My buddy Dustin Paliga hit me up on Facebook Messenger with the following question:
How would I go about starting networking events in Lansing so I can start growing the restaurant more?
The restaurant in question is the newest from their family’s long lineage of great places: Bohemian Joe’s aka “BoJoes”, the best restaurant in Lansing, IL if you ask me. I was there for the friends and family opening. Incredible vibe. Well thought out. Warm, rich, resplendent bar theme with a nice hook about who Bohemiam Joe could have been through history. And, whoa, such a great beer selection.
Dustin, I knew you’d have a great selection on your first round of beer selections, but I didn’t know it’d be that great. Way to find local flavors from places I never heard of.
Back on point
I started writing back the answer and realized it was gonna be a long one, so I told him I would answer here.
I’ll start with the list that we used when Daver and I grew #NWITweetup (now NWI Meetup) before retiring and handing it off to Ideas in Motion Media. It’s the same list we used when Kelly and I launched Startup Front which lead to the Elevate Ventures-backed Tech Foundry. Both groups contributed to Valparaiso earning 2015 Google’s eCity of the year for Indiana, as well as grew tech and digital awareness back home.
Here is, I suppose, the award-winning list we used to start networking groups:
- Research what’s around. See who else is doing it or if anyone is doing what you’re thinking of doing.
- Pair down opportunities to see where your interests cross-apply to your needs
- Develop a hook
- Resource assessment
- Get the materials together
- Give yourself some lead time between announcing and hosting and event
- Test. Test. Test
- Keep listening to your members
1) Research what’s around. See who else is doing it or if anyone is doing what you’re thinking of doing
For Dustin, the goal is to widen the community for the new restaurant. Depending on what he finds, there might already be groups to help him achieve the goal. Craft beer clubs, hopheads, anti-hopheads, foodies clubs, social media networking groups, fantasy sports clubs, Texas hold-em clubs, the list goes on.
This way, while he’s looking for a niche, he can interact with existing ones looking for a great, new, modern place like Bohemian Joe’s. Then he can have variety, the spice of survival, coming in throughout the year.
For #NWITweetup, we were the social media networking group. The big one on our side of Lake Michigan. We lead the horses to water. The restaurants helped them drink. Everybody won. Bohemian Joe’s can be the restaurant for these groups while they’re building their own group.
In the case of Startup Front, we wanted a networking group specifically geared towards tech startups. It was our John-the-Baptist way to announce the arrival of the tech accelerator (when it was ready to be announced) to Valparaiso. We had NWITweetup and the ValpoLife community which supported us every step of the way. The closest group we had in tech-specific niches was Duneland Innovators, who was more than supportive. We also hosted a Startup Weekend- going so far as to drive down to Cincinnati to partake in an event (and help win one for an incredible 14-yr-old kid named Emerson Walker) just to meet the requirements for hosting one for ourselves.
Then, when it was time to announce, we had a nice core, niche-specific group to tell it to, face-to-face, during a meetup.
2) Pair down opportunities to see where your interests cross-apply to your needs
There will be groups for about everything. The Americana-themed bar with craft (beer) class stylings, big screen TVs and slot machines in the back might not be suited for the knitting club. Then again, I’ve seen some knitters threw a few back, one never knows (thus, Step #1.).
Point is, there’s going to be those who directly apply, and those who might more loosely apply. Aim for the bullseyes first, not just the dartboard.
As Chris Kyle often repeated in American Sniper, “Aim small, miss small.”
3) Develop a hook
Here’s a hint: Free (fill in the blank). Always works. Free appetizers. Free slice of pizza. Free tasting. Free prizes from donors, probably from local businesses who are usually members of the new group as well! Usually the cost is a free shout-out.
Prizes are always great.
Guest speakers work often as well – especially if they fit your group niche. We brought in some great, reputable, nationally-known tech speakers & authors for both #NWITweetup & Startup Front. They were typically the crew from Indianapolis for us.
I’d go with great restaurateurs, brewers discussing their brews for tastings…cooking class? I’m looking forward to hearing more about it.
