The next time you are lying awake in bed at 2 a.m. wondering how to deal with your entrepreneurial crisis du jour, remember this article and the message I'm going to deliver: find, join, and participate in affinity groups.
One of the most powerful steps an entrepreneur can take -- at any stage in his or her development -- is to find a group of peers. Creating an enterprise can be a lonely task. If an entrepreneur is alone in creating a business (and having a partner or partners doesn't mean you're not alone), opportunities for learning and teaching are lost. With an affinity group, you can accelerate your growth and eventually give back your wisdom and experience to those coming after you.
What They Are
Affinity groups come in many shapes and sizes. Some are geographically based, by locale or region of the country, such as the Cambridge Business Development Center, which serves entrepreneurs in Cambridge, Mass. Others are specific to age or revenue, such as the YoungEntrepreneurs' Organization, which is for founders under age 40 whose companies have annual revenue of more than $1 million. Still others are linked to a particular frame of reference, such as the software industry.
Often, affinity groups are launched from subsets of established organizations, such as YEO's Forum, which pulls together no more than 12 members from each YEO chapter for specialized discussions. Gatherings ofindividuals from different associations might also coalesce as an affinity group. For example, Birthing of Giants was assembled during the course of a four-day retreat that drew people from the MIT Enterprise Forum, Inc. magazine, and YEO.
Finally, many are informal groups put together by individuals. To take one small example, I launched the Colorado Internet Keiretsu for Internet providers in the state. I will discuss these affinity groups in more detail throughout this article.
What They Aren't
Affinity groups, in short, are gatherings of peers attracted to each other by a common set of experiences and capabilities, or "affinities." What's equally important is what they are not. It is necessary to differentiate these groups from "networks" or "industry organizations." YEO's company founders and controlling shareholders, who are all under 40 and managing companies of a certain size, operate from a similar frame of reference, even though they may have vastly different businesses and experiences.
This contrasts with a "network," which is usually a group of people whose only common bond is an interest in a certain theme or attendance at an event. The affinity-group makeup also contrasts with industry organizations, in which the common bond is participation in the same industry and whose members aren't necessarily peers. While networks and industry trade groups serve a valuable purpose, they don't contain the potential power of an affinity group.
What They Do
My first experience with an affinity group was as a member of the weekend retreat that came to be called Birthing of Giants. At the time, I was president of my first company, Feld Technologies, a 12-person software consulting firm with about $1 million in annual revenue. Sixty entrepreneurs from YEO, MIT Enterprise Forum, and Inc. magazine spent four days together at MIT's Endicott House talking about their experiences, hearing both academic and industry speakers, and sharing time and partying together.
The same Birthing of Giants group got together the following year for another four days (Birthing of Giants retreats now continue for three years). I had never spent time with a group of people who were struggling, or had struggled, with the same issues I was struggling with. In addition to the reassurance that comes from discovering people like myself, I made a number of instant friendships, many of which have intensified over time.
Birthing of Giants led me in 1991 to the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization. At the time, YEO was a nascent organization with about 100 members. A number of the Birthing of Giants participants subsequently joined and, within a few years, YEO had more than 1,000 members.
Shortly after I joined, I realized that part of the experience was giving back to the organization. So I started the Boston chapter in 1993 and, when I moved to Colorado in 1995, the Colorado chapter. Today YEO, with nearly 2,000 members and chapters throughout the world, is becoming the preeminent affinity group for young entrepreneurs.