders must also be great networkers
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A community is essentially a group of people doing each other favors.
That’s why the best community builders in the world are always earning favors and redirecting those favors into the community.
The process is simple:
Earn their trust to the point where they’re willing to do you a favor
Ask them, as a favor, to help someone else in the community
Repeat that process enough times and you’ll have a wonderful community.
“Woah, David… minimizing a community to an exchange of favors seems like a pretty cold way of viewing the world.”
Thanks, reader. I always appreciate our back-and-forths.
I’m not saying you should treat people like Homer Simpson hungrily hallucinating everyone as walking donuts just waiting to be consumed. If you don’t genuinely want to help people, you won’t get far.
There’s a quote commonly attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that said, “The art of acceptance is the art of making someone who has just done you a small favor wish that he might have done you a greater one.” Understanding how to bring people to the point where they want to do you a solid is a useful skill to hone, especially for community builders.
Me? I sucked at building relationships when I was a kid.
I was awkward. You know that thing where you start saying one word and then switch, mid-word, to something else? I did stuff like that a lot.
I had a strong need to connect with people, I just couldn’t figure out how.
But I became obsessed with understanding my mistakes and by the time I arrived at college, I became a master networker. I knew everyone on campus. I prided myself on being the guy who transcended cliques, the connector between groups.
These skills would later serve me well in my career and enable me to build communities to tens of thousands of members.
Here’s everything I’ve learned about networking and the art of earning favors…
1. Create great work
It’s ironic, but the best way to build your network is often to go heads down, stop "networking”, and just build.
This is how you become the person that people want to meet.
Everyone wants to connect with creators. When people recognize your work before they meet you, you’ll feel familiar to them. You’ll have established affinity.
Building doesn’t have to be a product or a business. It could be content you create. Share what you're learning along the way. Tweet, blog, video, whatever your format, just keep sharing and focus on quality over quantity.
The practice of creating will also help become an improved conversationalist as you’ll get better at articulating your thoughts and opinions.
2. Help people at a similar stage as you
I used to wonder how all these successful people knew each other and would ALWAYS promote each other. It's because they came up together.
My most valuable connections are people I became friends with 5-10 years ago before they "made it".
The temptation is to try to connect with people who are way ahead of you in their journey. They don’t need your help. It’s much harder to form that relationship.
Don’t try to time it perfectly. If someone is looking like they’re about to blow up, it’s already too late. They have momentum. They don’t need your help.
Help the people who are at similar stages of growth and dealing with similar struggles.
Help the people who are struggling. Help the people who are just getting started. Help the people without momentum.
Similarly, when you start a community, the best community members to start with are people who are peers. If the community has too wide a range of experience and success, they won’t feel connected.
3. Build communities
There's no better way to improve your reputation in a field than to be the one bringing people together. It puts you in a position of leadership and people want to connect with leaders.
Start as small as necessary. Just get the right people together. You get to build trust and earn the respect of a small group that you can then transfer to a larger community later.
Offline is ideal: Host meetups, roundtables, dinners, etc. One day when your network is big enough, host a conference. Starting CMX Summit catapulted my network 100x.
Online is great too: Start a small WhatsApp chat. Host a curated online discussion group. When you have momentum going, you can open it up to a larger group.
Just start bringing good people together in small ways.
4. Close the loop when people help you
If you get introduced to someone, follow up and thank them after the meeting.
If you get advice, follow up later to thank the person, and let them know how it went.
If a community member gives you feedback, follow up and tell them what you did, or didn’t do, with their feedback.
You have no idea how much people appreciate you closing the loop.
The bonus is it gives you an opportunity to keep the lines of communication open. Relationships are built through repetition. The more genuine touchpoints you have with someone, the better.
5. Help every chance you get (but with boundaries)
Early in my career, I remember wanting to connect with people and thinking, “I wish I had something of value to offer”.
We all start there, feeling like we have nothing to offer. But as we grow in our careers, we get busy, and we feel less of a need to network, so we say no to a lot of requests for our help.
The ability to help others is a privilege. Don’t take it for granted.
I never say no to someone who genuinely asks for help. To protect my time, I might offer to help over text instead of jumping on a call. Or I’ll give them my number and tell them to call me so my calendar stays clear. But I always try to help.
The key to building relationships is to give with no expectation of return. If you ask for something in return, you make it a transaction, and you miss out on the opportunity to earn that sweet sweet social capital.
6. Participate in intimate spaces
Choose the smaller coworking space. Attend the smaller dinners. Join the smaller online communities. Smaller groups will give you a chance to develop deeper relationships.
Big events are great, mostly because they’re platforms for a lot of smaller events. You’ll never build relationships by watching keynote speakers. The relationships are built in the hallways, the spontaneous lunches, the afterparties.
These days, I’m 100x more likely to say yes to a small event. Early on in your career, you might need to go to the big events in order to get access to the small ones.
