Beating Dunbars Number

birds on a wire


There’s a theory called
Dunbar’s Number that suggests there’s an upper limit to the amount of relationships we can maintain. If you’re interested in networking, this should be an issue. That number, for the record, is 150. Derek Halpern asked me how I dealt with that issue, as I spend my time with far more than 150. Here are some thoughts.

Be One of the 150

First, an idea from my book with Julien Smith. If people are thinking that Dunbar’s number is all they can manage, then it might become important for you to ensure that you’re part of people’s 150. Meaning, if you’re looking to connect with people, connect with those who are cultivating powerful networks of their own.

You could do this geographically, if that makes sense. If I’m coming to Chicago, I’m counting on Liz Strauss and Amber Naslund (for example) to have the pulse on the ground. If I’m heading to Austin, I’m reaching out to Richard Binhammer or Jason Stoddard or another friend.

Or you might do it by vertical. If I’m thinking about the intersection of the medical world and emerging technology, I’m thinking of Steven Wardell or Andre Blackman or Daniel Palestrant. You get the idea.

Finding the right groups of 150 to connect with is helpful. That way, your 150 is augmented by those other people’s 150s. Make sense?

Be at the Elbow of Every Deal

One way to beat Dunbar’s number is to make it work in reverse. By that, I mean this: if people think of you as part of their 150, then they come to you, and they seek you out. This comes from having some value to offer. If, for instance, you’re helpful in finding others business, those people will seek you out the next time they have an opportunity, or the next time they need your help.

In either case, you’re in the network. You’re a node in their mental systems. Because they’ve got you in mind, it’s easier to let go a bit of your number/memory.

Speaking of memory, why would you ever require your memory to stay inside your head?

Database, Database, Database

You are not required to remember every single person you’ve ever met in your head. Further, you really can’t. The thing is, how will you manage your relationships in a way that you can stay open and personable. One way, I feel, is a database. And when I say that word, don’t faint. Contact management systems count. Your email client counts, depending on how you use it. Here’s what I’m doing.

I’m using BatchBook for my database, because it’s just really simple, and yet powerful. I do this: I take a contact from a business card. In this example, I’ll use DJ Edgerton, CEO of zemoga, a digital creative shop I met with in New York (and thanks to Sven Larsen for setting up a tour to see D.C. Comics!).

I’d put DJ’s typical contact info into my Batchbook contact. Great. Now, I know how to email or call him. Where it gets cool is that I can add tags. Those tags act like ways to slice the database. This means, I can add the following information to DJ’s contact:

  • newyork – for when I mail to specific regions
  • agency – so I can ping him when I have work for him, or when marketing my conference
  • comics – DJ and I have an appreciation of comics in common
  • colombia – DJ’s company has a big office in Bogota

So, now, if I want, I can remember DJ not just by his name and when I’m thinking about him, but also when I have a location-specific or work-specific thought in mind.

I have other categories for some folks:

  • checkin – make sure to message this person once a month to check in
  • advisor – I consider this friend someone I’ll ping for guidance (added one after last night)
  • connector – people who are at the core of lots of deals
  • thinker – if I need a thought leader, I go here
  • speaker – for my conferences
  • events – someone who runs conferences of their own

Rest assured that there are several more tags coming as I think of other ways to slice up my database.

Jeff Pulver told me in 2006 that you live or die by your database. I’ve worked from this mantra ever since, and I try hard to thread my various social needles together so that people know how to find me and connect. It’s important. Another part of this is by keeping the channels open.

Keep a Pulse In Between Contacts

One of the obvious (but not always considered) values of social media like blogging or using social networks is that it keeps a live pulse of information moving along. If you’re my friend in Facebook or LinkedIn or on Twitter, you might see my status information change, and be aware of me. This keeps you up to date on me, and it gives you a gentle reminder to think of me again. It works both ways, as I’m watching you, too.

This blog works that way, in a slightly different way. In the business context, my blog tells you what I’m thinking about, what I’m working on, and how I might be useful to you. Again, this gives you some of the burden of maintaining Dunbar’s Number, which frees me up to accept more of a network.

The pulse is an important part of maintaining your back and forth, and in helping people feel a bit more connected when you can’t talk one on one from time to time.

Is it Sustainable?

I know many people with larger personal networks. They all seem to be living, doing business, and staying married, so I think you can, too. Like everything in life, it’s a commitment. Can everyone run five miles a day (or 15)? No. But if you want to be a distance runner, you work at it.

Me personally? I’m in this for the people. I’m here to connect and build relationships of value. Thus, I’m planning to beat Dunbar at his game.

**Quick Addendum: This is not a quantity-vs-quality discussion. I have a very small number of quality relationships, and by that, I mean people that I share far more, and with whom I have a deeper emotional connection. I know how to make close friends. This isn’t about that.**

What are your suggestions? How are you scaling your networking experiences?

Photo credit Neona

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