How Not To Suck At Starting a Networking Group

How Not To Suck At Starting a Networking Group

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Originally posted 2011-12-08 12:58:52.

An interesting thing has been happening lately.

People have asked us how we do what we do.

People in Information Technology, but in other parts of the state, or even other parts of the country.

People in other industries who are just as tired as we were of the dbags and lame events in their world, and they want to try and get something better off the ground.

We keep answering them one by one, and we think we’ve actually come up with a few ways to help you not suck at starting a networking group…

An old friend from high school recently posted this:

Yes I am a David Phillips “fan boy.” But it’s mostly because he hits it all with a hammer, square on the head, sinking said nail with one swing. I have worked with all the described and at times I may have been described as the Angry Sys-Admin at times… There are times I wish I had the funds and wherewithal to start a group out here.

And that really got me thinking…people miss the point.  This isn’t about resources.  There’s no magic formula.  There’s…

Flowchart of The Basics
Flowchart of The Basics

You know what?  Let’s get rolling the easy way.  Look right.  See that image?  Click it.

That flowchart covers the basics that you need to answer before we go any further.

Did you read it?

Like for really, real read it?

And you’re still here?

And you’re still here because the flowchart said you should still be here?

Okay, good.

Now let’s ask the basic question – are you looking to start a group like ours?  Do you believe that our 10 Commandments of Networking are, by and large, solid advice and worth listening to?

And it’s okay if the answer’s “no”.  We’re not for everyone, we’ve said that a million times.  But we are where we are because we’ve stayed true to who we are, and so if you don’t think the basics of what we do are solid, then just stop reading now.

Still here?

Good.

So let’s just go ahead and talk about the really ugly truth here – if you’re really serious about wanting to do this, and do this right, it’s going to take some time.

ITintheD.com came into being in 2001.  It had a great run for a while, then died off for a bit, then started coming back in late 2007, really started coming on strong through 2008, friggin’ exploded in mid-2009 thanks to the Pink Slip Party events, and has just kind of kept growing through today.

Growth takes time

So sure, we’re sitting at around 3,000 members on LinkedIn, and we get a bunch of traffic on the site, and we get really great crowds of some cool folks showing up at our events each month…

…but it didn’t start off that way.

Three guys.  Woodward Avenue Brewery.  Random Tuesday night.

Five guys.  Post Bar.  Ferndale.  Random Wednesday night.

That’s how ITintheD.com started coming back to life.

Between “three guys” and “three thousand members”…that’s been about three years.  It hasn’t happened overnight, but it has happened…and when we sit back and think about it, it’s actually pretty cool given that we’ve got a relatively narrow demographic – only IT, only metro Detroit.

We are where we are because of that flowchart, but that’s only the starting point.

If it’s just about making money, your networking group will suck.

It’s just a fact of life.  True networking stems from mutual necessity and common ground, not paying for it.  It’s like comparing sex in a relationship with prostitution.  Sure, it’s still sex, and it still hopefully gets you to your desired end result…but one’s perceived a little differently and has additional potential hazards than the other, no?

Look, this isn’t any big revelation. We basically said the same thing back in The LinkedIn Prostitution Ring out at http://www.ITinTheD.com/1011/the-linkedin-prostitution-ring/ as well.

For every cutesie “eHarmony found my soul mate” commercial, there are hundreds and thousands of search results when you go google eHarmony sucks.

Anyone with a clue will see you for who you are, and will stay far, far away…which means your networking group will suck.  Unless, of course, it’s a networking group for clueless people…but if that’s your goal…you lied about passing the flowchart test, didn’t you?

This shouldn’t be viewed as an income stream for you.  It should be something that you do because it helps your career in your chosen industry, not because you’re looking to make a quick buck.

If you don’t know anyone in the industry, your networking group will suck.

ITintheD.com was able to get rolling because, well, because Bob and I knew enough people in the Information Technology industry here in metro Detroit that liked to have a drink every now and then.  We had a “base” to pull from and to help get things rolling.

The first time someone ever asked me this question, it was disheartening to have to be honest:

I recently relocated to Kansas City MO and am looking for work in IT. I have been receiving your email blasts for a while now and when I arrived here started looking for a similar networking group to hook up with. Guess what, there’s nothing here like that and this place really needs it. So my question is how do I do here what you have done so well in Detroit? I would like to set up a KansasNET if possible and was wondering if you would be willing to guide me through the process?

Short answer?  “I’d love to…but, yeah…good luck with that.”

But it’s the truth.  How can you start a networking group if you don’t know anyone?  You have to have the foundation down before you can start building the house.  You have to have made at least a few contacts with a common interest before you can get things rolling.  It doesn’t have to be a ton…remember: three guys, Woodward Avenue Brewery.  That’s how this got started.

If you don’t like talking with people, your networking group will suck.

Look…reality check time.  We’ve had this conversation a few times with people that are just not going to pull this off on their own.  They’re too quiet.  Too shy.  Too reserved.  You can’t be any of those things.  You must be outgoing.  You must be the person that can walk up to a random stranger and introduce yourself.  The phrase “working the room” can’t send you into a quivering mess locked into a fetal ball in the corner rocking back and forth.