I remember when the PassTimes Cigar Club in Valparaiso used to bring in cigar and whiskey aficionados to the private room in the back to talk about how to pair what cigar with what whiskey. M’mmmmm, that would be a great idea.
And, “no.” It doesn’t have to be cigars. Food and drink work.
4) Resource assessment
This is where we go down the Art of War checklists and judge what you have to work with, what you can have to work with, and how to make it work for you.
BoJoes has great advantages for starting a group. It’s got a great location right off Interstate 94; the perfect place to wait out a Chicago rush hour traffic jam. They have family heritage and a location known for having a restaurant with a core that has migrated over to Bojoes. Judging from the last time i was there, you might have to thrown them out at night. :-). Very loyal. Also, from those generations of growth they have several local and press connections to help spread the word out for events.
Budget will be another thing to assess. Not just money, but time. Someone has to plan the event. Someone has to draw up the plans. Someone has to confirm all the pieces will be available for the event. Someone else has to come up with themed marketing / PR visuals and content. Someone else will have to get the word out. Someone else will have to schedule timed updates on email and social media and someone will have to replay and engage with the respondents – and do it with class and style thematically balanced with both the group and BoJoes.
5) Get the materials together
Speaking of someone…this is where you find a list of things to do to start a business and start accordingly. This is also where you make sure you can own up the name on social media and digital sites.
Yes. If you’re lucky, this will be exactly like starting a business.
Not only do you want to grow, but you want to both protect your new group from copycats as well as CYA (Cover Your Ass) from mooches and vultures. Can’t watch the ships roll in and roll away again from the dock of the bay without seeing some debris as well.
Like everything, you’ll have to take the good with the bad.
If you noodle on it enough, you can turn it into a non-profit, for a cause. Donate proceeds and get good will. Do it right and proper, and with a good heart, and you can work to get a 501(c)(3) status. It’s where we were going with #NWITweetup before we decided to pass it on like those before us so we could help with Startup Front.
Added bonus for those who sponsor or donate
With that 501(c)(3) you can give proper tax write offs for their contributions. Just remember to do your taxes!!
6) Give yourself some lead time between announcing and hosting and event
You’ll be excited. You’ll want to announce it and have it right away. Belay that impulse. You don’t just want the event. You also want an incredible event.
We usually waited a minimum of four weeks from confirmation of the anchor pieces of the event (speaker, location, time and safe…) to the following Tuesday morning. This allowed us to get the materials together, soft tease it was happening and have four weeks to get the word around. This is how we’d build a buzz.
The last thing you want to do is announce and start the marketing campaign, including the local paper, only to have to write a retraction. “Just kidding,” doesn’t really fly with the 20-something running the news & events section of the local media’s paper & website. They’ll drop your column inches for the next VFW Bingo event just to show you they can.
Once you have the core event confirmed and announced, then use the next few weeks to announce the rest of the event pieces (prizes, promotions, “5 questions with the speaker” content pieces) once confirmed to act as subtle reminders about the event. An event that keeps going, “join us,” without more cool stuff to ad doesn’t sound like a cool event.
Don’t worry the lead time being too long, somewhere around 8 days to go you’ll be heavy-breath quoting Buddha:
The trouble is, you think you have time.
7) Test. Test. Test
Different strokes. Different folks. Keep painting with all the brushstrokes you can until you get a clear picture of the Bojoes community. Then keep painting.
Find the ones the work and keep using them, but make sure to pepper in new events. This will make sure the stuff that works doesn’t get overused or taken for granted. This also keeps it fresh for you and gives the opportunity to find something more your community will love.
8) Keep listening to your members
Hopefully you’ve been doing this since Step 1. If not, start doing it. It’s your best form of information. Ask them directly, listen to your social media properties, take polls, ask questions, conduct surveys…Offer some cool swag in exchange.
Listening is always the most important step.
See, listen to your doctor
While we’re at it, Beginner’s Tips. “AKA: things we learned the hard way.”
