Back in the Dark Ages, before we started Rare Bird and before I was creative director at an advertising agency, I was a salesman. My personality being what it is, I read a lot of books on sales. Two, in particular, stand out in my memory as being best in class: Harvey Mackay’s “Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive” and “Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt.” Full of helpful advice for a young sales guy, I found these books to be a wellspring of information. One item that I recall is Mackay’s emphasis on “building your Rolodex™.” Of course, not a lot of us use a traditional Rolodex anymore, but the basic tenet remains: dig your well before you’re thirsty.

I was reminded of this recently while sitting in a clients’ boardroom. We were discussing a new web site design and development, but two of people across the table were engaged in a smaller conversation. One was offering advice to the other, and when I heard my name, I looked up to hear the complete sentence: “Ask Jim, he has a great network and can hook you up with anyone.”

“Anyone,” in this case, was a yarn expert. They needed to find someone who could look at a knitting pattern and determine what type of yarn would be the most suitable for the end product. “There are a lot of people who knit,” they told me, “but not many that would have this specific ability.” At this moment, I began to feel the pressure of having to deliver an expert that is admittedly rare. And then she added, “Oh, and it would be great if they were somewhat local.”

Harvey Mackay wasn’t the first person I thought of, but he was pretty close. Not because he knows anything about knitting and yarn, but because my Rolodex, my network, was about to be put to a very unique test. “Sure,” I said, with more confidence than I felt. “I can help you find someone.”

In my last article, I briefly mentioned the growing wealth of social networking sites that are springing up all around on us the Internet. I also admitted, with some reluctance, that I feel a little like my grandparents must have felt about rock “n roll… I just don’t get it. But there are a few that are decidedly well-thought out and serve specific roles. The two I mentioned specifically are LinkedIn and Plaxo, and I like and use them both.

In this transient world where many people change jobs and addresses like shoes, Plaxo can be the most efficient tool available to help stay in touch. It works on a simple premise: everyone is responsible for maintaining their own data. So if I move, or change my phone number, or change my email address, I update my record at Plaxo. And if you’re also a Plaxo user and you have me in your address book, my information is automatically updated. The upside is that you don’t have to work to keep every card in your Rolodex updated, each individual owner will do it for you. It’s an ingenious idea, and the only real problem with it is that not everyone uses it. But if they did, imagine how simple it would be to stay in touch.

LinkedIn, on the other hand, is working to serve a different need. The idea here is to enhance your existing network using the six degrees of separation. For example, let’s say you need to meet the president of Eli Lilly. Chances are you know someone who knows him. You request that your friend introduce you. Or, if the connection is further removed, you ask your friend to introduce you to someone that knows someone that knows the person you need to talk with. Additionally, LinkedIn can be a valuable resource to tap your network for ideas, recommendations, and answers to questions. And it was this network that I would tap to find a yarn expert…

On Thursday morning I sent a message out to my first degree network asking if anyone might know someone who fit the bill. I had five responses in 15 minutes. Within an hour I had five more. By the next day, I had received another 10, many of which came from people I didn’t know through circuitous routes. Of all the responses I received, at least five were perfectly qualified for the job at hand. I found the results both unbelievable and a perfect testament to the power of building your Rolodex before you need it; digging your well before you’re thirsty.