This article first appeared in the Union Leader in August 2021
“MICHAEL, I need you to break into our house and take our money,” I said to my friend in Virginia as I sat at a mechanic’s shop in Kittery, Maine. In our early 20s, my husband and I had come to New England for a conference and had driven my little 2003 Jetta in hopes of saving money on a rental car.
Now, we were facing an engine rebuild just to get home. At the time, we were experimenting with how to build our financial systems and had been using an “envelope system” to save for impending short-term expenses, such as car repairs. The problem? The envelopes were 769 miles away.
In business, think of your location, equipment, technology and personnel as the bones of your business (hard infrastructure). These hold you up and provide what you need to produce the products and/or services you are providing.
Think of your legal and accounting support, processes and networks as the connective tissue that holds all of those bones together (soft infrastructure). I posit that the connective tissue is just as vital as the bones.
It’s really easy to ignore soft infrastructure, because it is less visible to your customers and clients. As a business owner, you are swamped with running all aspects of your operation, and it’s easy to push away the things that don’t feel “necessary.” You focus on what they see when they walk in the door or visit your website, the quality of the products or services they receive, answering calls and responding to e-mails.
While those things are absolutely essential, without the support of your less visible soft infrastructure, eventually everything falls apart. Although I could write a book about other aspects of soft infrastructure, like doing your books (and loving it!), the piece of soft infrastructure on which I want to focus is your networks.
Networking is an overused term wherever air-conditioned hotel convention centers and rubbery chicken come together (or maybe that is just me?!), but the value of building a strong, healthy and vibrant network is much more than that. Sallie Krawcheck, co-founder and CEO of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women, says “Networking is the No.1 unwritten rule of success in business.”
Social capital is real. It should never be viewed as something getting in the way of what you “need” to be doing. It is essential. You may not know when that capital will be needed, but when it is you will be glad you have it, which contributes to your resiliency.
It’s also an endless process of innovation. When you get people together, ideas bounce off each other, germinate and grow. Lastly, it expands your diversity as you bring others into your circle and get new ideas and perspectives.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because on Sept. 22-23 at the Radically Rural Summit, hosted by the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship and the Keene Sentinel and accessible virtually (https://radicallyrural.org/), keynote speaker Sarah Rocker will address this very issue, described as “social infrastructure,” specifically as it relates to rural areas, which don’t have the built-in density of urban areas.
How does this relate to our being stranded in Kittery nearly 10 years ago? Like a good friend, Michael broke into our house, got the money out of our safe, and deposited it into our bank, allowing us to write a check that the mechanic agreed to wait to cash for a few days.
In this scenario, the core structure of our systems (hard infrastructure) was there. We had the money we needed, when we needed it. It just wasn’t accessible to us when we needed it (our infrastructure obviously needing revision). In this story, it ended up being the soft infrastructure, the close relationship built with friends, which held us together and supported us, allowing us to get in that old Jetta and drive home.
Julianna P. Dodson, EA is the Director for Radically Rural, a national rural economic development program of the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship based in Keene, where she helps to cultivate thriving rural communities. She is the owner of JD Financial, LLC, a financial services small business. She serves on the board of the Montessori Schoolhouse of Cheshire County, is a member of the Economic Development Committee in Chesterfield, and moderates a multi-political party discussion group. For fun she enjoys dancing, surfing, reading to and with her kids, going on adventures with her family, and nerding out on all things humanities. Julianna can be reached at email@example.com.