The 4 most important words in business

California has its share of famous streets: Sunset Strip, Rodeo Drive, Hollywood Boulevard. But for entrepreneurs, the real main drag is Sand Hill Road. Lining this stretch of asphalt outside Menlo Park are a who’s who of elite venture capital firms. Nearly every top Silicon Valley company has started here.

So I was understandably a little intimidated back in 2009, on one of my first fundraising trips to the Valley for Hootsuite. Would investors give me the time of day? Would they share my enthusiasm for building a social media management platform? Would I even be able to get in the door?

But something unexpected happened — almost eerie. Time and time again, inside conference rooms, at coffee shops or huddling in hotel lobbies, I heard the same four-word phrase from investors and entrepreneurs.

How can I help?

VCs like Geoff Entress from Voyager Capital asked me. Angel investor Dave McClure asked me. Kissmetrics CEO Hiten Shah asked me. These were powerful and extremely busy people. And yet here they were offering up their time and expertise, their connections and critical thinking power, to a new entrepreneur.

Fast forward almost a decade and I heard that same four-word mantra last month while on another trip to the Bay Area. At Startup Grind’s Global Conference earlier this year, the entrepreneurial all stars on stage were using it. At Google, special projects lead Gia Scinto sat down with me and asked the very same question.

I had an “aha” moment and had to stop and ask myself: What was so special about this four-word phrase? And why were so many incredibly successful people using it?

The power of “How can I help?”

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. If business is all about who you know, then this simple line — How can I help? — might be the ultimate networking tool. At it’s heart, it’s a powerful way to fast-track relationships and build goodwill. By offering to help, you cultivate instant rapport and establish an immediate sense of trust. Rather than waiting for someone to prove themselves to you, you take the bull by the horns and prove yourself to them. A foundation is built — with striking speed and efficiency — for future interactions.

It struck me that all these wildly successful people had probably been offering a helping hand long before they were successful. In fact, it was likely their willingness to help — the connections built and doors opened as a result — that accounted in good measure for their success.

The key to cementing relationships isn’t just offering help, of course. It’s following through and actually providing it. I’ve seen this throughout my career. From our earliest meetings, for example, one of my investors has always made a point of asking me how he can help out … with advice, employee referrals, you name it. In fact, I owe half of my executive team to his Rolodex. John Ruffalo, incidentally, is one of the best connected and most successful investors around, with an uncanny track record. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

So how does it work?

What’s the mysterious mechanism at work here? How, exactly, does helping others help you? Well, you could equate it to business karma. I truly believe that helping other people sets you up for cosmic success at some level: whether that’s in business or in everyday life (in fact, the less distinction you make between the two, the better). What goes around almost inevitably comes around.

But if you prefer more hard-boiled business terminology, you could think of the help you offer as an investment. Like any investment, it might pay off in the short-term, you may have to stick around for the long haul or it might be a bust altogether. But I’ve found — more often than not — that you do see a healthy return from the help you extend … though usually in ways that are more complex, mysterious and powerful than you might imagine.

Learning to ask for help, too

I noticed something else among the entrepreneurial prodigies I met recently. While they were generous in offering help, they also weren’t exactly shy about asking for it. For every “How can I help?” that I overheard, there was a matching “Can you help me?” The entrepreneurs at Startup Grind were looking for strategic partnerships, introductions and insights on shared problems. And they didn’t hesitate to ask for input.

This surprised me: Most entrepreneurs are terrible at asking for help. We’re self-reliant to a fault … and usually a little insecure — determined to hack through obstacles and do things our own way. I know I fit that profile. Early on, I bootstrapped my company, committed to going it my own, without investment or advisors. This mindset has certain virtues: you get a lot done when you know the buck stops with you. But, ultimately, learning to ask for and accept help changed everything for me and for Hootsuite. I’d still be running a small agency today — rather than a global enterprise — if I hadn’t mastered that skill.

The reality is that, for all our pride, founders are generally jacks-of-all-trade: good at many things, great at none. We may know a little about investing or marketing or engineering, but there are people out there who are experts … and who can completely transform a business in the course of a few conversations. By tapping into their expertise, you save the time, expense and frustration of figuring everything out yourself.

Ultimately, in asking your network for help, you multiply your brainpower and problem-solving skills exponentially. Even the simple task of formulating a good question — identifying exactly what you need help with — can force you to look more deeply and critically at your business.

Seeing the easy give and take of advice, compassion and insight among so many brilliant entrepreneurs really drove a key point home: we’re all in it together … far more than we realize. Self-interest and a cold shoulder will only take you so far, in business or in life. Real success rests on being able to ask for help and give it away freely.

A version of this originally appeared in Inc.

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Entrepreneur, investor, future enthusiast, inventor, hacker. Lover of dogs, owls and outdoor pursuits. Best-known as the founder and CEO of Hootsuite.

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Ryan Holmes

Ryan Holmes

Entrepreneur, investor, future enthusiast, inventor, hacker. Lover of dogs, owls and outdoor pursuits. Best-known as the founder and CEO of Hootsuite.

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