It’s Time to Start Networking for Real
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 new, year-long MTLC Accelerator Program. This semi-structured roundtable of founders and CEOs is designed to allow participants to learn from each other and make faster connections to the marketplace.
We also intend to collaborate with several other networking organizations in town to reach a wide base of people. Specifically, we are launching a new program called “Storytelling,” where we will partner with other organizations to bring leaders in the technology community to share their lessons learned, the ups and downs, and how they navigated challenges to find success.
You don’t have to wait for these programs to get on the bandwagon. You don’t need a button on your lapel saying, “Ask me whom I know!” When you run into a startup that you find interesting, just ask them, “What are your three biggest needs?” and see if you know somebody who is a good fit. A big name or your most protected contact usually isn’t the right answer; it’s somebody where there’s the potential for an excellent two-way relationship. It is a small expense of your social capital, and if the fit is a good one, you will gain way more than you spend.
As for me, I do this most days but have had trouble scaling it, particularly in areas with which I’m less familiar. My most recent examples of facilitating connections have involved a trio of impressive entrepreneurs, one creating high-end technology for financials services, another working on non-invasive medical diagnostics, and the third developing a new system in robotics. I know enough to see that each probably has a substantial opportunity in front of them, but they need just the right people and organizations as partners at critical phases of their company’s growth. So with their permission, I’ll tweet a brief description of what they need to see if other people might know the right person to connect them with or be a good fit themselves. So, follow @CommonAngels, if you don’t already, and be on the lookout for some cool people and opportunities. And think about doing something like this yourself. I’ll be on the lookout for your introductions, too.