The COVID Pandemic and Entrepreneurs Social Networks

Written by: Brady Drake

Josh Marineau, Associate Professor of Management at North Dakota State, has had research published in Social Networks, Group & Organization Management, andJournal of Business and Psychology. He has presented his research at academic conferences around the world, most recently at the Academy of Management Annual Meeting in Chicago, IL, and at the International Network for Social Network Analysis Annual Meeting in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

As part of an ongoing project studying entrepreneurs in Fargo-Moorhead I have interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs over the years. Over the last few months in particular, I have interviewed 25 individuals as part of my research with the Challey Institute at NDSU investigating the effects of the COVID pandemic on entrepreneurs and leaders in the FM area. I wanted to share some of my findings so far of the effects of the pandemic on entrepreneurs’ personal and professional relationships. What has been the biggest change? What kinds of things did they find helpful? What ways did they adjust their social networks in light of the pandemic?

The first clear outcome of my research shows that most peoples’ social networks – the set of people entrepreneurs interact with on a regular basis – shrunk markedly. The lack of interactions and opportunity to meet with others caused a pruning effect. As one entrepreneur put it, “Your circle just got really small, especially right away when this started. So just that connection to others has gone down to pretty much nothing.” Another founder said, “The ties are weakening… but even the stronger ties, there are fewer of them. So my circles are smaller.”

Why have social circles gotten smaller, despite the prevalence and ubiquity of digital media?

One answer is that the startup community in the Fargo-Moorhead was built on the values of community, support and collaboration. Many of the collaborative synergies were born out of “serendipitous” interactions at a coffee shop, sidewalk corner or community event. I hear many stories of how rekindled ideas and new ventures spawn as a result of ‘chance’ encounters, where one person runs into another person who introduces them to a third person, and so on, sometimes all the way to a startup. Talking to many individuals over the last few months has shown that these conversations, once the key to sharing knowledge, meeting new clients, and finding resources basically vanished overnight. Seeking out key partners and collaborators this way has almost completely disappeared from the relational strategy tool kit.

How did some entrepreneurs respond to this new social reality? My data suggests that while most networks got smaller, some grew and also got deeper.

When discussing the importance of close relationships over the pandemic, one entrepreneur talked about reconnecting with people that he hadn’t talked with in years, “A handful of us… have a happy hour on Thursdays because we realized only other entrepreneurs understand the reality of what this is like.” Another local business owner talked about her deepening relationships with other local entrepreneurs, “We’ve all had to talk through things… we share information in ways that we’ve adapted that have been beneficial… things we have tried that didn’t work, and it’s good to have someone to discuss those with too.” She went on to describe how these relationships became stronger leading to more collaboration. Others had similar stories where they reconnected with a small group of likeminded people, even competitors, to share stories, discuss challenges, and sometimes just to have a virtual shoulder to cry on. They not only looked for support for themselves, but found they had a lot to offer others as well. Another entrepreneur said, “The benefit [of the shutdown] being, there’s this intense personal relationship with a small circle of people”.

My data suggests that those entrepreneurs that were able to consolidate their key relationships and find creative ways to connect were better able to cope with the fear and doubt.

While the regular social channels dried up, enterprising entrepreneurs found new ways to interact, and the most meaningful tended to be as mentors or confidants to others – usually over texts and emails. Not all entrepreneurs and business owners had the same experience. A few focused on home-life completely, with a wait and see approach. But these entrepreneurs reported some positive effects of this strategy, with deeper family ties, more time spent on the business fundamentals, and a clearer perspective on their own goals.

When we must be selective about how we invest our time in others, we find that those choices can be difficult, but also rewarding. Our social networks are an incredible resource, especially in difficult times. What can we learn from these entrepreneurs?

  • Take the opportunity to strengthen your close ties when possible. It is ok to take a step back and focus on your most critical relationships, others will completely understand and likely do the same.
  • Find and engage with a few other people that are experiencing the same stressors and challenges — it can be very rewarding for you and them. They will appreciate it.
  • Take a brief inventory of your social activity. Should you make an adjustment? Where do you have the biggest impact and the greatest reward? Who needs you right now? What do you need?

Recently, the tide has been changing. Stores are open, people are gathering and some sense of normalcy is returning. While the pandemic was devastating to many people’s personal lives and businesses, it is also good to think about how some local entrepreneurs made the most of a difficult time — establishing a stronger, deeper network and in some cases, coming out of the nightmare a bit wiser and stronger as a result. Finding ways to connect where we are contributing to the health and well being of others, even our competitors, proved to be highly beneficial — and hopefully long lasting.

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.