Back in November I took the Kauffman Foundation's FastTrac program, a boot camp for aspiring entrepreneurs. I spent seven days over four weeks immersed in researching, developing, and vetting my business idea with 26 other would-be entrepreneurs from across New York City. It was intense and an experience I can't recommend enough. I met people I wouldn't have otherwise, and we quickly bonded into a support network for each other.
And then the class was over. I'm still in touch with several classmates via Facebook, email and the occasional coffee. But without that twice-a-week meeting I felt acutely alone on the road to build something significant from scratch.
Founders need people to bounce ideas off of. They need people who are going through the same daily cycles of fear, frustration and euphoria that they are. And because no entrepreneur has the full set of required skills from the get-go, they need places to go to learn stuff.
So I've spent the past six months trying out different entrepreneurial organizations. Luckily, New York City is bursting with start-up energy at the moment, and I could attend a different meet-up, panel or networking event every night if I wanted to.
To be honest, I don't want to. Who has the budget? One, maybe two evenings a week are more than enough for me. So I've learned to pick and choose. My primary criteria is that I want to walk away from any event or meeting with one tangible thing, maybe feedback on some aspect of FamiliesGo!, a nugget of knowledge I can put to work, or a valuable new acquaintance.
There have been recurring events I went to once and never again, like the 7:30 a.m. panel discussion that was long on intellectual banter and short on practical takeaways. But after some trial and error, here are a few groups I've committed to and why:
Comaraderie: Bizcocoon is a new community with a mission to provide a highly useful go-to support network for entrepreneurs. The founders are not the 27-year-old programming wunderkinds that often populate the NYC start-up scene. They—and the people they attract—are mostly on the far side of 30. They have day jobs and maybe kids. They're serious about their entrepreneurial ambitions but also practical about balancing them with the other aspects of their adult lives. You won't find them sleeping under their desks, living on ramen. In other words, they're like me. Their networking events, which often take place at Hive 55, a downtown Manhattan co-working space, are small and low-key enough that you can talk to everyone in the room over the course of an hour and see familiar faces the next time around. My only complaint is that they meet erratically and not often enough.
Knowledge: Monthly Ultra Light Startups events have a set format. A handful of companies give two-minute presentations about their businesses to the group (a no-risk opportunity to practice and get input on your elevator pitch). Then there is a panel discussion on a start-up topic, like how to use viral marketing or how to build a website if you aren't a techie. Then the audience moves from the auditorium, which rotates between an NYU building and Microsoft's New York offices, to a bar to network.
I always walk away from the panels with new ideas to put to work. Watching the presentations is instructive, too. It's helpful to see what ideas and delivery the audience responds to and how people are executing other kinds of businesses. My one complaint is that it's a very big group and I don't get a lot out of randomly networking in large groups. I often skip the bar scene.
Feedback: I also try to make it to monthly get-togethers of the Park Slope Small Business Forum, a new-entrepreneurs group that meets in various cafés around my neighborhood. It's a small, informal and eclectic group—one person wants to launch a line of toys while another wants to expand his consulting practice. The best thing about this group is that everyone who belongs is a parent. It's a good source for feedback on features I want to add to FamiliesGo! or things I might struggle with along the way, such as gauging what kinds of information people will and won't share about their kids. The one drawback is that groups like this always attract service providers like accountants and consultants who are looking for new sales leads and might or might not add much to the discussions.
Look around your city and do your own trial and error and I'm sure you'll find groups you click with. You'll also be glad for the company.