It’s Time to Start Networking for Real

9/8/09Follow @geshwiler

While Scott Kirsner and my fellow Xconomist Tim Rowe both recently have commented on the benefits of mixing and mingling in Kendall Square, we have a more basic problem that won’t be solved by just rubbing shoulders. Chalk it up to Yankee stoicism; our long, dark winter; or our independent sectors of software, communications, medical devices, interactive media, financial services, health care, and finance. Whatever the cause, you probably haven’t heard of “Northern Hospitality” for a reason. Simply put, we just don’t talk with each other like people do in other parts of the country, and changing will help entrepreneurs.

Starting a new company is hard. We talk a lot about entrepreneurship and innovation in the technology community, but that’s not really the entrepreneur’s chief mission. Big companies innovate and create things. Mature small companies do, too. What makes entrepreneurs unique is coupling that with creating a new organization, which means creating something out of nothing.

To do that, they need to find those rare people who are willing to take the risk with them, and who share the dream and want to solve the same types of problems. These include co-founders, employees, lawyers, distributions partners, suppliers, and most importantly, customers.

Finding all those people takes time and energy. It can be hit or miss, and it’s mostly miss. Unfortunately for entrepreneurs, the biggest expense usually is time, which also is usually in fairly short supply. With a little effort from the rest of us, we can help entrepreneurs cut these costs dramatically and help build an even more vibrant technology community here in Boston.

Last year, Bill Warner (another Xconomist) and I collaborated with the Mass Technology Leadership Council to launch Innovation 2008, an “unConference.” Unlike traditional conferences with lots of speakers and little networking, this new model of conference is mostly structured networking that delivers content based on participants’ interests rather than a pre-planned rigid agenda. The attendees create the sessions themselves, allowing people with shared interests to find each other efficiently, and then they spend an hour at a time sharing their expertise, asking questions, discussing critical issues, and getting to know each other. It was a huge hit, particularly by breaking down traditional barriers between old and young, investors and entrepreneurs, and people in different sectors because everyone had something to offer.

This year, we are turning that event, which will be held on October 1, into the kick-off for a year-long platform. We will ask particular participants to become “connectors,” and for the next 12 months, they will try to be the quick “answer man/woman” who entrepreneurs can contact with the simple question: “Who do you think would be the right person to help me with __________?” Connectors either make an introduction and get out of the way, or refer the request to another connector who might have a better answer.

A select group of entrepreneurs from the unConference also will be invited to join a … Next Page »

James Geshwiler, a managing director at CommonAngels for more than 10 years, has financed over 40 software and Internet companies and worked with them through over 100 rounds of investment and related changes in boards of directors. [Editor's note: CommonAngels is the lead investor in Xconomy.] Follow @geshwiler

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules

    Great post James. I think about this topic a lot. Most successful West Coast start-ups have a behind-the-scenes “godfather” or mentor helping to assemble capital and other resources. Not so much in Boston. A prominent VC in town told me last week, “The old guys around here never help anyone.”

    So I appreciate your post. One tweak: the mentor/godfather does not have to be old, and the entrepreneur does not have to be young for your model to work. We have plenty of successful young entrepreneurs who could also lend a hand. And you still need help if you are 40 or 50, if you are a first time start-up CEO. So let’s remove unintended age bias from the conversation..

  • http://www.commonangels.com James Geshwiler

    Jules: thanks for the comments. The mention of “barriers between old and young” reflected sentiments that were expressed to me about last year’s unconference. They were kind of in the same vein as your quote from the VC–a description of how things sometimes are, not the way they should be. You and I are on the same page: age isn’t an issue and, particularly in technology, doesn’t necessarily correlate to current market knowledge. The question is do we have something to offer each other, can we help, and if so, why aren’t we doing it more often?

  • http://www.runkeeper.com Jason Jacobs

    James, I enjoyed this post as well. I quit my job over a year ago to start my first company, and have been working hard ever since to cultivate a mentor network locally and seek out advice. I have been fortunate to assemble a great group of people around me to use as sounding boards and to help me avoid landmines (almost daily), but I have found that it has been a bit of an inefficient (ongoing) process to make that happen.

    There are tons of smart, seasoned people around to learn from, and it seems they all really want to help. It is the process of finding the right ones with relevant skills and interests that seems to take more time than it needs to.

    The strides that people like you, Tim Rowe, and Scott Kirsner (and many others) have been taking to try to centralize this process and remove friction from making the right connections is exactly what we need. I think it is less about a culture shift, and more about providing people the vehicle to facilitate this kind of behavior without adding extra steps or process to their already over-booked schedules.

    Keep up the great work! And although I’m still a first-timer, let me know if there is any way I can help the cause.

    Jason

  • Vinit

    Right on James. http://www.tie-boston.org has an active mentoring program for startups and I have recently launched the BU Kindle Mentoring Program at Boston University: http://www.bu.edu/otd/for-enterpreneursinvestors/kindle-mentoring-program/.

  • http://www.cictr.com Tim Rowe

    Right on, James. The unConferences (the two so far) have been amongst the best recent conferences I have attended. I especially like the quantity of real, 2-way conversation, lack of talking heads on stage, and ability to pick amongst a dozen or so sessions in every time-slot, so you are sure to land on a topic that really gets you going.

    Another that really stands out is Shayne Gilbert’s Nantucket CEO Conference that happens in the Spring. While it is a conference that follows the traditional format of a pre-set agenda and talking heads, it is very intimate, and there is a spirit of familiarity and candid sharing that is unusual. And nothing beats being stuck on an island for several days to help people connect.

    Anyone want to make the case for their favorites?

  • John Poole

    Great newsletter; just hope I am on the mailing list. May be one area to include is the academic communitiy as many colleges and universities are trying to get the entrepreneurial band wagon, as you know. I’ve even been asked to teach a course for seniors at Thayer Academy in Braintree. My question is how to organize so much information into something of real interest to teenagers that they can understand and for it to be inspiring for them.

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  • Ed

    James – Great to see that folks like you are stepping up to encourage the start-up eco-system in Boston. Of course the very first comment mentioned CA vs. Boston. One of last year’s MTLC experts asked if we need to import start-up VC’s. Interesting to note that if you do a search by state on exhibitors at the upcoming CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment, focused on a hot emerging market sector, 7 companies are from MA, and over 67 are from CA. Granted, its being held in CA (not here?), but it is intuitively obvious to most people that care that we in Boston still have a long way to go. I found a community incubator in San Diego that may be a good model for you and your readers to review: http://www.commnexus.org/incubator/about-us/

  • KeithM

    Bravo, James, and great work at the unConference! I’ve made it a policy for many years to put new contacts in touch with others who I think would make for a good 2-way fit, but I love your explicit question of “what are your 3 biggest needs?”

    I’m adopting that as of today, and I already volunteered myself for the Connectors list. :)

    Keep supporting us serial starters–we need all the help we can get!

    To John Poole’s question above, one thought is to explore one of the many inspirational and educational stories in the startup world…perhaps talk about the experiences of an innovative company that has developed something close to the hearts of teens. This can be a platform to explore whatever aspects of entrepreneurism one wishes to touch on.