Rainmaking Problem #5: How Big Should Your Network Be?

Here is another of the rainmaking problems that I offer as topics for discussion. It’s one that I hate! I hope you will leave a comment with your thoughts on a solution to this problem.

I hate it! I just hate it! But someone always asks how big their network should be. It is a perfectly fair question. But I hate it, because my answer is so lame. It’s lame, because I simply don’t know. My fumbling answers usually start with, “That depends. On the one hand …” and are, at best, unconvincing. The other one I hear, “bigger than yours is now,” stinks of condescension.

It’s not only a fair question, it’s a good one. To be effective, networks need some bulk, because as a network grows, its power grows geometrically. Conceptually, at least, once your network reaches an optimum size, you can shift your focus to increasing its quality.

A few sizing parameters seem reasonable. If you sell a regularly recurring service, like accounting audits, your network needn’t be as big as the one needed if you sell a nonrecurring service. People who sell a lot of small projects need bigger networks than those who sell fewer, larger ones. Factors like these suggest that there isn’t one answer for all situations.

For the purposes of this discussion, a person’s active network will be defined as those business people with whom he or she has had personalized contact within the past six months in meetings, by phone or in writing (mass (e)mailings don’t count unless you have added a personalized note).

It would be interesting to learn any of the following:

  • Research done on the effects of referral network sizes on their productivity. (There has probably been some.)
  • Guidelines or methodologies for determining optimum network size. (There is a good chance that these don’t exist, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.)
  • Your experiences with different sizes of networks. (Were there any tipping points or other indications that something significant had changed. Please note the kind of services you offer.)

I think this request is unusually difficult, so please don’t be shy about impressions, opinions and general comments on the subject. You can’t be doing any worse with this one than I am.

(Got a problem selling professional services? Feel free to email me your problem and it may become a future “Rainmaking Problem.”)

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3 Responses to “Rainmaking Problem #5: How Big Should Your Network Be?”

  1. Tim Klabunde Says:

    Ford-

    Great question on one of my favorite topics! Successful networking is helping other people (I believe you used the question “How can I help this person” to describe this in your book Rain Making). It is my belief that you should try to help everyone that you meet, every day. HOWEVER, I also believe that you should focus on a select group of people (More than 10, less than 20). I posted my justification for this in a recent blog on cofebuz.com: “When we help someone else once, it creates an innate and positive response. When we help someone three times, it creates a desire for them to help us in return; and when we help someone a dozen times, they have a healthy desire to help us in return. The great thing about real networking is that it creates mutually beneficial relationships where two people are consistently looking for ways to help one another. The key to this happening is concentrated effort on a specific group of people that over time develops these multiple mutually beneficial relationships.”

    Tim Klabunde
    cofebuz

  2. Steve Shu Says:

    This is by no means even a start to a full answer, but to apply some rigor to an analysis, it may be useful to draw from research on the Dunbar Number …

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number
    http://www.lifewithalacrity.com/2004/03/the_dunbar_numb.html

  3. Ford Harding Says:

    Tim and Steve

    Thanks for the response. Steve’s second link was especially helpful and it will take me some time to get through its links and comments. Tim, with your anthropological bent, I think you will like it.

    Our research into rainmakers suggest that they have primary networks of between 20 and 50 people, mostly towards the lower end of the range. They often have names for these groups (breakfast club, posse, mafia). They also have secondary networks that are much larger made up of people they contact less frequently. (One rainmaker refers to his “friends” and his “Semi-friends) Tim, this is consistent with your number and also with Dunbar. Dunbar clearly didn’t have email or phones in mind when he wrote, and many looser, weaker relationships are possible today than in his primitive societies.

    There is much to ponder here, still, but this is progress.

    Steve, I miss your blog.

    Ford Harding

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