- Keep it fresh
- Don’t be afraid to do some pruning to keep your new group alive
- Be a custodian of the group, not its owner
- Be the student
- Don’t be afraid to network
- Play the long game
- Collect their contact info with as little effort (for them) as possible
- It will ebb and flow, again and again.
1) Keep it fresh
Hooks are great, but even the best hooks suffer diminished utility in the long run. Think of your favorite song. You might claim you can listen to it for days on end, but the truth is that after awhile you’ll start to get that cottony feeling in your mouth as if nothing has flavor anymore.
Switch it up from time to time.
2) Don’t be afraid to do some pruning to keep your new group alive
With #NWITweetup we ran into a situation where a sub-group within our group didn’t want anything to do with the business. So we tried pretty hard to accommodate them. We lengthened the meetup times, found new restaurants, switched days of the week that were optimal for them…the works.
But when we switched the time the speakers would go on to an hour later so those coming in from Chicago could make it, the subgroup threw a fit and wanted to start their own foodie group.
Afterwhile we realized we were going to have to wish them well. We even joined their group and showed up from time to time. They did potlucks. It was fun. But they didn’t come as much anymore because they didn’t like our business-focused niche.
So it goes.
Don’t go over-the-moon for something that isn’t remotely reciprocal to your group’s overall needs.
3) Be a custodian of the group, not its owner
There are classic lines out there about leading but not controlling, about being a servant and not the master. It’s all true. The group stops being just your own creation the moment someone else finds it worthwhile to attend and give their time to it. It becomes a reflection of their essence and effort. Nurture it. Cultivate it. Don’t try to inhibit it.
And I’d keep it simple for awhile. We had board members, officers…but the things we found that worked the best were asking for folks were willing to contribute when they wanted help out, and let them go to town on it. They’ll do it with a sense of pride – unless they suck as a person.
4) Be the student
If you’re not learning, you’re not growing. If you’re not growing, you’re not helping the group. If it’s the networking group’s fault, time to reconsider having it. If it’s your fault, then figure out your commitment issues.
Either way, nothing’s going to grow without learning. And you’re not going to know everything in this life, let alone the networking group.
Be the student. It’s the best way to teach.
5) Don’t be afraid to network
Where Daver & I and Kelly & I differed was in how we approached networking. They were pretty chronic networkers. I often shunned it because I didn’t want to feel like my reasons for doing it were selfish.
In the end, I probably missed out on meeting many several incredible people.
Not all networking is selfish. Enjoy it. make some friends. Don’t make my mistake.
6) Play the long game
Don’t try to do it all in one night. Take your time, grow it slow. Let the themes and running jokes and moments fill in some of the gaps you have in a marketing scheme. Just keep listening to what happens.
7) Collect their contact info with as little effort (for them) as possible
You want to keep it as simple and easy for them as possible. Sign-ins and emails are nice, but don’t force it. You can also get their info with online tools like your Facebook page, Twitter, LinkedIn, the beer apps out there, as well as using Meetup.com,
Let them know you won’t spam them with offers and crap (and then, of course, don’t spam them with offers and crap) and that the info will be used for announcements about the group.
The more it feels for the group like they volunteer the information, the more likely they will be to interact to your messages.
8) It will ebb and flow, again and again
When NWITWeetup first started, it was but a few people at coffee houses standing in circles answering basic questions about themselves. When we took it over, we added a bit. And it blew up. Then the crowds would get smaller, then the crowds would get bigger.
Weather, sporting events, local events, market conditions, they’ll all play into the timing of your events. Try not to plan for blizzards – though we did get 65 at the Portage BW3s despite 3 degree weather and an ice storm.
In the end…
Have some fun with it. When it starts to feel like a job, freshen it up because if it’s feeling like a job to you, it’s probably feeling like a job to the networking group. Then again, it might be you so ask the group.
Otherwise, it’ll be like as much of an art as it is a science. Keep figuring out what the value will be for BoJoes and continue to see if it’ll cross-apply long term with your community likes. You should be able to find sweet spots.