This post was written by myself and Tim Flannery
You can spend weeks attending events, meetups, and happy hours and never find one real community.
It turns out bringing people together into a room, bar, or event space isn't enough.
When your biggest take away from an event is some combination of forced conversation, boredom, and pizza, all you've found is exasperation and carbs. You have little to no chance of finding a co-founder, business partner, or otherwise helpful contact. At best, you'll exchange transactional value quid pro quo with a new LinkedIn connection.
That's why I've focused on building communities.
Communities are inherently different from networking organizations. Communities are networks with shared ideals or demographics. People concentrate on building relationships rather than using each other.
If your networks don't sound like a community, maybe it's time to build your own.
Here are my best strategies to get started:
Build Community Around Ideas
Happy hours get left in the dust. And so do re-treads of other events. If people are going to spend time with you instead of relaxing or working, there better be a damn good reason. You need to stand out.
- Fix What's Wrong: Maybe you're interested in an area inundated with bad networking options. For example, I haven't seen one sizable group that hosts recruiter events with consistency in New York. Figure out what they're doing wrong and do it right.
- Connect Around Shared Experiences: Perhaps there's something different about you that doesn't have a local community. Are you a European Swift developer? Or maybe a West Coast marketing transplant? Find specific similarities in groups over which you can immediately form a bond.
- Segment An Existing Group: Search at your existing networks and find a niche. Maybe you have a strong alumni network, but do they have a focus on tech? It's much easier and less competitive to build community at the cross-section of multiple interests.
- Change The Mode of Connection: Stop meeting over demo days, happy hours, and panels. For instance, there used to be a Startup Hockey Meetup where people at startups just got together to play NHL '94 on Sega.
- Start A Junto: Ben Franklin did it, why can't you?
When you build a community around multiple ideas, you've narrowed the focus. West Coast transplants will gladly catch up about how there's not enough Blue Bottle coffee around New York. And at Startup Hockey, you can all try to make Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed.
Those easy conversations are necessary to form your group's base. Design your community with that in mind.
Keep It Simple While Testing
It’s startup basics:
Get your Minimum Viable Community out.
Your big networking events have sponsorship, pizza, beer, and famous speakers. Your event has... not much.
Most groups will probably need at least a location.
If your company or office has extra chairs, bring people in. It's probably good for the company's brand.
If not, head to a coffee shop, bar, or restaurant. It's a bad solution, but it's better than nothing. If you've identified a real opportunity, one of your members will help out.
If your event has direct costs, fixed or per-person, reach out to the provider and ask for discounts. If you're building a community, they're happy to build sticky customer relationships (and will probably pay for it).
Figure Out How To Market & Promote It
Are you going to have an event page? Were you planning to create one on Facebook? Are you going to start a Meetup group?
Might I suggest Eventbrite? It's cost effective.
If your tickets are free, Eventbrite becomes a RSVP system. If they aren't free, you're charged based on sales.
Eventbrite also allows you to control the look and feel of your event page better than most services. Plus, it has an app for easy day-of event check-in.
Eventbrite isn't perfect. But it's a great way to get started, and it can scale with you.
Now you have another problem:
Don't Host An Event Without Guests
Here are a few strategies to attract guests when you're at mailing list zero:
- Reach out directly to your friends
- Submit your event to local event aggregators (In New York: Gary's Guide, AlleyWatch, and Startup Digest).
- Post it on existing digital communities on Reddit or Facebook.
But remember: everyone's competing for your potential guests' attention.
Make sure event's unique value proposition is clearly defined, letting potential readers filter your signal through the noise.
And pro tip: don't do paid promotion unless you just like watching cash burn.
Set Your Community's Culture
Because if you don't, someone else will.
When people walk in, are you buttoned-up and formal? Or do you greet them like a long-lost friend with a smile? Set the tone from the moment you meet your guests. Do it deliberately.
If you do, people will unconsciously adopt and spread your attitude. If you have speakers, ask them to buy in as well.
If people aren't buying in, that's okay. They'll self-select out.
Also, your community needs to be safe. Your guests can cross the line and you need to be watchful for that.
Keep out the creeps.
If someone starts acting inappropriately and harasses your members, act. It should be clear that they're not welcome. It should be clear to your community that kind of behavior is not tolerated.
People need to feel safe.
Do Things That Won't Scale
Your goal is to earn repeat customers.
There are two paths to member loyalty:
- Your guest gives it freely
- You earn it
If you were to start an alumni tech community, you'd be sure to find other alums who have been searching for this. You don't need to do much to hold their attention.
But you're going to find other people who came just because it's an alumni event. How do you keep them around?
Make Them Feel Special.
Here's how I do it: I do some quick research about my guests.
- Who are they?
- Is this their first time?
- What do they do?
- Do we have friends or peers in common?
- Is there someone they would like an intro to in the community?
- Is there someone you can introduce them to in your personal network?
Go out of your way to help people. It will catch them by surprise.
It’s impossible to do when you've got 2,000 people in your group.
But you should go above and beyond to form your community's core.
Here Is the #1 Rule For Creating Community
Just do something.
Don't be a victim of inertia. Put yourself and your ideas out there. If your community crashes and burns, you've lost nothing.
But if you've stumbled across some untapped desire, people will find you. Your community will grow. You'll have the opportunity to monetize it, expand it, or at the very least improve your personal network.
If you've got any questions, shoot me an email or tweet at me. Let me know how your community-building goes.
Tim Flannery is the founder of Startup Climbing, a national community of rock climbers in tech. He’s also a Venture Partner at Pilot Mountain Ventures and the Head of Operations & Growth for Bemaven. You can follow him on Twitter at @F1annery.