Networking can help you meet new people and advance your career. But what if you’re not sure you’ll find a group that fits your needs? Starting your own group can be an option, though it’s a risky proposition. Here’s how to increase your odds of creating something that will last long enough to make an impact.
Attend copious events sponsored by other organizations to see what works. You’ll meet people, learn the local landscape, and save yourself much work if you figure out that another group is amenable enough to your interests that you can steer it that way.
If you decide to go ahead, know that strong groups have specific aims. Years ago, Allison Steiner and a few colleagues looked around and found that while there were groups for women scientists, there was nothing focused on young women in their field: the earth sciences. In academia, “the specific discipline actually really matters,” she says. To help these scientists start their careers, they founded the Earth Science Women’s Network, with a focus on peer mentoring, workshops, and networking at professional conferences. “We didn’t find the mentoring we needed so we decided to create our own,” she says.
Work/life management expert Samantha Ettus notes that “Picking people is the most important part of a networking group. You’re literally curating people.” You don’t just want awesome members, you want those who will show up.
There’s nothing wrong with approaching influential or famous types, but you might want to invite them in as speakers or panelists first to get them interested in joining. As for regular members, lean toward enthusiastic sorts. “It’s almost like choosing a friend,” Ettus says. “You want to choose a friend who’s fun but also a friend who’s loyal.”
To start a group, you need an event right away, so you have something specific to invite people to. Choose a venue you’re comfortable with. But, just as importantly, get another date on the calendar too. If you’d like to meet monthly, then you’ll want a second event on the calendar in exactly a month, so people leave the first event with something else they can get excited about.
“It’s important to have a routine,” says Andrea Murphy, community team manager at Meetup, the network that helps people organize local get-togethers. “You really want to set that cadence so they know the ebbs and flows of activity in the group.” When events are sporadic, “people don’t know what to expect. Routines are good in groups.”
In looking at successful networks among Meetup’s 168,000-plus groups, Murphy’s seen that “Your members really drive where your Meetup group goes.” So listen, find out what people are interested in and seeking, and then “provide a diverse array of opportunities for members in your group around networking.”
Maybe you bring in speakers who can teach interesting things, or you create structured conversations on topics people want covered. A “mixed bag of events” gives people multiple reasons to come, but whatever you do, make sure to create time for people to chat. “Don’t let them all walk out of there without talking to each other,” Murphy says. “The relationships people are building at those Meetups are what’s going to keep them coming back for more.”
Shannon Little, who works in digital promotions and communications, found that many networking groups she tried in Memphis were too focused on business card exchanges. So she and a few others “took it upon ourselves to start a group that offered more idea generation and support.” Now, Memphis Young Creatives meets monthly at different local bars and restaurants.
“To get the word out, we set up a Facebook event page and invite the people we know in the business. They invite their contacts, etc., etc. We don’t like to broadcast the event city-wide, because we want to make sure that the conversation and attendees fit with the purpose of the group as much as possible,” she says. This slow growth involves a trade-off, because one upside of networking events is meeting people you wouldn’t meet otherwise. But Little says that “In the end, we decided that it was better to have a small group of quality contacts that we could eventually grow as opposed to a large group where we would have to search for quality.”
Even if you think you’ll grow slowly, life can surprise you. The Earth Science Women’s Network quickly found itself with several hundred interested members. The group was offered financial help from institutions looking to advance women in the sciences. “We kind of did it backwards,” Steiner says. When they got funding, “We had to look more organized than we were!”
Looking back, she’d advise people starting groups to recognize that “organizational planning at the beginning goes along with a vision of a successful trajectory–what would that look like?” In 10 years, what would you like your organization to be doing? This can change, of course, but fantasizing helps you look for opportunities.
And, eventually, those fantasies might come true. The Earth Science Women’s Network now has over 2,000 members. Steiner has co-authored papers with people she’s met through it. Her founder status helped build her credibility as a leader in her field. “It’s a big time investment, but I definitely think it paid off,” she says.