What follows is a rather detailed breakdown of one of my most rewarding experiences as a digital nomad: namely, creating a real life community behind the Open Connect concept. If you want to know how to transform a personal, enriching experience, into a social experiment, if you love working from coffee shops or if you just love beautiful (albeit real) stories, set aside 15 minutes or so, because this will take a while.
What Is Open Connect?
Open Connect is a networking event, taking place each Thursday, in a Starbucks coffee shop in Bucharest. Or, at least, this is how it started, because right now it is happening (or it’s in the process of starting up) in a number of other cities, like Cluj, Iasi, Sibiu, Brasov or Craiova. The goal of the event is to generate feedback towards business ideas. As such, its target is formed by entrepreneurs, web designers, media people, or just curious persons with a penchant for building new, audacious stuff.
The format of the event includes an ice-breaking session, in which each participant will say his name and a few sentences about the reasons he’s there and his skills, a pitching section, with 4 one minute long pitches, followed by questions and answers, and a 8 minutes long mentoring section in which one person will share his or her expertise on various topics. Each event is live broadcasted by a digital television, with a mobile studio set up specifically for this task.
The Current Point
Let’s start with a very short, number-based evaluation of where we stand right now.
I started in august 2012 and since then, I did an event pretty much each Thursday (legal holidays excepted, of course). The last event of the first season was held in the last Thursday of May 2013. That made a total of 36 events for the first season. Right now I am at the second season, and I already had 7 editions so far.
The average audience was 80-100 persons for the last 10 events, with an average of 3000 online viewers.
We had roughly 170 pitches and 38 mentoring sessions.
We produced over 25 hours of original, high quality video content, based on live interactions.
We gamified more than 70 pitches – the entire event is gamified, see below.
We provided public speaking feedback for more than 60 persons.
We served more than 1000 free coffees – each event has a number of free coffees, courtesy of Starbucks.
We have a Facebook community with 2600 members (at the moment of writing this).
We have a website with more than 500 registered and active members (at the moment of writing this).
Total marketing budget: zero.
Last year, during summer, I realized I worked as a digital nomad for more than 2 years. And that I met probably more than 100 people in my “office” – which is a Starbucks Coffee. If you wonder why I met them, it’s because I worked with them. Have a look at the Work With Me page if you don’t know what I currently do for a living.
So, at some point I asked myself: why don’t bring all these people together? Maybe there will be something useful coming out of this. So, I went down to the Starbucks main floor (the Starbucks where I work has 2 floors) and asked the manager what’s his opinion about hosting this type of gathering in that place. He said he’s ok and, even more, he can also provide me with some free coffees, if that would be perceived as an incentive. I said, yes, definitely this will be perceived as an incentive.
After I had the location secured, I created a Facebook group, in which I added those 100 persons, plus another 100 from my personal circle of friends. I tried to be very selective (at that moment I had more than 3000 friends) and only added friends that I knew would benefit from this type of event. Next thing, I created an event in the group, and a basic file with rules. I invited the people, set up my alarm clock to wake me up next day (which, of course, was the day of the event) at 7 AM, and went on with my life.
Next day, at 9 AM I was there. In around 30 minutes, the place was full. At the first event I had an audience of 60 people. After a brief introduction, in which I let them know that they can pitch their ideas in the next event, I let them interact freely. Before the end of the event I already got 4 people ready to pitch at the next edition.
And this is how it started.
First of all, I used the Facebook group – and I currently use it – only for managing the events. Nothing more. no advertising. No debates. No flames. Everything that goes out of the rules, it’s deleted and the user is banned. I know this is a very strict set of rules, and I received a lot of heat because of that. But, in time, it proved to be a winning strategy.
Second, I was always very, very clear about the purpose of the event – which is networking – and the main byproduct: which is feedback. I never tried to mislead people that they will receive, for instance, funding for their startups, or other type of unreal benefits. It helped tremendously with the level of faith.
And third, I always asked for feedback. Many features that I considered useful were rejected by the users. And many things that seemed obvious for me were kinda slow to be adopted. But, in the end, I realized that the real owners of the community are its members. Not me.
