From day one, contacts can be a startup founder’s biggest asset while launching a company. And, whether you are looking for a co-founder or want to join an existing team, networking is important at any stage of the game.

There’s a reason why Keith Ferrazzi’s “success breeds success” mantra from his book Never Eat Alone is so popular: it works.  From asking for advice to receiving your first round of funding, the power of people can’t be overestimated. Regardless, opportunities don’t come knocking at the door.  I found a private equity internship on the sidewalk–literally.  My future boss’ toddler wanted to pet my Yorkshire Terrier, and we struck up a conversation while standing in the parkway on a sticky summer evening.

If you want to casually connect with other entrepreneurs, attending local networking events at startup incubators or meet-ups easily identifies other interested individuals. Specifically, co-working communities like Chicago’s 1871 provide vibrant communities where you can meet and mingle with other entrepreneurs.  Business plan competitions are also ripe for making contacts.  The judges are asked to judge for a reason (namely their expertise) and other participants want to network, too.  Even if you are the most-experienced entrepreneur in the room, everyone else adds value whether you are mentoring or being mentored.

Pitching your startup or idea doesn’t need to be–and shouldn’t be–a hard sell, even when you aren’t at a work related event.  Instead, let others know what you are working on as part of your personal story.  Volunteer opportunities can create meaningful relationships, especially when the good cause coincides with your company’s mission. For instance, if your startup helps individuals with food allergies, volunteering for a food allergy advocacy group would be a great place to start.

When you are looking for a connection with specific attributes, LinkedIn provides powerful screening tools for targeted online networking.  By using the advanced search, you can find individuals who work at certain companies or share certain elements of your background.  You don’t need to be a premium LinkedIn member to find contact information by sleuthing on Google, reaching out on Twitter, or getting in touch with mutual connections.

Reaching out creates lasting relationships from what may be only a chance encounter.  As you prepare to launch or try to gain traction, networking shouldn’t end with a single handshake at the end of an introduction.  Instead:

  • Send a prompt follow up email.  Get in touch even if you don’t have an explicit reason; it’s easier to send quick email if you aren’t asking for help immediately.  Provide some context about your background or a comment on your last conversation—the paper trail helps when you follow up on your conversation months later.
  • Save contact information. Store details such as email addresses, phone numbers, and notes about how and when you met people.  Figure out the system that works best for you, whether it’s Gmail, Outlook, or even an Excel workbook.
  • Connect online. Make sure you connect through LinkedIn and anywhere else you foster your professional community. Double check that your contact information and company details are up to date here, too.
  • Put a reminder on your calendar.  When do you need to follow up again? Perhaps there’s even an event–whether a contact is expecting a baby or there’s an upcoming friendly-rivalry football game–that would give you a good reason for touching base.
  • Offer to help. Whether you’re passing along an interesting article or connecting that individual with someone else who might be able to help them, create a reputation that you add value to other people’s lives–and you’ll keep your startup fresh in their minds.

Even if your startup isn’t ready to leverage a connection, creating warm relationships sets the stage for when you need help.  As a Chinese proverb says, “he who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.”