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Sara 

Do not underestimate the value of your network

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Do not, my friend, underestimate the value of your network. I have done so on occasion and I expect my professional life would have been easier had I understood.

I learned my lesson after moving from Bangkok to Brussels in 1999. In Bangkok, I had been running a pioneering Internet and multimedia company and was a director of a business service centre. In the decade I lived in the city, I had also worked in publishing and had been a magazine columnist. Being fluent in Thai and, more importantly, understanding social behaviour in the country, I knew a lot of Thai businesspeople as well as foreigners. When I needed some advice, I knew who to call. If I needed to subcontract work, I knew who to call. Even if I did not know a subcontractor for a particular need, I always knew someone who could make introductions. When my (now ex-) wife's pregnancy developed complications, a friend was able to put us in touch with Thailand's leading doctor for such problems − an impressive doctor who had trained in London and could do amazing things.

In fact, I was so integrated into these networks, that I did not realise their value until I left. Initially, I hardly noticed. When I first moved to Brussels, I was an e-commerce advisor to the European Commission and e-commerce and Internet network was global, so email sufficed to put me in touch with experts when I needed advice.

Cartoon: looking for networkHowever, after spending nearly four years advising the commission and then a bureaucratic European office of a Japanese company, I craved to run my own company again. I had an idea to develop innovation process management software. As I started to put the concept together in my head and on paper, I realised that I simply did not know the kind of people I needed to help me get the venture off the ground − at least not in Belgium. Although I had previously promised myself that the next time I launched a company, I would do it with partners, I did not know the necessary people to partner with. Moreover, I did not have the reputation in Belgium that I did in Thailand, making it harder still. In the end, I did way too many things myself − like teaching myself to program − which slowed the development of the business. Although the business did not fail, it never made much money either. Indeed, I did far better financially by being a tiny cog in the European Commission than I did by running my own show.

So, why didn't I use my Thai network to help out? Simple. It was a great network for an entrepreneur running businesses with clients mostly in Thailand. But people in the network were not internationally connected. I knew few people in Thailand that could help, advise or partner in the running of a software company with a global client base. Moreover, with little interest in innovation among Thai businesses, the country was not a viable market for my software.

Lessons Learned

I learned two things from this experience. Firstly, networks are way more valuable than many of us realise. The relationships within them are worth maintaining. One great way to do this is to make yourself useful to people in the network. For example, when Thai business friends had important meetings with Westerners, they knew that they could invite me to join them, interpret if necessary and give feedback afterwards.

Secondly, if you launch a new venture that is very different to what you have done in the past, be aware that you may not have the network of advisors, supporters and partners that you are used to having. Think about it. If you've been a marketing manager in large companies for 20 years and decide you are bored to death with your career and want to start an Internet business selling handicrafts, who in your network would be useful? Who could you ask for advice? Where could you find partners that could provide elements of the business that you cannot provide?

So, if you are considering a radical career change or international move, start thinking about your network now and build it up to include people who can be useful to you and to whom you can be useful. It's a lot easier asking for advice when you are planning your new business or career than to admit later that you need a lot of basic advice. It helps to talk to people who understand your new field.

Needless-to-say, a good place to start finding such people is by asking friends in your network for introductions.

Postscript

Incidentally, in the years since moving to Brussels and then to a Belgian village outside Brussels, I have built up an international network of people in a wide variety of fields. In part, this has been the result of rebuilding my reputation on-line. In part, it has been the result of social networks that have put me back in touch with people I knew in school and in earlier incarnations of my life. Nevertheless, my network in Belgium is not what it could be!

 

 

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