Who hasn’t heard about the podcasting trend yet? We can say that Podcasting is a lot more than a trend, considering that there are 700K free podcasts available. The average weekly consumption for Americans adult is 6 hours and 37 minutes as per this article on a16z. While I doubt that Chinese listeners are as passionate (short videos are the thing in China), I can see how many community leaders and KOL have started interviewing people and recording their opinions.
We also tried something with Upstart, and I’m looking into ways to get it off the ground once again. Over the coming months, there will be more interviews from local entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders.
From time to time, I have a chance to get interviewed and share some of my thoughts and stories. A recent one got published on En Eclaireur (in French) and the latest one has been with ChinaBusinessCast.
China Business Cast’s goal “is to help entrepreneurs who want to learn how to do business in China. The podcast features conversations with experienced entrepreneurs and business people who’ve built their businesses in China.” I met Jons a few years ago at a Startup Weekend in Chengdu and got to see him again at TECOM earlier this year. That was an excellent opportunity to join his show and talk about “Entrepreneurship, Accelerators, and Unicorns in China.”
That episode was recorded when I was still with Techstars (since then, I transitioned to XNode) but the content is still very much relevant. Beside some observations, it got me thinking about the way we perceive innovation in China. And how, as a global ecosystem player, we used to share it.
A big thank to China Business Cast team for making this happen!
Working in the innovation field in China means receiving an unusually high amount of requests to partner up. Over the past four years, I came to dread receiving a message with the words “collaboration,” “partnerships,” and “let’s sign an MOU.” While it is most definitely half my own mistake, I don’t recall any actual outcomes from sealed partnerships. The chances to fail are even higher if we’ve never met the counterpart in real life or done work together before. And if there is no cash exchanged one way or the other, the odds are indeed against this collaboration’s success.
So why would people reach out and sign MOU? I sometimes assume that people might collect paperwork and pictures with smiles or handshakes on them. It probably keeps them busy.
In a way, though, there is an opportunity to bring two organizations together to deliver something more significant than each could execute separately. But to make this correctly, the process has to be monitored carefully. And several best practices served me well to avoid too much waste of time.
All it takes is a bit of discipline.
Push back on signing documents
First, best refuse to sign any document if there’s no cash or a short-term client available. Instead, suggest waiting until one of this two scenario happens. That has always helped set the serious partnerships apart from the PR-focused ones. That won’t make everybody happy and satisfied, but it is well worth the trouble. And if you’re like me, reading a legal document is something we gladly skip. In China, the only exception could be with government bodies. They wouldn’t concretely lead to sponsorship or client work, but they are worth the attention in the long run.
Build a system
Second, create a system that is reliable and complete. I rely on tools to scale my action, and managing partnerships is a great opportunity to leverage digital services. My choice this time is with Notion.so and its database system. It is seamless (and free for the lowest tier) to create a Workspace, then a Page, and then create the View that suits your needs. In this case, the “Table View” works fine to prepare and maintain a long list.
At this stage, the fields (called “Properties” in Notion) that have been useful are:
Title of the organization
Status (Lead / Contacted / Active / Passive / Lost)
Internal point of contact (from your side)
Name of partner’s contact (from their side)
High Priority (y/n)
Last Activity (date)
Title Last Activity (short description)
Notion is built in a way that you may add as many Properties as you’d like. But it’ll be as many fields to fill in and keep up to date. It’s a balance to find and test.
Notion is built in a way that you may add as many Properties as you’d like. But it’ll be as many fields to fill in and keep up to date. It’s a balance to find and test.
Third, you may want to start adding the partners that are on top of your head. But I usually don’t worry too much and instead wait for a new touch point. Doing it step by step rather than in one go is less overwhelming admin-wise. Similarly, it’s essential to update the Table regularly rather than waiting for the backlog to get longer. Remind yourself to take a look at it every couple of days, 5 minutes once in a while will be worth the time. Plus, looking at the list can give you some new ideas with opportunities to reach out.
