In 1974, Robin Dunbar earned his stripes as an anthropologist and evolutionary pscyhologist by completing work on his PhD from the University of Bristol, which was summarized in a paper entitled, Social Dynamics of Gelada Baboons. (Look those suckers up, they’re scary.)
Dunbar’s research would go on to cover the evolution of communication and culture, social networks, and the social evolution of the human mind. But it was while studying the grooming habits of apes that he stumbled upon the single finding that would go on to fuel much of his career.
There’s a fun little scientific concept called the Social Brain Hypothesis, which tells us that primates have large brains primarily to handle the complexity of our social connections. While Dunbar was considering how grooming and primate brain size might be interrelated, he had a thought: what if he could use the average human brain size to calculate the number of people humans are naturally equipped to have in our social group…
The answer: 150. That number has become known as “Dunbar’s Number” and it’s commonly used to refer to the optimal number of close social connections we can actively maintain as humans.
The debate over the relevance of this number has been hearty over time as technology has given us the opportunity to connect with ever more people. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn allow us to stay connected to thousands of people at a time. Fizzle has nearly 2,000 members as of this writing. In other words, it appears that our social connections are expanding through technology.
And yet, in all of the research Dunbar has done to test whether technology makes us better able to handle a large number of social connections (including working directly with the Facebook team), the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ Humans can maintain roughly 150 close relationships, and to try to maintain more than that is to sacrifice the quality of the relationships.
In his words, “Our research has shown that those who have large numbers of genuine friends (i.e. a larger than average face-to-face network size) typically sacrifice relationship quality to be able to do so. It is as though we have a limited amount of social capital and we can choose to spread that thinly (and have many weak friends) or thickly (and have a few strong friends).”
Which brings us to the point of this article: every entrepreneur needs to be surrounded by a community of people in order to have a fighting chance at creating a sustainable, successful business. And if we’re really only able to maintain 150 close relationships, then we better be intentional about who we want those people to be.
We believe so strongly in the importance of connecting with like-minded peers and building a community of support that we built it into our new business roadmap as it’s own stage of building a business. Now, I want to help you be intentional about who you’re allowing into that inner circle of 150.
These are the eight types of relationships every entrepreneur should have in her community:
Aspirant Peers (Your Tribe)
The popular term for aspirant peers these days is one coined by Seth Godin: your tribe. I consider my aspirant peers to be the kind of friends I look up to and want to grow up to be like some day.
Aspirant peers are typically people with a very similar value system, starting or running similar projects or businesses, and people equally driven as you. They’re the people who might be a step or two ahead of you in this whole entrepreneurial game we like to play.
I found my initial group of aspirant peers at World Domination Summit 2012. I finally felt like I had found a group of people who understood what I wanted from my life and work. Similarly, I found another group of aspirant peers when I joined the Global Shapers community in Atlanta. In other words, I found them when I intentionally sought out groups or events that were likely to attract people like me.
Aspirant peers are the people who push you. They make you see the world in different ways. They challenge you to think differently. The make you set your own bar higher than you would on your own.
What’s more, Dunbar’s research tells us that the more your aspirant peers know one another (in addition to knowing you), the more powerful the relationships will be. As he says, “We have shown, for example, that more densely interconnected networks of friends are more likely to support each other and behave altruistically towards each other than those who have weakly interconnected networks.”
Your aspirant peers should make up the biggest portion of your Dunbar-sized crew. I have 50 people in the group of aspirant peers I make an effort to stay in touch with.
Social Peers (Your Drinking buddies)
Social peers is a nerdy term for friends. They’re the people you enjoy grabbing a leisurely beer with or the people you wouldn’t mind spending a relaxing week at the beach with.
Your social peers are the people who don’t need to understand what you do for a living. They’re in your life because they love you as a person and will support you regardless of what happens.
While your social peers can be the most frustrating group of friends to chat with about work, they can be some of the most enjoyable people to let loose with. They’re the people you can count on to have a good time and remind you there’s life to be lived outside of your work.
Your social peers might make up anywhere from 25–50 of your Dunbar number crew.
There should be some subset of your social and aspirant peers who are local. These are the people you can call on a lonely evening after a rough day running the business to grab a drink. They’re the people you invite to dinner parties and New Years Eve celebrations.
These are your people. The ones you can count on in your hometown. They’re your best chance for creating a dense support network, and you can work over time to make sure more and more of them meet one another.
Without them, living the life of an independent entrepreneur can simply be a series of exciting trips, buffered by long periods of intense loneliness and longing for connection. Since your local peers are a subset of your aspirant and social peers, so they won’t add any to your Dunbar number crew.
If you don’t currently have a great local peer group, check out Fizzle meetups (they’re free and open to current and aspiring entrepreneurs, whether you’re a Fizzle customer or not). Show up to the next one in your city or start one of your own.