7. Ask good questions
There are a lot of tips out there for how to be a good conversationalist, but I’ve found it really just comes down to asking good questions.
Asking good questions puts the spotlight on the other person. The best questions help the other person think about something a different way, or tell a story they don’t often get the chance to tell.
Instead of always commenting with your own opinions, comment on other people’s posts with good, respectful questions, and they’re extremely likely to engage with you.
When you meet someone in person, ask them a lot of questions about their life and their work. Ask follow-up questions. You don’t have to make it all about them but make sure it’s balanced. If you’ve been talking about yourself for a while, turn the attention back on them with a good question.
8. Talk to less people, for more time
The temptation when trying to grow your network is to meet as many people as possible.
One or two deep conversations are exponentially more valuable than ten quick conversations.
I tend to conversation-hop until I find someone I feel really connected with. When I find that person, I spend as much time with them as possible. I’ll invite them to get together again. I’ll try to go deep.
I recently stopped taking 90% of meetings. It’s created a great deal of space in my life which allows me to go deeper with the people I do meet. The other day I did a two-hour hike with another entrepreneur in my neighborhood. It was infinitely more meaningful than a 30-minute Zoom call would have been.
9. If your industry has a big hub in a city, live there for some time
This isn't going to be possible or easy for everyone, and it's becoming less important, but it's still extremely valuable.
The serendipity of running into people in San Francisco was huge for me when I was coming up in my career. We were able to launch CMX Summit successfully, in large part, because so many community professionals were based there.
If you can’t make it to a big city, then find the gathering centers close to you. Perhaps it’s a coworking space, or a regular event. If it doesn’t exist, then follow tip #1 and start it.
The best relationships come from serendipity because it feels like the universe brought you together. Put yourself in the places where serendipity occurs.
10. Be transparent in your work, writing, and conversations
Transparency makes people feel like they know you and can trust you, even if they're just following you online. It brings them into your journey.
I’m a naturally transparent person, which is a bit weird because it isn’t how I was raised. My parents never liked to share personal information, talk about money, or let people know how they achieved something. They kept things close to the chest.
But keeping things from people makes me uncomfortable. And I love the connection I feel with people when I’m open.
So I try to answer people as openly and honestly as possible. I tell people how much money I make and how I make it. I share advantages that helped me get somewhere. I’m open about my feelings. I’ll readily admit that I’ve cried every time I’ve watched The Notebook.
When I meet people, if they’ve read these posts, they come with a great deal of context about who I am, my goals, and my struggles. It makes our conversation so much more meaningful.
It also gives me an easy link to send when people say, “How’s life?” Instead of just saying, “Great, thanks!” I can say, “Here’s a full update if you’re interested…”
Be raw. Be human. Share the real shit. Especially in our instafiltered world, showing the real you has never been a bigger competitive advantage.
I hope this helps you deepen relationships to the point where people are ready to do you a solid and help you build your community.
How to master the art of earning favors:
Create great work
Help people at the same stage as you
Close the loop when people help you
Help every chance you get (but with boundaries)
Participate in intimate spaces
Ask good questions
Talk to less people, for more time
If your industry has a big hub in a city, live there for some time
Be transparent in your work, writing, and conversations
Your turn: What’s a hard-earned networking lesson you’d like to share? Drop a comment.
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🍭 Brain candy for community nerds
Ever have a hunch that increasing notifications might increase community usage in the short run but hurt in the long run? Turns out you were right, and Meta has some data to back it up.
I was honored to be episode #1 for Sharath Kuruganty’s new podcast Community Decoded. I share a lot about my journey in this one. Listen here.
I’m a big fan of 2D and 3D virtual spaces and how it enables us to use audio to replicate in-person human experiences. Matt Cool had a great post unpacking this space and walking through an example using Mozilla’s open-source tools.
A parasocial relationship is a one-sided relationship formed when one party extends energy, interest, and time and the other person doesn’t know they exist. I always knew of this concept but didn’t know it has a name. It explains those situations where a community member feels like they know you super well because they see you in the community all the time, but you don’t know them because they’re a lurker, or you just haven’t connected directly.
Tim Urban’s new article has nothing to do with community but it’s the best and most hilarious description of what it’s like to have a baby and I just wanted you to read it.
That’s all for this week!
I’m writing this post from my in-laws’ back porch in a small town outside of Nashville. There are little bunnies hopping around and birds chirping. It’s beautiful.
Next, we’re off to Louisville to see our good friends from San Francisco (we all moved back to our home states) and then back to NY.
Business is good. Last week’s article was my most popular to date, we crossed 4,000 subscribers, and I just signed my fourth client. I got my social media operating system in place, which has already started to have an impact on newsletter growth.
All good things. How are you doing this week? Hit reply and say hola.
Until next week!
Thanks for building community.