Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher

Who Are Your 150 People?

Could your success boil down to merely 150 people?

This week I attended a conference in San Diego where Patti DeNucci, author of The Intentional Networker, encouraged the audience to be “on purpose” with their networking efforts. During her presentation, she reminded us of anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s theory that most people’s brains can only support about 150 relationships at a time, in a high quality fashion. Of course, that number challenges everyone who has ever built a large database, e-newsletter or social media following (including myself) to reconsider the efficacy of their networking efforts.

So I began thinking about my 25 year career speaking and teaching and writing.

How many people had really helped me to reach my goals?

As I went through the names in my mind, it became quite obvious that I have 150 or so strong relationships that had made the largest contributions to my success. That’s not to say I hadn’t “talked” to vastly more people at events, via articles and videos, and online. But the more I thought about it, I started seeing the distinction.

On one hand, there are the vast numbers of people who can “connect” to us online, enjoy our contributions, give feedback and even share our content with others. We enter into light conversation with them staccato-style. These can be fun, helpful and productive connections that exchange ideas, opinions, and business opportunities from time to time. Mostly, these relationships stay light; they are polite in public spaces. And we can have tens of thousands of these people, who form general acquaintances. Upon close examination, I find that my interactions with these people must remain more superficial, simply because of volume.

Consider your own social media experience: We treat large numbers of our connections like we treat others on an airplane: We hardly give them the time of day. We exchange a glance, scroll past them in our media streams, but don’t engage them. Being connected to them is nice – but not much more.

That’s where Dunbar’s 150 applies today more than ever. Perhaps the actual number is larger, say 200 or 250, in the modern era. But the central point isn’t the total. It’s the limit to the number of quality relationships we can support at any time. When I look back important moments – from accomplishing goals to getting new business – I discover I could probably fit that sphere of influence into a vintage Rolodex. Those key relationships are few, specific and intentional: People whose call I’d take at any time. People who make a difference. I’d never think of my 150 as prospects, leads or even business contacts, because in my mind, they are complete people, not means to ends.

My 150 and I have a high incentive to stay together.

We contribute to each other’s growth. We help each other enjoy life, from our hobbies to our careers. Yet I would never think of contacting anyone in my 150 with the idea that I’ll get some business out of David today! 

That’s why within our 150, magic occurs all by itself.

So it seems to me that Dunbar’s 150 theory is an almost perfect – and desperately needed antidote – to all the companies bleating  strategies for more friends, more contacts, more leads! The world is swamped with lead generators, even as every measurable benchmark tells us the vast majority of leads never convert into valuable outcomes. There’s absolutely no way a person could engage 5 or even 10 “more” leads a day in a meaningful way, using any medium. They would have to treat those leads at an acquaintance level, auto-responding with tasteless templates of content that have no hope of building trust.

Sales is not the same as e-commerce: What Amazon can do with more traffic cannot be replicated by a sales person.

Relationship building wouldn’t stand a chance. Because trust can’t be auto-built.

So here’s the challenge.

Look at your own experience. Who was there when you experienced your most important growth moments in the past? Make a list of the people who challenged you, encouraged you, taught you, and even did business with you. These are your 150. You’ll find them on your list over and over again, next to every stage of your success. You’ll discover how excited the list makes you – how much you looked forward to catching up with each of them again – soon. You might notice that even those you haven’t engaged in a while don’t seem that far away. Time or distance won’t have dulled the connection, if you reached out to them today.

What will you do with your list of 150? Protect it. Nurture it. Cherish is. Reach out to it. They will encourage you, educate you, challenge you to grow far better than 100 new faceless followers or 10 new leads in your inbox today. You will grow by virtue of the relationship, not because you have a discount, special offer, or snappy auto-responder.

In my experience, I’ve learned an interesting axiom of success. Most people don’t need more leads. They need more relationships.

Who are your 150 that matter most?


  • dougdevitre

    Great reminders.

    How frequently would you see the 150 evolve as your business evolves? In other words when you develop new skill sets and expertise for new markets is it realistic to think you can keep the same 150 or do new advocates replace the ones who might not be as active in your future?

    This can be challenging for anyone who is considering a transition horizontally or vertically. I appreciate your insight as always.

