Recently, I attended a 4 day long IRL community event. I was super excited to be invited to join Foundrs, a fantastic community/network of entrepreneurs based out of the UK.
Going in, I didn’t know what to expect. When I say it was a life-changing weekend, I’m not exaggerating.
As I keen community builder myself, I couldn’t help but analyse what they were doing so effectively.
Here are the 6 key lessons I observed during this retreat:
1. It all starts with culture
With any community, culture sits at the very top.
Foundrs have various community values, and honestly, I can’t remember them all. However, the one that stuck (and seemed to for all attendees) was their primary value ‘Compassionate connections’.
It was repeated throughout the weekend and seemed to be taken to heart by every person there.
You may think ‘what difference can two little words make?’, but I promise you, a clear culture value-statement such as this can change everything.
I recall attending Creative South design conference a couple of years back, where their mantra is ‘hug necks’. What resulted was a weekend of strangers hugging and embracing each other (ah – the beauty of pre-covid times!). This simple statement trickled down to the thousands of interactions happening between attendees each day, and it was a beautiful thing to behold.
I saw a similar thing happen at Foundrs. ‘Compassionate connections’ seemed to be the driver behind so much of the behaviour. Members listened. They never judged. They opened up. Nobody forced their opinion on others.
Truly, in a world of social media vitriol and negativity, it was like an oasis of empathy and kindness.
2. They built an itinerary to support the culture
Of course, a value statement can only get you so far.
Where Foundrs really shone was in their execution of community events throughout the retreat.
It was clear that each event was specifically designed to support the concept of ‘compassionate connections’.
Starting with a kind of speed-dating ice-breaker session, I was soon baring my soul to total strangers, and learning plenty about them in the process.
Next, we split into more intimate groups of 5 for ‘Tribes’ where we opened up about the most personal, vulnerable things happening in our business/personal lives for 90 minutes. Sat in the glorious sun, by a scenic river, it was beyond cathartic.
The final night closing party didn’t disappoint and featured some outlandish fancy dress, serious dance moves and plenty of wine!
The schedule of workshops, sessions and social gatherings was like a fast-track to creating meaningful connections between members.
3. Nailing the value proposition
I’ve been to entrepreneurial networking events before. They’re generally terrible. I remember a few in London where people would shove a business card in my face before asking my name. One guy even opened with ‘how much do you earn?’. I used to find the 2-3 normal people also hating it, and go get drunk with them in a corner.
The beauty of this IRL community event is that we hardly spoke about work.
The focus was cultivating and maintaining friendships. It was about emotionally supporting each other. Blowing off steam and escaping the daily grind.
Often, I’d find myself chatting with a new friend for a couple of days, before realising I barely new what they even did for work! It was refreshing to get to know the people, before the resume.
Invariably, Foundrs does offer tons of value for members via their email based community (and associated Telegram groups). I can already see members jumping to help one another with everything ranging from funding questions, to hiring.
It was interesting to note the variation in expected value from members. Despite all being under the Foundrs umbrella, it was clear: IRL events were for connections, email groups were for more practical business help.
4. More participatory than passive
Whilst no members were forced to participate if they didn’t want to, there was a general encouragement to ‘get involved’.
As I result, I not only led a workshop session (on community of course!), but hosted the quiz one night.
This was echoed by other members. It felt like everybody was involved, everybody was contributing.
Often people may not nominate themselves to help, but when asked, they were more than happy to participate.
5. Member created value
If all of the value came from the organisers, things would only scale so far.
I noticed some really effective ways of really scaling the value that attendees received.
More established members were asked to lead the ‘tribe’ groups on the first day, essentially taking newbies under their wing.
There was also a buddy system, where new members were paired up with existing members for the weekend, to offer them support if needed (I was paired with one of the biggest characters in the group, which was fantastic).
The workshop sessions ensured that each day was packed with a diverse schedule of value, as members (new and old) talked on their respective specialist topics.
Members also helped to uphold the culture. At one point, something I said over a lunch sounded mildly judgemental (not my intention at all, just a poor choice of wording). Another member gently pointed out how it sounded, and I quickly explained the misunderstanding. The gentle nudge, inferring ‘that’s not how we do things here’ was a welcomed correction, and showed how much members truly cared about the group.
6. Setting matters
Whilst the weekend would have undoubtedly been special wherever it was hosted, the setting was incredibly picturesque.
The tranquil countryside setting perfectly supported the intention behind the weekend. You could see the stress lifting from several members (including me) as we immersed ourselves in nature.
The right setting can make a huge difference, and can totally be reverse-engineered around your culture.
What we, as community builders can learn from this retreat
Beyond having a fantastic weekend, I took so many actionable lessons from this IRL community event.
Here were some of my favourites (I hope you can learn from them too):
- Try to distill your culture down to just a few words. Repeat these regularly, so they become front of mind for members.
- Define the behaviours that do/don’t support your community culture. Work to uphold them, and encourage members to uphold them also.
- Build events, workshops and rituals around your culture.
- Ensure that members are clear on what kind of value to expect.
- Leverage member-led events to scale the value of your community and empower members to contribute
- Don’t wait for members to offer to participate, ask them.
- Personal connections matter. In fact, they’re the real driver behind a community’s success. Prioritise cultivating them in your community, your members will thank you for it.
I’ll be sharing how I am implementing some of these lessons in my own community in the coming weeks. The results are already amazing!
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