Friends with benefits: why your entrepreneurial ecosystem should be reciprocal- and what to do if it’s not
Years ago I was working at fashion trade shows for various designers. Those were long, hard days and I was making a piddly day rate but I did it to learn the industry, stay on top of trends and make contacts.
We were the “booth babes-” meaning the fun and bubbly sales people (men and women) who enticed show goers to come in, check out the goods and place orders. Our customers were buyers from specialty retail stores and the Majors- department stores and fledgling websites.
The designers of the collections we sold were usually present at the trade shows but didn’t have to do so much. They swanned in and out, came for really big meetings with the likes of Saks or Nordstrom but otherwise texted, played with their dogs, and drank before going out on the town and then retiring to their luxury hotels. If I sound bitter I’m really trying not to! LOL their hard work- the design- had already been done. Also many designers did NOT want to hear what the buyers had to say about their collections. What I am trying to paint a picture of is the fact that the sales of those collections fell to contractors like me. We were on our feet for 12 hours a day, interacting with pretty rude and obnoxious buyers (with a few exceptions) and also had to massage the egos of the designers.
If you are familiar with the fashion world at all, you KNOW they have EGOS. FWIW a delightful designer named Amy Tan of Amy Tangerine was a notable exception. She also had sweet dogs. Also: more fashion biz gossip at the bottom of this article that while interesting is unrelated to the point of this post.
Anyway, in between breaks and before and after hours, lots of young booth babes would come hang out in my booth to talk, ask questions and generally get advice. I was not yet officially a coach- that would happen just a few years later- but I enjoyed helping others even in an unofficial capacity. I’m still in touch with some of my booth babe friends even!
One day my designer (a very fabulous Brazilian woman) came by and asked me, “Why are you always helping people? What do you get out of it?”
Her question made me laugh because pretty clearly she was in it to win it for herself even as I was breaking sales records for her with a less than stellar collection to work with.
I told her the truth: I’m happy to help those who ask because other people have helped me along the way. And it costs me nothing- other than time- to share my experiences or act as a sounding board for ideas.
It was the first time in my professional career that I realized what I was doing was unusual, at least to some people. And it underscored for me the importance of serving when it comes to building an ecosystem.
I was serving without expectation of reciprocity. Which is the ideal mentality to bring to your service- no strings attached.
But what happens when you’re doing all the serving and no one is serving you back?
I think this happens for a couple reasons.
- You’re not asking. It’s totally ok to ask for something, ya’ll! If you don’t ask you won’t get it 100% of the time. So ask! Sometimes you don't know what to ask for or whom to ask, or you want to save up that ask for something really important. I get that. Still, be open to guidance on reaching out. I've lately made a practice of asking my guides, "Who should I reach out to? What should I be open to asking for?"
- People don’t know how to help you. You’re pretty damn amazing. People perceive that about you. But if you come across as superwoman all the time, people will not necessarily reach out to give you a hand. (See #1 above.) But the kicker here is that others in your ecosystem need to know how to help you. You need to make it clear what you do and who you do it for so that others have an inkling of the types of people that make sense in your ecosystem. So many entrepreneurs make their work and their target market so convoluted that no one knows how to make referrals to them. So make it easy. Make it clear. Say it often. If you're not sure how to answer "what do you do and who do you do it for?" then work on that today!
These days I still like to serve with no expectation of reciprocity and I do it often. I'm also getting better at asking people for help- though I still need to work on that. And the last part: what do you do and who for has been a confounding challenge for me for years! I'm happy that it's finally come into focus: my company licenses business tools to elite entrepreneurs who use those tools with their clients or their internal teams for profitable, creative and world-changing growth.
Now, get clear on what you do, who you do it for, and then go ask for some intros and favors! You’ve paid it forward no doubt, so it’s time to collect 😃
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Story time! Ok, so the Brazilian fashion designer (she of the mediocre knitwear) was a bit of a jet setter. She always came to trade shows super hungover and blabbing about her latest big trip. She traveled with a crew of incredibly wealthy people who hopped on private jets to attend the next big house party- be it in South Africa or Italy or Sao Paulo. That's what they did.
Now, this woman was pretty dismissive of me, the booth babe. She knew nothing about me and wasn't the kind of person to ask questions. So when she started talking about her friend Glenn in Florence with a villa, I piped up. Turns out I knew a Glenn in Florence too! Who had a villa rumored to have been designed by Michelangelo! Was her Glenn the same one who contributed huge cash to restore the David? Yes! See six degrees! Brazilia was incredulous and demanded to know how I knew him. She was aghast to learn that I had gone to one of his infamous parties- the Gatsby one that she, alas, couldn't manage to circle the jets to attend. Nevermind that my friend and I wore jeans and Hermes scarves as halter tops to this seriously fancy dress party (we didn't get the memo), but the point was we were there! And she wasn't. She treated me differently after that. Ah fashion people.