Networking and making connections is vital for a burgeoning entrepreneur. The right introductions can help catapult a new startup from a roughshod patchwork of ideas and execution in a garage or studio apartment to a fully operational, well-funded machine.
Related: 5 Steps to Rock Any Networking Event
By connecting entrepreneurs to potential clients and mentors, investors and partners, community-based networking businesses can become incubators of growth.
I asked a couple of networking superstars for their advice on how to build a community-based organization that benefits everyone involved. Here’s what I learned:
Understand that you’re in the people business.
Starting a networking group is not not the same as forming a typical business, Scott Gerber told me. Gerber is the founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invitation-only networking group for entrepreneurs that Entrepreneur magazine called "one of America's most successful communities for business.
“I think many people try to build communities with a business plan mentality,” Gerber said, but "communities don't work that way. They are human, not widgets or technology. Would-be community builders need to understand they are in the people business. Additionally, they need to have a wide array of skills and traits, such as emotional intelligence, empathy and a strong bent towards hospitality and operational excellence.”
I also spoke with Guy Franklin. Franklin is the leader of the Israeli entrepreneurial community in New York and general manager of SOSA NY, a network for startups expanding to the Big Apple and seeking connections to the local ecosystem in general and innovative corporations in particular.
Franklin told me that networks must be totally focused on the needs of their members. “You must create individual value for every startup founder that joined the network,” he said. “It’s not about you. It’s about connecting [entrepreneurs and startups] with the people who can help them. It’s about consistently giving back to your community.”
Identify a collective need.
Just like any startup, a networking organization will not get off the ground unless it solves a pain point in the market. So, if you’re starting such a network, look for that problem shared by those you anticipate will join.
“When building a network, you must identify a real need shared by the community,” Franklin said. “Next, you have to bring them real value in the form of solutions to their problems on an ongoing basis. And you must come from an altruistic place, with a sincere desire to help. If you’re doing it only for self-interest, such as gaining notoriety and respect, or additional business, people will see that and run the other way.”
Gerber agreed. “We built [YEC] around what the community wanted, not what we wanted. In my experience, all of the communities [I've seen] that started with the primary goal of making money off membership dues put their members' needs second to business objectives -- and ultimately failed as a result."
Test, learn and tweak.
Building an engaged community that successfully stays together and brings real value to its members is no easy feat. It can be very difficult to keep together a group of disparate individuals with different interests, dreams and goals.
“I would suggest taking some baby steps for research and validation purposes first,” Gerber advised. “For example, if you intend to do an offline community or organization, invite a few of the people whom you wish to connect with one another for a dinner or some other type of low-key activity to test your thesis about the potential value of the community.
"Do people accept the invitation and show up? Why or why not?”
Next, Gerber said, take note of people’s reactions during the event. Do they find value in interacting and sharing knowledge with the other participants in the group you've curated? Do they seem to be planning to develop relationships with them post-event? Finally, what's the feedback after the activity? Was it valuable or a waste of time? Does it seem that people will pay a one-time fee or membership subscription for future networking events?