How About a Hot Idea With Your Dinner?

Meeting I Never Miss

M.I.N.M. Round Zero
Who: Mark Tan, strategic-partner manager, Epinions Inc.
Email: mark@epinions-inc.com
Players: A select group of Silicon Valley CEOs, journalists, lawyers, managers, and venture capitalists
Frequency: The second Wednesday of every month
Why I never miss it: "It's the go-to meeting to get educated on the next hot issue."

The trouble with can-do business cultures is that there's so little time to think. And there are so many questions to think about: How do you tune up customer service on the Web? Is Net advertising growing up? Will wireless match the hype? Those are the questions that occupy people at Round Zero, an invitation-only Silicon Valley soiree.

Once a month, some 120 Round Zero members and guests gather in a meeting room at the Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto to take part in this new-economy salon, which is equal parts cocktail-party schmoozing and friendly debate. What Round Zero members enjoy every month -- between bites of wild-mushroom risotto and chocolate-mousse torte -- is an intimate learning environment that is too often absent at work.

"Many of us are trying to launch a startup, get involved in one, or raise capital with a given VC," says Mark Tan, 33, strategic-partner manager at Epinions Inc. and a veteran of Round Zero. But the purpose of Round Zero (named for the prefunding stage of a startup) goes far beyond the many networking opportunities that the group offers. "We constantly share our experience and knowledge."

Guiding Principle

Socratic exchange. "It's an environment where people are willing to speak their minds, where frank dialogue is based on mutual respect. What brings us together is an entrepreneurial passion. What makes the meeting work is the free flow of ideas."

Best Practice

Round table for five. "No more than five people to a table -- that's the key to collective mind share. The setup almost mandates people's active participation, because we're in small groups. There's no place to hide. We take the intellectual intensity of a classroom breakout session and pair it with the casual flow of conversation among friends."

Pregame

The blurbs. "Two weeks before each meeting, Round Zero leaders email the monthly 'blurb,' the summary that introduces everyone to the topic for the next gathering, along with links to related articles. We're expected to educate ourselves before the meeting. To swap useful ideas, you've got to bring something to the table."

Talking Stick

"We're given assigned seating so that each table has a diverse group. We start with brief introductions and then dive into the topic for three hours.

"Every table has a facilitator, since sticking to the topic can be a challenge with so many strong personalities. The job of the facilitator is to extract as much value as possible from each of the group's members -- and to manage talk-time equity."

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