Don’t drop the ball
Finally, have the discipline to reach out to your partners every quarter or so pro-actively. Pinging them will go a long way and it could create some interesting conversations. It is for that reason that I keep the Property “Last Activity” well up to date. Whenever I have 15 minutes, and I see that I’m falling behind on partnerships, I will send a gentle nudge. Even if we weren’t the ones creating that collaboration, it is warmly appreciated – and a good signal of excellent customer service.
Some organization and light touch discipline – managing partnerships isn’t so hard after all. And instead of being frustrated by a handful of unsuccessful ones, we can scale this system while keeping it close to our attention.
Creating a new tech community from the ground up is an exciting journey. There is a lot to figure out, and your first decisions can seem difficult to take at an early stage. But with some strategical thinking, it doesn’t have to be complicated. When looking at the creation of a new community, three parts have to be considered early:
Mission & Values Activities & Density People
The mission and your community’s values are the foundations on which the group of people can agree on and scale. That can be started as an experiment but don’t change the mission or values lightly. Keeping the mission and values broad is an excellent way to welcome new individuals. Have a much clearer focus will encourage higher engagement and sense of ownership.
Activities are opportunities for community members to get together and form meaningful connections. There can be activities taking place online or in real life, but a combination of both often works best. With the right support, it makes sense to host landmark events, with broad appeal. And between two of these, have frequent and smaller gatherings or get together. Density can also be increased by actively engaging members on a digital platform. To avoid too much lurking, reach out on an individual basis after each group post.
Finally, gathering the right mix of people to support the community is critical. Beyond embracing the mission and values, supporting activities, they should be on the lookout for new members. To grow the movement further, look at mechanisms to find and “test” your next generation of community leaders. That always takes longer than hoped but creates the highest opportunities to scale.
Want to read more about creating a new tech community? Discover this white-paper written by Techstars on the 5 Ingredients for a Thriving Startup Ecosystem
Panels are high chances to engage with a broader audience and throw some new ideas to steer debates. At a recent one with Community Builders, we wanted to test an assumption. We paused our conversation and asked the audience to raise their hands if they saw themselves as an introvert.
This idea became important to me over the past few years. I have been reading these sorts of articles for some time now (here and here). But I’ve also met hundreds of Community Builders from different countries and cultures. The idea that “introversion actually helps people build strong communities” became a sort of theme in my head.
Our guess was right; most of the room raised their hands. We weren’t surprised, but they probably were — each of them assuming that they’d be singled out among others. I enjoyed seeing the organizers, my fellow panel speakers, and myself – all having our hands in the air.
We were a room of introverts, talking about building community. The one activity that forces you to speak with people and get them excited about your projects!
I have been thinking about this evening many times since and trying to understand what to make of it.
If Community Builders are introvert like me, how do I make their journey less painful than mine was?
Yesterday, I had the pleasure to be on stage at TECOM Conference in Shanghai to share about “The Happiness of Community Building.” The line up was excellent, and it was great fun to share the stage with insightful speakers. Big up to Marian (interviewed here) for putting TECOM together.
The post below is a transcription of my talk. I added a bunch of personal anecdotes to it on stage, but you’d have to watch me live to hear them 😆. I’d love to improve my delivery of “The Happiness of Community Building,” a topic that I shared once before in Beijing, so please -> comment with your suggestions and improvements at the bottom!
Raise your hands if…
The act of building communities is selfish. We build communities because we seek happiness. And that’s ok, I honestly don’t blame you, I am the same!
In fact, what I have discovered is how Community Building has all the right pieces for somebody to find happiness. But at the same time, it is so easy to get lost along the way.
I have been building tech communities in the region for the past 8 years. It has been a fascinating journey that I’m glad to share today on stage.
Community Building has the elements to help somebody find happiness
When it comes to Community Building, I don’t believe we’re referring to any regular jobs or volunteering activities. Instead, it is something that one decides to pursue with passion. You wake up in the morning, energized and ready to live according to your values and beliefs. You learn you grow, and that gets you one step closer to happiness.
Community Building is also a wonderful chance to make meaningful connections. The people that you’ll end up spending time with form solid bonds on which you grow happy. You’ve probably heard of the Harvard Study of Adult Development and how they showed that we are happy and live longer also based on the quality of our relationships.