The First Fracture
Around the 15th event, a guy approached me telling that he is the owner of a digital television, and if I’m ok with broadcasting the event. I said, well, let’s try. They didn’t ask for money to do it, as long as we will keep in mind a way to generate money later. It was a good approach, because, after the first season, because of the exposure generated by the very broadcast, we were able to attract a sponsor, and the television is able to cover the broadcasting costs. But the benefits for them are even higher, because now they constantly receive offers for broadcasting events. Paid offers.
I consider this to be the “first fracture”, meaning the first disruptive event that sky rocketed the community. Since we started to broadcast the event, the audience grew with an order of magnitude. If we usually had around 50 people attending live, now we had around 500 watching us live from behind their hime computers. It was really the event that changed the fate of this community.
The Enrichment Process
As the event grew, so grew the feedback. And the offers from the members community to enrich the event. So, at some point, a gamification specialist came to me with the offer to gamify Open Connect. What does that mean? Well, we published a document on the group, with a few bullet points related to the pitch structure. In other words, if a pitcher will follow all this points, we could ensure the pitch was properly formatted: like the pitch includes the pitcher’s name, the app or event name, the pitcher was engaging the audience, etc. So, before each pitch, the game master (which is actually that ramification specialist) was taking a position in the most remote corner of the Starbucks. For each point that the pitcher will touch in his or her speech, he would make a step in the direction of the pitcher. The goal is to bring the game master on stage. If the pitcher does that, he or she receives a prize (either from sponsors, or from the game master himself).
Another interesting approach was from a guy from Toastmasters International. He asked me if he could use a couple of minutes after each pitch to give public speaking related feedback to each pitcher. I said “yes”, and from that day on, each pitcher receives professional public speaking feedback at each and every Open Connect event.
I call this the “enrichment process” and I think it’s something that should go o and on and on. You should never stop taking feedback and implementing new features. But more on that below.
The 7 Commandments For Building A Strong Community
I don’t know if they are enough, but they worked for me. If you feel the need to add something, go ahead, and do it in the comments. I’d love to hear some feedback.
1. Be True
Start based on something that you already believe in. Try to give a social dimension to a personal trait. For instance, for me entrepreneurship was always something that I believed in. But I had to take it out of my circle and create benefits for other people too. It just doesn’t work to be “me, me, me”, if you’re trying to build a community.
2. Start Small
Don’t put all your resources in the process from the day one. Just small, trying to validate your idea first. I didn’t spend a dime for marketing. I don’t spend money on marketing now. I tried to create partnership – like the one with the free coffees – from the day one. You don’t know if it’s gonna work or not. In my case, it worked. But chances to fail are just as equal.
Be very, very present. Observe what’s going on. Like I said, it’s not about you, it’s about them. In every community you will have, every now and then, crises. They’re natural. Sometimes people want things done in a certain way, or there are very sharp opposite positions concerning a certain topic. Be very, very careful and don’t let these situations pass you by. It’s your job to observe your community.
4. Be Present
Answer instantly, if you can. Even now, after more than 40 events, I answer almost instantly to any concern related to the event. We have the pitching slots occupied in advance for a few events, but if someone give up their slot – for various reasons, health, for instance – if I announce the availability of a pitching slot in an Open Connect on Facebook, I usually get a response in a couple of minutes.
Don’t be fixed. Don’t be shy. Don’t hold on to your own expectations or ideas about what the community should be. Let it go in the direction where it wants to move, but lead the process. Leave the old behind and implement the new. I’m absolutely sure that not every improvement that you’ll try will be a success, but at least it will give you previous insights about your community health and commitment. And that’s priceless.
Ruthlessly, if you have to. The Facebook group was rapidly evolving, growing into a very appealing audience, so I had to fight for a while with a lot of spammers who thought it would be such a good idea to post their links in such a vivid community. In the end, we won and the spammers disappeared. Kind of.
Always evaluate the role of the members and the need that this community is meeting. If there’s somebody else doing it better than you, there’s no need to be clingy. Just join the other community because this is not meant to be a competition.
If you want to see the atmosphere, go ahead and pick whatever episode you want, from our own YouTube channel. Yes, you can subscribe. I will just add a random mentoring session, from Steve Pavlina. Enjoy: