10 Ways Great Leaders Build Amazing Communities
There can be a heavy psychological cost to starting and building a business. One the best ways to combat that is to engage with a supportive community.
Great, you might say, but what do you do if you can't find that kind of entrepreneurial or startup community? If you're a true entrepreneur, you build it yourself.
Here's an example. Aaron Price is one of the co-founders of Livecube, an event app that amplifies idea-sharing and networking by using game mechanics. I first met him while he was wearing another hat, however--as the founder of NJ Tech Meetup, a group for entrepreneurs that's grown into the Garden State's largest technology community.
A serial entrepreneur who lived in Washington, D.C., and in China before returning to his home state, Price found that though there were fantastic resources for entrepreneurs across the Hudson River in Manhattan, he had a hard time finding that kind of community in New Jersey. So, he started one, four years ago this week.
Here are 10 key things he and other leaders do to develop thriving communities.
1. Remember: Members come first.
This is the weird, paradoxical part of starting a community. You're doing it to solve a problem in your own career or life, but to get members, you need to be concerned first with their needs, not yours. A great leader focuses on helping other people solve their problems and achieve their goals. Otherwise, why will people follow you?
"If a leader comes across as only looking out for him- or herself, that's not sustainable," Price said. "However, if you genuinely make good connections and create great content, you'll naturally emerge as a leader. You'll also have people come to you with opportunities. By not being opportunistic, you will actually get more opportunities."
2. Choose the goal.
Starting and building a community can be very time-intensive. So, think hard about what kind of community you want to create and how robust you want it to be. Do you want a private, invitation-only forum that meets once a week for breakfast? Or should it be a huge, freewheeling group? Do you want to focus your efforts on in-person meetings or online interactions?
Also, do you want to focus on only a certain industry or people with certain skills, or simply reach out to anyone with an interest in meeting new people facing similar challenges? What compelling member need are you capable of addressing, consistent with your realistic ability to contribute time, focus, and leadership?
3. Choose a technology platform.
Let's assume you want to build a community that meets formally, like Price's meetup group. You need tech support. Fortunately, this isn't complicated, as there are many free and low-cost tools you can use. It might start simply with a group on LinkedIn or Facebook. (Price said his advice is to use something like Eventbrite or SplashThat for one-off events, and Meetup if your goal is to build a regular, ongoing community.)
Similarly, Price suggests meeting at bars, restaurants, libraries, or universities, any of which will often work with you for free or very little money. As an alternative, look for a local law firm or accounting firm that might be willing to let you use its meeting space.
4. Stop thinking and start doing.
Once you've found the answers to those last two questions, get going. Nothing stalls a great idea like time.
"The idea is always the easy part," Price said. "If they don't actually go do it, it doesn't matter. This is just like any other startup."
5. Invite industry leaders.
Entice people to attend by getting interesting speakers with great stories to tell. You should aim high; you'll be surprised at the caliber of people you can attract. Among those who have spoken at NJ Tech are investor and entrepreneur (and Inc. contributor) Brad Feld, along with Jeff Hoffman of the original founding team of Priceline, and two of the co-founders of Meetup itself, Scott Heiferman and Matt Meeker.
"This is another startup lesson here," Price said. "It turns out it's not that hard to get to the right people. Yet, it doesn't have to be the guys on the cover of Inc. magazine. It can be the guy who built a franchise of 10 restaurants. He has something to share. He's learned a lot."
6. Make it regular and predictable.
Though things can change--the format of NJ Tech has changed, for example--it's important to demonstrate that your community will hold regular, reliable events. Show that you believe the community will thrive over the long term, and you'll increase the odds it actually will. Price schedules NJ Tech events at least six months ahead of time.
7. Offer structure and organization.
Your job doesn't stop after you've assembled everyone. You need to be in charge of the events themselves. This means sticking with specific start and end times, and being willing to wind up long-winded speakers.
"We have time slots; otherwise it will go on very long," Price said. "You want to leave people wanting more. They all have day jobs and family lives."
8. Encourage networking.
Not everyone is naturally outgoing, so include features to encourage people to introduce themselves to one another. This can range from breaking up sessions for two minutes and asking everyone to introduce themselves to one person they don't know, to formal 30-minute "speed-dating" sessions.
You might also try to make a game of it, for example asking people to vote online for the most interesting person they met during the networking session and posting a leaderboard. (Price does something similar using his company's technology--more on that below.)
9. Charge money.
You've invited a great speaker, had lots of people RSVP--and then you wind up with half the people not showing up. What do you do now? Well, you're not alone; most free events have no-show rates from 20 percent to 50 percent. Price combats this with two strategies. First, if you RSVP to attend his events but then don't show, he emails your name to the entire list on the "No-Show Hall of Shame" afterward. Second, after running the meetings for free for the first year, he started charging $8 admission.
"There are so many lessons here, but if you don't have something people are willing to pay for, maybe it's not worth doing," Price said. These tactics can have impressive results. "I'm proud that our group respects the policies," he said, "and that our no-show rate is always under 5 percent."
10. Listen for the right opportunities.
Yes, put others first, but rest assured, when you emerge as a leader, opportunities will come your way.
Price was running an e-commerce business focusing on arts and crafts when he started NJ Tech. But he wound up developing a business relationship with one of the speakers he had invited: Gabe Zichermann, an author and entrepreneur who runs the GSummit series of events on gamification. The two men, along with a third co-founder, Justin Schier, teamed up last summer to launch Livecube.
So far, Livecube clients include W2O Group at South by Southwest, Verizon Wireless, Random House, and even Inc., which will use Livecube at GrowCo next month. Had it not been for the Meetup, Price said, their paths never would have crossed.
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BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist
Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.