And finally, with Community Building, you have an opportunity to project yourself in a better world. One that you are actively engaged in creating. This sense of fulfilment is exciting. Your engagement looks good on you as you work towards something you helped imagine. Fulfilment and ownership, two amazing ingredients helping you get on a path of self appreciation and confidence.
Watch out – it is so easy to get lost along the way!
But, it is so easy to get lost along the way. Community Building is brutal and challenging. On the long run, most quit and call it a day. Most get their intentions twisted and eventually look the other way. As energy runs high, stakes get bigger and pressure goes up.
Your efforts are so hard to measure! As a Community Builders, it remains so challenging to assess your impact over time. And there are not many organizations willing to pay for the skills you develop, even though many get genuine value from it. There are no prizes for showing up early and cleaning until late. Years later, who would remember the first ones who laid the strong foundations on which we’re celebrating today.
Let’s not underestimate people having change of hearts. Communities get created with positive intentions. But as power gets accumulated, leaders are tempted to hold on to it and modify their values. Eventually, they might create territories, trying to protect them with artificial barriers and real political plays. They become bad players in a community that should (and will) reject them.
And on a personal basis, Community Builders aren’t exempt from their own pain. I have seen many wonderful people feeling exhausted, burned out. They their community to seek help they couldn’t find. Community Builders are so engaged with their action that they give it all, consuming their energy entirely and getting face to face with deep fears. This is saddening me even further because I had my own dark moments last year. And I didn’t know where to get help from. I was genuinely ready to calling it a day and abandoning it all.
We won’t stop – so how do we build resilient ecosystems?
And still, it is clear that all of us in this room today: Community Builders, hustlers, fighters – we won’t stop! Helping the next generations has big place in our hearts. Therefore, we must look at different ways to strengthen our movements. Build more resilient ecosystems with the proper set up to thrive.
As you grow your community, seat down with your peers and agree on values and how you’ll keep everyone accountable. While that might seem too far fetched, it will help scale your impact and get your mission to resonate with people. I’d suggest to include respect, diversity, and inclusivity. Of course, the key will be in maintaining values as you grow. Techstars has a Code Of Conduct that we expect members of our network to accept and embrace. Feel free to take a look at it here.
Do you know how on the safety instructions of an airplane, they ask that you place your oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others? Same here. Take care of yourself first, physically, emotionally, and financially. Celebrate the extra long-term contributions rather than 24/7 sprints that get people exhausted (here is how I’m doing).
Brad Feld, one of Techstars co-founder wrote in his best seller Startup Communities that communities should be built with a twenty years ahead mindset. And the clock resets every day. We’re in this for the long run.
The final element that makes a difference for all of us is getting connected with our peers. Like-minded leaders who share similar challenges and opportunities. Having such a platform is truly game changing and powerful.
That is why I am so excited about TECOM. Get conversations going and make new friends today!
It’s just the beginning, isn’t it?
In conclusion, I genuinely believe that community building has all the right elements that helped me be happy. It could have been so easy to get lost along the way (and it often did), and I keep working at it.
The way I see my role is so well said by a character in a movie I recently watched (Ricky Gervais and Dame Penelope Wilton inAfter Life). It goes like this:
“I thrive to make this little corner of the world a slightly better place. That’s all there is. Happiness is amazing. It’s so amazing that it doesn’t matter if it’s yours or not.
A society grows great when old men plant trees, the shade of which, they know they will never sit in.
Good people do things for other people. And you’re good, you have so much to give.”
That’s it, the end!
A major THANK YOU to the entire TECOM organizing team and EXPLORIUM. Click here to access pictures taken during the conference.
I discussed with Marian Danko, founder of weHustle and TECOM, about his projects. In his answers, it is clear that he pays strong attention to events to run a tech community. That is how he experiences the passion of that group and their mission. Therefore, it makes sense that Marian is a volunteer at Startup Grind and Angelhack. And that’s on top of setting up TECOM, a conference for entrepreneurs and community builders in Shanghai. Marian, believes in the power of offline gatherings.
