Startup Communities/ Entrepreneurial Clubs

Reviewing your projects and initiatives may be about as exciting as spring cleaning, but it feels good once it’s done and you may find something you didn’t know was lost. About six months ago, a colleague of mine (Jeff Kropman) and I started an entrepreneurs group with the support of the people who had the vision to create Core21, the shared office community.

We started Entrepreneurs in our Community @Core21 to grow the entrepreneurial community in Durham Region, looking to fill a gap – provide a safe environment for entrepreneurs to meet and share their challenges. It’s a venue where solopreneurs wouldn’t be alone. Our group complements networking and professional development sessions available in the area.

With a few simple principles, the get-togethers should be fun – a safe environment to share experiences. No talking heads, but semi-structured. I usually facilitate to ensure everyone gets a chance to participate. The meeting agenda keeps the group from going too far off topic. We introduce ourselves, present challenges, work on the challenges in small groups, then debrief. Applying lean startup principles, we asking for feedback at the end of each meeting, then amend the format.

On average, 10 people attend each meeting but it’s never been the same group twice. This is great, the group is there for those who want to come and chat with their peers. This is our hope, that each individual entrepreneur knows where to find others who they can reach out to.

What have we learned and what can we do better?
The most striking thing is that everyone who attends wants to solve the other attendee’s challenges, immediately. This is wonderful, the spirit of helpfulness. Because people may or may not return to the next meeting, we’ve had a hard time coming up with a system of accountability, or using the group to hold us to our goals, which is something we decided we wanted in the beginning.

Is there something we can learn from similar groups in other cities? There are a couple of (informally) syndicated groups of coffee clubs for entrepreneurs: 1 Million Cups and Open Coffee Club. Perhaps we need a cooler name. The Open Coffee Clubs¹ were started by venture capitalists in London and Boulder, who wanted to build community in their local tech startups. 1 Million Cups², which has chapters in dozens of US cities, was created by two people from the Kauffman Foundation, to tied together unlinked entrepreneurs in Kansas City. I’ve been to a few other events in my local area such as The Inventors Circle and the Small Business Network at the Metro Reference Library, both have presenters with networking before and after the presentations.

The other coffee clubs primarily start at 8 am – do people have more energy in the morning than at 7 pm, when our meetings are? Some are limited to an hour (that makes sense if you’ve got a day of work ahead of you). Formats differ. At 1 Million Cups, a couple of companies share their story and get feedback from the audience. At the tech focused Open Coffee Club, they open with discussion of current events, followed by an open floor for attendees to presentation ask the groups for input on specific questions.

Themes that transcend all the groups:

  • to be the opposite of large events or special events.
  • for the community by the community – to find peers to reach out to when trying to solve problems.
  • providing support to your fellow entrepreneurs – to answer ‘what can this community do to support you?’
  • to be friendly and low key – to get every attendee invested in the success of every other attendee.

How can we build a better group in Durham Region? Should we:

  • hold the meetings at a different time, such as early morning?
  • change the format – have presenters or time limits for each attendee to share or a different agenda?
  • make the attendees more accountable to the group?

How to answer these questions and make Entrepreneurs in our Community @Core21 a more vibrant entrepreneurial community so that we all have a better chance of surviving and flourishing? I’m going to ask the members what they want. And then do it.



¹ Brad Feld (2012) Startup Communities. Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City John Wiley & Son, Hoboken, NJ

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