I learned the hard way why we need community.
I was in a graduate-level program for occupational therapy with one goal in mind.
To be a straight-A student.
I did it... but at the cost of my mental health.
Halfway through the program, I spiraled into a pretty dark depression.
I had this overwhelming feeling of loneliness.
I was alone in my apartment and suddenly felt like a bird locked in a cage.
I didn't know what to do but knew I needed to get outside.
I walked to the nearest park, laid in the grass, and cried.
"What the hell is going on?!" I thought to myself.
- I was a straight A-student
- I was exercising regularly
- I was eating healthy
- I had a girlfriend
- I had a job
"Why am I so sad?!"
And then it hit me like a freight train.
I didn't have a community.
A group of people that I can lean on when life gets hard.
And life WILL get hard.
My graduate program was in Davenport, Iowa.
Before moving to Iowa, my community had always been naturally baked into my life.
- My parents
- My family
- My high school friends
- My college friends
- My workout squad
When I moved to a new city, it was no longer a part of everyday life.
It was something I was going to have to facilitate.
I had to be intentional.
Here's what I first did:
- I started exercising with other gym go-ers
- I started spending time with classmates outside of class
- I started staying after hours at work to connect with my co-workers
- I started traveling with my newfound friends in Iowa
Eventually, I dug myself out of the hole of depression.
But it taught me a very important life lesson.
Community isn't a nicety... it's a necessity.
Moving to a new city is already challenging, especially if you don't know anyone.
Don't make it harder on yourself by trying to do it alone.
After graduating my occupational therapy program, I moved back to Minnesota.
It served its purpose for a while, but eventually, it was time to move again.
Next stop... Austin Texas.
When I moved to Austin, I knew better than to make the same mistake I made in Iowa.
Here are all the lessons I learned from moving to a new city to get involved in the community fast.
First... we search
I moved to Austin, Texas on November 7th, 2021.
I didn't know anyone besides my buddy (Dan) who moved south with me.
The first step was to start tasting stuff.
Tapping into existing communities to see what I liked (and didn't like).
Here are some examples:
- Webflow website developers
- Austin Design Week
- UX/UI designers
- Physical Therapy business owners
- Austin Wellness Collaborative
- Squatch Frontier Gym
- Onnit Gym
These are all amazing communities... but not quite what I was looking for.
In the words of Matthew McConaughey, "We're really bad at knowing what we want, but we're really good at knowing what we don't want."
The best way to find your community is to taste stuff.
After tasting a bunch of communities, I wasn't finding exactly what I was looking for.
It was clear what I needed to do next.
Second... we create
If what you desire doesn't yet exist, create it.
The people I was looking to connect with were health & fitness business owners... because that's what I am.
The first-ever "Healthpreneur" event was at Zilker Brewing.
I posted it on Eventbrite and invited a few people I thought would be interested.
To my surprise, people showed up.
It was a small turnout, but it confirmed something very important.
I wasn't the only one looking for this community.
Once I knew there was a demand, it was time to clarify the vision.
Third... we clarify
The second event was at Meanwhile Brewing in December.
I attempted a holiday-themed style event and, it was a total bust.
There are many reasons it didn't go well... but to name a few.
- End of the year
- Holiday season
- Weak marketing
- Poor location choice
But the one that stands out the most... lack of purpose.
The number one reason I see a community struggle to grow is because it doesn't answer one fundamental question.
"Why are we coming together?"
The answer to that question answers every other question you have about your community.
- "What is our start time?"
- "Where should we host it?"
- "How long should it be?"
- "Will there be food and drinks?"
- "How often do we get together?"
These are all answered by knowing your communities purpose.
The more clear your purpose, the more deeply you resonate with people.
Fourth... we iterate
The purpose of my community is to bring together Austin's finest health & fitness business owners to network, mentor, coach, support, collaborate, & connect.
With this in mind, decision-making became 100x easier.
I then pivoted the group from meeting at breweries to going on walks.
If you're a health or fitness business owner (hopefully), you value health.
A walk and talk felt much more aligned with the group's purpose.
This worked for a while... until it didn't.
- The group became too large
- The weather was a massive factor
- People had difficulty finding the meeting location
- It was challenging to facilitate conversations with everyone
We then pivoted to meeting at local coffee shops and restaurants.
Again, this worked... until it didn't.
- Venue changes became confusing
- I constantly had to coordinate with other events
- Certain locations were noisy, and hard to hear people talk
- Sitting down is the bane of any good networking event
These blunders could have been avoided by knowing the group's purpose.
This was when I landed on my group's secret sauce.
Fifth... ground rules
I can't take credit for all of these. I borrowed a lot of these ideas from my buddy Nick Gray who is the master of the 2-hour cocktail party.
Start and end times
My group is busy professionals. Their time is their most valuable asses. If they go out of their way to attend my event. I want to ensure they get the most out of it in as little time as possible.
The event starts at 6 pm sharp and ends at 8 pm sharp-ish (people linger).