We talk about mastermind groups regularly on the Fizzle Show and I wrote an article about finding and maintaining a mastermind group here on the Sparkline… but why is the concept of a mastermind group so pervasive these days?
When you’re working as an independent entrepreneur, it usually means you’re working solo until you can hire a team, which could be months or years into growing your business (if ever). Without a team, it can be tough to get honest feedback about the quality of your work, bounce ideas around, or just share fun little moments of connection during the ups and downs of running a business.
A mastermind group is the perfect way to gather regularly with a group of people who know you and know your business. If well-organized, each meeting can be well worth the time invested. And with a little luck, your mastermind group members can become some of your closest friends as well.
A great mastermind group consists of 3–5 people. Seek out the people who will be a great personality fit, who will hold you accountable, and who will care enough to stay in the group over time.
When you’re building a business, you are constantly faced with challenges you have no idea how to solve. How do I build a website? How should I price my products and services? What is a business model?
When you’re faced with problems you’ve never solved before, having a great teacher can be exactly what you need. Teachers are like mentors you don’t know on a personal level. They share their expertise through blogs, podcasts, courses, and interviews.
You can look at finding teachers in one of two ways:
1. You can find teachers on an as-needed basis. You have a problem, and you search for the best teacher who can help you solve it.
2. You can find teachers who will curate the information you need before you know you need it.
Both approaches can work well. We do a ton of topic-based research here on the Fizzle team. Topic-based research is excellent for helping us create our own content as we search for interesting stories and case studies around the web.
Meanwhile, teachers who curate information on your behalf are like mentors from afar. These are the people who’s blogs or podcasts you listen to religiously – you count on them to do the heavy lifting to get you the information you need when you need it. This is the kind of teacher we try to be through the Sparkline, The Fizzle Show, and Fizzle itself.
Every entrepreneur needs teachers. The best way to find the ones who resonate most with you is to start by following 8–10 teachers, rotating them out as you identify less with some and more with others. Ultimately, your goal is to find 1–2 trusted teachers you can follow to help you understand exactly how to build your business.
Mentors are like teachers who you have personal access to. They’re the people willing to get together with you on a semi-regular basis to give feedback, help you see the forest for the trees, and share their own experience so you can learn from their successes and failures.
A great mentor is worth their weight in gold, but they’re not easy to find. You can’t go around asking people to “be my mentor.” Corbett and I have both written about what to do instead:
– How to Find a Mentor by Corbett
– How to find and maintaing a mentor relationship by me
I like to think of mentors like a “personal board of advisors.” They’re the group of people you go to when you have a massive decision on your hands. The people with more or different life experience to help you see your decisions from a more objective and calculated angle.
Start by finding one, but over time, I think it’s healthy to have a team of 3–5 mentors to help you continue to make the best decisions for you and your business.
A great coach will have tools and frameworks for helping you set strategic goals, make good decisions, and ultimately improve results in your business. They’re not a consultant or therapist, but rather someone who can ask you the right questions at the right time to help you make a breakthrough.
The challenge with coaches is the lack of ability to compare between options and evaluate how well a given coach might fit your needs. Coaching is still largely a wild west profession, so finding a great coach is downright hard.
We’re running a little experiment inside of Fizzle to try to fix this problem, at least for our customers for the time being. Later this month we’ll be pilot testing a coaching marketplace to help entrepreneurs find coaches and coaches find clients.
If you find a good one, you really only need one coach. They’ll be a asset and an advocate for you, but they’ll also hold you accountable to your goals. Sometimes, that’s exactly what an entrepreneur needs.
Ah, yes, the best for last. For entrepreneurs, family is always a touchy subject. For some, our families are our biggest supporters and cheerleaders. For others, family is the greatest source of conflict and shame when it comes to being an entrepreneur.
Whether your family “gets” what you do for a living or not, they are an important part of the entrepreneurial support system you’ll need to build a successful business.
Family will mean different things to different people. For some, it will be a huge extended family of 25 or more relatives who all live in the same city. For others it will simply be a spouse or partner who’s along for the ride. But at the end of the day, family rounds out an entrepreneur’s support system.
For entrepreneurs, a supportive community can be the difference between perservering and quitting. The people around you are the ones who will give you the support and courage you need to see your business through to sustainability.
Even better, being intentional about surrounding yourself with great people, regardless of what role you hope they’ll play in your life is an effort that will pay off far beyond your business.
Robin Dunbar sums it up well in one of his research papers, “We know more people than this (the number of individuals we can recognise and put names to is around 1500), but the number we can be said to have meaningful relationships with seems to be restricted to the 150 that form the natural community size of small scale societies.”
While the number of people you know and can recognize will always be larger than your group of close social relationships, the group of 150 are those who will truly impact your life. Make sure they’re good ones.