  • Good question, Doug. Let’s see: It’s normal that some people will transition in and out of your life, because who you become over time alters some of the relationships you have and need. I think, though, that the 150 will be very, very stable, because as you grow, it’s just “more and better” of the inner you, not usually a “entirely new” you – and your 150 are connected to you beyond your skill set. With that said, you might find that you need to add one or two or five people to your 150 as you grow in new directions – such as new markets, clients, or even a new job entirely. But you don’t need to add 200 or 500 or 1000…

    As I’ve started working with new clients/industries over the years, I’ve found I almost always forge one or two key relationships, even if I make a thousand new “friends” in a new sector. And, occasionally, one or two fade away, from the previous group. That seems to be the organic way to do it; rather than thinking we’d lose “half” and then start again…

    The good news is that with today’s technology, time and distance are no longer challenges to keeping the right 150 in our lives, no matter where we go!

  • Rosemary

    Interesting and now I’m going to have to sit and make a list of those people. What I do know is that this year you played an integral part in my growth and for that I thank you.

  • Thanks, Rosemary! Glad to know I’ve been helpful. Make your list – you’re going to love the process!

  • Great post and a humble reminder of how thankful I am that you’re firmly entrenched in my 150.

  • Thanks, Sean! You’re first under “C” in my book, too!

  • Patti DeNucci

    Thanks for the mention, Matthew! This principle does get people thinking and gives them not only a base number, but also a reason to review and reflect on who are indeed the most important friends, colleagues, and clients in their lives. In some cases, it lets people know that they actually need to grow their social networks and do a much better job of staying in touch and bringing value to their relationships.

  • Exactly, Doug. Consider though that because the point is around relationships it’s natural that 50 organically blossoms into 150 wherever we/they may be. Attrition is real in today’s global society. We are constantly supporting and encouraging growth among us.

    The horizontal is imminent while the vertical is critical.

    I am always grateful for your insights, too, Doug!

  • Melissa Lombard

    Truly excellent reminder! Thank you for posting this. The point in all this isn’t to accumulate the most “friends”, “likes” or “shares” – it’s to connect with, be kind to and help the most people. Do those three things alone and you won’t have to worry about anything else!

  • Exactly! It’s not a race to “accumulate” but to “influence” people in good ways. Glad you enjoyed the article!

  • And value is the key: social relationships with meaning, not just “noise” require us to pay closer attention than would be possible between thousands or tens of thousands of “friends” online. Thanks for putting me on to Dunbar’s works – I have enjoyed reading more about/from him. Catch up soon!

  • Michael J. Maher-Realtor

    Great – and perceptive – blog post, Matthew. Dr. Robert Dunbar’s work had a very profound affect on my WOW! Referral System and my going from 50 referrals per year to over 500 referrals per year and netting nearly one million dollars each year. Dunbar’s number is the core to our BOOST! Referral Mastery Training (5000+ BOOSTers last year) as our attendees create their BOOST!150 as part of the process. The goal is to upgrade their 150 every year. Dunbar’s number of 150 shows the limit of our brain (neocortex) when it comes to meaningful relationships. Our BOOSTers find out that with a narrowed focus comes more quality. With more quality relationships, we all get better and more referrals. I applaud and appreciate your sharing this very important “mythbuster” that bigger is better and real estate industry professionals are always thrown the quantity bone – but it is quality that matters most when growing your network. Building 1 great relationship this year is better than have 100 superficial ones.

    Thanks again for sharing.


    Michael J. Maher
    #1 International Bestselling Author
    (7L)The Seven Levels of Communication:
    Go from Relationships to Referrals
    North America’s Most Referred Real Estate Professional
    Father and Founder of The Generosity Generation

  • Michael J. Maher-Realtor

    I said Dr. Robert Dunbar and that should have read Professor Robin Dunbar. Apologies…

  • Lupe Robles

    Great article Matt sometimes we need to simplify things to maximize our efforts. Keep up the good work.

  • You know you’re in my top 20! I was just sharing this concept with one of my agents the other day. Some things never change. Nurturing our relationships is something we can count on as the foundational principles of any successful biz – or life for that matter 🙂

  • Same goes for you. For all the new-new-new things that I see every day in business, I keep coming back to the fundamentals. For me, so few have given me so much and taken me so far. So I thought it was time to share this post again.

  • Agreed! I need to get more intentional with my sphere. You are the master!