There is no obligation to stay, but people generally do because they end up having a great time.
Having a start and end time creates mental peace for people.
They know when they should be there, and they know that they aren't going to get stuck being out late.
Everyone is busy. Respect people's times.
Throw away the chairs
Okay, don't actually throw away your chairs. But they are worth considering.
Networking is a core pillar of my events. Which means sitting is a no-no.
When someone sits down, they end up talking to one person.
That goes against the purpose of my group (to network).
I choose locations with an open floor plan. Or I hide/block opportunities for people to sit.
Standing encourages meandering. Meandering encourages new conversations.
If your community is meant to be more intimate. Maybe chairs are the perfect item for your group.
But at the very least. Consider how sitting will influence your community.
This one seems silly. But if done correctly, it can be a massive addition to a group.
Icebreakers aren't for extroverts. Nobody needs to help the extrovert come up with a million topics to talk about.
Frankly, we need to get them to talk less.
Icebreakers are for introverts. They give a clear topic of discussion that allows both people to get involved in the conversation.
The key to good icebreaker questions is relevance.
Make sure the questions you pose to the group for icebreakers are relevant to the purpose of the group.
My group's purpose is business networking. So I use a lot of business-related icebreaker questions.
- What's the best advice you've ever received?
- What's the worst advice you've ever received?
- What are you procrastinating? Why!?
- What's the biggest business mistake you've made?
- What's your morning routine?
- What would immediately improve your revenue?
Use icebreakers and cater them to your community to facilitate conversation.
I know what your favorite word is.
It's the sound of your name.
When someone knows our name, we feel seen.
Everyone wants to feel seen.
Nametags make it easy.
An added bonus is that most people never remember your name when introducing yourself.
This removes the awkward "Hey, what was your name again?"
I'm not going to try and sell you on nametags.
But I will say they are mighty effective.
The most common message I get after an event is, "Hey, can you send the photo from last night!"
Yes, we live in a social media-driven attention economy.
But more so than that, it's a great opportunity to mix up the group.
I've noticed that after a group photo, people always seem to be a little happier.
They share a few laughs about the awkward photo-taking session and usually stir up a conversation with someone new at the event.
Taking a photo might seem like a minor detail. But it's often overlooked.
Always take a group photo.
Your community will thank you later.
Sixth... we nurture
This is the final step and the one I struggled with the most.
Events are great. They are a lot of fun and a lot of hype.
But as any good community builder knows. The glue that holds a group together is the connections that happen outside the events.
Assuming you took a group photo (as you should!). Post it and tag as many people as you can.
This gets the wheels turning for people to start finding one another.
This also provides an opportunity for people to share it.
The more your group gets shared, the more likely people are to engage in conversations and connections outside of the event.
Build a list
As someone who does marketing for a living, I can't stress enough the value of an email list.
It is by far the most powerful marketing tool that exists today.
Think about how much time you spend opening, reading, organizing, and deleting emails daily.
Pro-tip. Don't build a list to market yourself.
Build a list to add value to your community.
- Invite them to future events
- Highlight people in your community
- Offer discounts on useful products and services
- Make them laugh
The easiest way to grow this list is to have a simple check-in process.
A link that collects names, emails, and social media handles.
I personally use Airtable, but Google Forms works just as well.
Use this at every event and watch your community grow.
Feedback is essential to the growth of a community. But you have to be intentional about it.
- Ask people at the event
- Send surveys to the group
- Message people after the event
All of the best athletes in the world watch post-game film.
Asking for feedback is like watching game film.
Host -> ask for feedback-> iterate -> repeat.
One of the best things you can do for your community is to make an introduction.
This takes some practice, but once you get good at it. You'll realize it's a superpower.
The power of your network isn't the direct connections. It's the associations.
Think of your network like a spider web.
Your goal should be to expand your web by making introductions.
You expand your web by introducing two people that could benefit from knowing each other.
When you meet someone new, ask yourself, "Who can I connect them with that would be of value to their life?"
Then... make the connection.
"Hey, you should meet Bill! He has a ton of knowledge in the healthy consumer goods products!"
Add value FIRST, and watch it circle back. It always does.
Assuming you host a good event (and you will after reading this), people will naturally want to know you.
They will thank you for hosting the event. They will send you a message afterward. They will (hopefully) tell all their friends about you.
Don't miss this prime opportunity.
Have a plan for what's next.
My events are on the first Thursday of every month. So I remind them of when the next event is and ask for a verbal commitment.
"Hey! Thanks for coming, the next event is the first Thursday of next month, can I count on you to be there?!"
More often than not, they will say yes.
Most humans like to stay true to their word.
Of course, they don't always come. But at least it puts it in their mind.
- Community isn't a nicety... it's a necessity
- Start by tasting other communities
- If it doesn't exist, create it
- Test if there is demand for it
- Determine your communities purpose
- Rapid iteration
- Follow the community ground rules
- Nurture your community
If you need help with building your own community, contact me here.
Hope you enjoyed this one, my friend.