But idea guys need implementation guys, right?  Right.  So do the same thing we’ve told those people to do – find a friend that can handle the personal stuff, and you focus on the content and getting the word out via email, on the web, or however else you can stay focused and in your comfort zone to make it work.

If you can’t listen and adapt, then your networking group will suck.

Let’s get one thing clear – we’ve had ideas that have sucked.  Some have sucked because we didn’t think things through properly, some have sucked because we put our faith where it didn’t belong to be.

But what we don’t suck at is listening.  The group has evolved to where it is because we listen to the people that show up and participate…because, duh, without them, there is no “group”.

We were really comfy at Woodward Avenue Brewery on a Tuesday night.  But…yeah, it was a little small…and people said Tuesdays didn’t really work.

We were pretty comfy at Post Bar in Ferndale on a Wednesday night.  But…yeah, okay, maybe parking isn’t so great…and some people couldn’t navigate their way to the…fine, whatever.  We’ll go try Royal Oak.

So we setup shop at a few tables in the front of the BlackFinn in Royal Oak on a Thursday night.  But then it was complicated for people to find us (we hadn’t started using the “it’s not a dating site, so you’ll recognize us from our pictures” joke yet…), and so yeah, we probably ought to bite the bullet and grab the back room.

Which worked out really well for a while…but then word got out that geeks were there, which led to recruiters showing up looking to hire people.  And then word got out that recruiters were there, which led to people showing up looking for a job.  Which meant that our “chill out and have a beer and chat” networking events were turning into job fairs, which we really didn’t want.

And so we did our first Pink Slip Party, and we overflowed the capacity of BlackFinn before we ever even really got started.

So then we kept the casual networking events at BlackFinn, and moved to Commune across the street to take advantage of the bigger capacity…which we filled.  Which led to Post Bar in Novi for Pink Slip Party events.

And then people asked us to come to their area so that it was easier for them to start making connections and meeting people, and so we went to downtown Detroit, Utica, Rochester Hills, Warren, and even all the way out to Flint to try and make it work for people.

You have to be willing to adapt your group to what your group wants it to be.  You don’t violate your core principles – we still don’t let Multi Level Marketing Guy come to our events.  We still do our best to keep every That Guy as far away from our events as possible.  We don’t let recruiters post jobs in New York City, Washington DC, or anywhere other than metro Detroit in our group.  Information Technology.  Metro Detroit.  Outside of those two non-flexible items, we’re willing to listen.

The moral of that rambling mess?  You have to listen and adapt.

If you can’t stay committed to it, then your networking group will suck.

ITintheD.com started falling apart circa 2003 because we made the fatal mistake of not staying committed to it.  You can’t keep changing dates on people just because someone’s schedule gets jerked around.  You can’t keep killing off events because you want to go home and watch the hockey game that night.  When you publish a date, you stick to that date.  When you publish an event, once you hit a certain point within a couple of weeks of the date, you stick with that event…even if your gut tells you it’s going sideways.  People have made plans to be there.  People have told other people about it.  People you don’t even know have read about it and will show up.

You have to stay committed.

If we gave up in December of ’07 just because only a couple people were there, this group wouldn’t exist.  If we gave up on the Pink Slip Parties just because they’re a pain in the ass to pull together, then we’d never have seen hundreds of people find jobs from our events.  If we gave up on moving around just because it’s not as convenient for us to get to different locations, then we’d never have met the new people and seen the new faces at those events.

And that’s really about all it takes.  If you want help getting something up and rolling, we are always willing to help out as much as we can, however we can.

But make sure you read that flowchart…you don’t want to be That Guy.

Note: there will almost assuredly be a Part 2 to this, or perhaps a sequel of How Not To Suck At Running a Networking Group where we’ll dive into locations, dealing with event planners, and all of the other fun stuff later.  But if you’ve got questions, we’ve got answers: http://www.ITinTheD.com/contact/

David Phillips is the geek that’s been pushed into management roles over the span of his career. He’s been a helpdesk jockey, a team lead, a systems architect and even a Vice President over the course of his more than 20 years in information technology for a variety of industries. He’s been profiled by CNN’s Money Magazine for his work with the group, as well as being a regular speaker for the Michigan Shifting Gears program, winning 2013’s “Outstanding Contributor for the Transformation of Careers and Lives”.

1 COMMENT

  1. What Dave left out is that there’s a real sense of Friendship within members that attend events regularly. And that friendship grows and spills over to newcomers. Some of our friends can’t really help us find a better way/job in our special corner of the IT world, but we talk/share/refer and enjoy the company. We talk about anything, not just IT networking, though that’s a core conversation. But about our kids, dogs, stories of success about neighbors who are not IT, how can we help (fill in the blanks), steer the “poor soul” who just walked in to feel easier in opening up then pass them on to someone who could be a contact. Need to put that in the flowchart. It’s a tangible goal.

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