How entrepreneurs can overcome Dunbar’s Number

dunbar's number

Though Leslie Bradshaw frequently finds herself in Los Angeles, sometimes multiple times in a single month, you wouldn’t know it by following her on social media. Bradshaw, a fellow at the US Chamber of Commerce and co-founder of Small Data Enterprises, spends roughly half her time traversing between major urban hubs across the world, and when she lands in any particular place she’s reluctant to announce it on Facebook or Twitter. She certainly doesn’t check in on geosocial apps like Foursquare.

“If I’m passing through on business, I have maybe a two or three-day window and I’m booked for meetings starting at breakfast all the way through dinner, and they’re usually professional in nature,” she told me. “And if I let people know I’m in town, then there’s going to be a sense of disappointment that I don’t see them.”

This may seem cold and calculating, but for Bradshaw it’s the only way to balance the limited amount of time she has with the expansive network she’s amassed over her career. She knows that if she announces her presence and then isn’t able to meet up with a close friend or colleague, her unavailability, despite her best intentions, will invariably be viewed as a snub.

“People will find out and say, ‘Hey, I heard you were in town, why didn’t you let me know? Why didn’t you reach out?’ I’d say nine out of 10 times I just didn’t have the time, and one out of 10 times I literally forgot and I totally should have included them.”

Confronting Dunbar’s Number

Leslie Bradshaw

Leslie Bradshaw

As her network grows, Bradshaw finds herself facing the challenges and limits of what sociologists call Dunbar’s Number. Named after Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, Dunbar’s Number addresses the upper limits of any single human being’s social network of close contacts. He arrived at this number — 150 — after first observing the interactions of primates and correlating their brain size to the size of their social groups. Dunbar noted that many human congregations, both ancient and modern, corresponded with this number — African tribes, ancient farming villages, and even American military units.

The number 150 is actually just an average; depending on the person, it ranges between 100 and 230. But no matter how extroverted and socially outgoing you are, no matter how strong your memory or willpower, your ability to maintain close social connections will begin to deteriorate once you approach it.

“The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us,” Dunbar wrote. “Putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

For entrepreneurs and highly-connected networkers like Bradshaw, this presents a challenge. In a world where business relationships are a sort of currency, creating and sustaining them becomes not only a means to social fulfillment, but a prerequisite for career advancement. So how does one not only push up against, but overcome, Dunbar’s Number?

Bradshaw’s approach to this problem has become increasingly scientific. She begins by creating a new document in Google Drive before every trip.

“On the top of the Google Doc, I put as many people as I can recall in that city,” she explained. “And then I go into LinkedIn and Facebook, scanning to see if there’s anybody popping up with whom I need to do some sort of maintenance.”

She places these names at the top and then blocks out her day in the bottom. She splits it into small timeframes: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks, with room for meetings in between. How many people she can meet in a day depends on how geographically distant they are from each other. She’ll also set up large dinners where she’ll attempt to connect like-minded folks who might not otherwise know each other. This has the added benefit of allowing her to meet with a larger number of colleagues in her limited amount of time.

The modern Rolodex

There’s some evidence that the rise of social media has led to a greater expansion of our social circles. Social networks like Facebook have been referred to, often pejoratively, as time wasters that detract from our real-world relationships, but a study produced by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication and the Pew Internet Project found that heavy smartphone and internet use correlates with larger and more deeply-connected social circles, both online and off.

“It turns out that those who use the internet and mobile phones have notable social advantages,” one researcher said. “People use the technology to stay in touch and share information in ways that keep them socially active and connected to their communities.”

Ekaterina Walter

Ekaterina Walter

Ekaterina Walter, who helped build Intel’s social media empire and is now the co-founder of a startup called Branderati, constantly culls new business contacts and maintains old ones through social media. For her, networks like Twitter serve as a sort of bridge that can hold up a relationship in between face-to-face meetings.

“I’ll build a relationship [on Twitter]  and then two years later you meet someone face to face and you feel like you’ve been friends forever,” she said in a phone interview.

There are a number of tools, of course, specifically developed for keeping track of your contacts, the most famous of which is the old-fashioned Rolodex. Its more modern counterparts, however, go beyond merely storing your connections by actually encouraging you to continuously reinvigorate them. Bradshaw said she uses Contactually, a CRM tool that allows her to divide her contacts into buckets based on talent and then reminds her to reach out to them on pre-set intervals.

“It’s not just about emailing that person,” she said. “If I have any contact with them on any social network, it’ll actually count any social media activity as an interaction. So if I retweet someone or comment on Facebook, that counts as an interaction.”

An email-based tool called Rapportive will pull in the social media activity of any contact with whom you’re emailing, making it easy to quickly catch up on where they work and what they’ve posted recently. Walter said she likes to use an app called Newsle. Founded by a couple of Harvard dropouts, it not only monitors what your contacts are doing, but also what others are saying about them online.

“So not only do you keep up with their achievements, you can actually congratulate them,” she said. “There’s an easy button you click to send a message, and often I’ll just send a little message that says, ‘Hey, congratulations on being mentioned here.’”

These kinds of small social media interactions help networkers maintain what sociologists would refer to as weak ties. But what happens if you want to go beyond viewing a contact as merely a fleeting Facebook post in a crowded news feed and strengthen that relationship into one that carries genuine rapport?

That’s a challenge Andy Ellwood sought to solve with the launch last month of Bond. Quite simply, Bond is a contacts mobile app that allows you to easily send physical gifts and hand-written notes to your friends and colleagues.

“I think a lot of people wish they followed through on good intentions,” he told me. “They wish that they manifested the good will that they know that they have. They are thoughtful, but there are a lot of friction points between me and actually getting that gift sent out.”

Bond works by sending you advance notices of your contacts’ birthdays and anniversaries; It gives you the option of choosing from an array of gifts to send them along with a “handwritten” message (“Our robot gets fired up, grabs a piece of stationery and hand writes the note for you,” he explained.) Because humans are often bad judges of their friends’ tastes, the gifts are limited to a small number of universally appreciated objects — a bottle of wine, say, or a stylish iPhone case.

Letting go

Though all the entrepreneurs I spoke to for this piece agreed that maintaining relationships was important, every single one of them recognized the neurological limits that spawned Dunbar’s Number. No matter how many tools you implement, some friends and colleagues will drift away and become weaker and weaker ties.

“I think of it as a series of seasons,” Bradshaw said. “In some seasons people make certain sense in our lives, and in other seasons we either outgrow the relationships or they outgrow us. Whether it’s your high school friends, your college friends, sometimes relationships change.”

Walter agreed with this notion, noting that it doesn’t take really much at all for a weak tie to once again transform into a strong one.

“I’ve seen people who have come back after 10 years of drifting apart. They’re so busy. but then they come back together. The reality is that you shouldn’t be afraid of losing contact, it’s natural. And when people come back into your lives, often it feels to me like they never even left.”