Shanghai says – online first!
When I first arrived in Shanghai, I believed otherwise. WeChat is everywhere and is often the link between reality and people’s life. Communities wouldn’t survive offline because everybody’s attention was online.
In fact, somebody with good intentions could spin off a WeChat group instantly. And in a couple of hours, have two hundred participants sharing heated opinions on something hot and trendy. Spammers would most likely overtake the same group after a couple of days.
That’s how I came back to Marian’s opinion that communities need to crystallize their existence with in-person events.
In-person events aren’t dead
Startup Grind in Shanghai is thriving. They run sold-out events with inspiring speakers. This momentum creates a strong following with old and new faces. AngelHack is the platform for developers to hack on new technologies or APIs. While some hackathons run online, I have seen better results with offline experiences. It is about the people you connect, as much as the context in which you work.
I also have done my fair share of local events: Startup Weekend, DrinkEntrepreneurs HK, la French Tech HK, and Techstars. I have tested many different formats, setups, and audiences. There is a significant surge of engagement, support, and new initiatives after each gathering. My go-to reply addressing growth was: “host one event, get three more in the pipeline.” Great participants attract their peers and the passion rolls to a broader circle. Over time, running local events become the backbone of communities.
Last week, we hosted a Community Leaders Academy in Beijing with passionate individuals. Most of them had been to a Startup Weekend before and some were considering to host one soon. More importantly, they are passionate about helping the next generation of entrepreneurs. Our three hours workshop started with “The Happiness of Community Building.”
I didn’t have a firm idea when I came up with the title but enjoyed the sound of it. These two concepts aren’t often tied together. And in practice, Community Builders don’t think of their happiness as they act and help others. A perfect opportunity to bring some debates to the table. Community Builders are often super-connector, invited everywhere, and extra insightful on the situation. But my own experience interacting with so many Builders throughout Greater China is very different. Community Building is lonely and challenging. There is no immediate reward, and large companies rarely consider it a hard skill.
My goal with this talk wasn’t to share a few tips but share a broader perspective to get the conversation going. These weren’t to be done at an individual level but agreed upon among peers.
The first idea was to refuse to celebrate constant hustle and around-the-clock work. The 24/7 or 996 (standing for working from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week) aren’t healthy and can’t last long – especially with a high-pressure environment. I was toying with this question: “when was the last time you got bored?”
The second wish that I had for the audience was to get connected with other Community Builders. It’s a population that has so much in common that you often feel being on the same level. There is a lot to gain by getting together and celebrating our wins and challenges.
The final message was to start acknowledging and talking about mental health issues. In many places, it is tricky to openly discuss being burned out, depressed, and/or having a mental illness. Unfortunately, Community Builders are likely to pay too little attention to their situation. But we do have the influence to take risks and start that conversation.
With enough time, I would have shared my own story. I would have highlighted how developing a discipline helped me reaching harmony. Luckily, I will have a chance to talk about this topic at an upcoming conference in Shanghai (link here).
Have you started nurturing a community? Maybe for your job, possibly for fun. If you’re communicating with the same group of people on a common topic, the chances are that you’re part of one.
Are you a leader or a feeder? The leader would typically give the general direction to the movement and be aware of the small prints that get everybody on the same page. If you are the leader of a community, you should be observing that far from being a fancy position, you are facing some hard realities.
Your reach is only as strong as the individual’s engagement
There is a scale on how much you can expect from your community. Joining an online group being one of the simplest and expecting somebody to donate cash or their productive time being the trickiest. As you are lacking for direct incentives, you need to engage with people on many other ways.
Inertia takes time, momentum is bliss, memories are short
As you set up your community, it will take a lot of time to rally up people and get them on the same page.
Once the ball is rolling, the magic happens.
If you stop working and communicating, people will go a lot faster than it took to get them onboard
There is a way against loneliness
While the community best representation is a horizontal network, I found that you’d still have somebody behind the scene pushing the movement. For that person, it will be intense yet mildly rewarding.
The solution, mingling with other community builders. For some interesting reasons, brains of two community builders often click when they meet. They have the same set of values and interests and challenges.