Slush Shanghai 2019 was a grand celebration of global tech and startups. It got me thinking about standing out as a tech conference.
I have a conflicting opinion of such events. They allow thousands of people to hear cool topics directly from thought leaders. And at the same time, they create the hope for dozens of startups that they’ll get noticed by media and investors. As a community builder and somebody generally in touch with the latest ideas and robust network, tech conferences don’t create something unique.
The Chinese’s innovation landscape is a complex adaptive system, moving at full speed. This idea doesn’t please delegations that visit us from around the world. They come to Shanghai, hoping to form an opinion on the growing presence of Chinese startup news in their media. While we wish we had a clear and marketable story to share, this is the closest thing I found.
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.
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.
So Marian, can you please introduce yourself first?
My name is Marian, the founder of weHustle. I came to China seven years ago, first in a city close to Beijing and then in Shanghai, three years later. Not knowing people in town, I started attending many events around entrepreneurship including Startup Weekend. Over time, I understood that entrepreneurship is my passion. I wanted to know more. Doubling down on attending events, I got so inspired and excited by the startup ecosystem with events, pitches, and founders, that I decided to start my own company. That’s how weHustle got founded. It’s been three years now, and we work with many tech communities, startups, and founders. I’m looking forward to what’s ahead of us in the future.
Why did you start working on WeHustle? What was the pain point you tried to address? Why were you the person to solve it?
Initially, the company was called China Classifieds. Back then, I was sitting in my office, working for another company. And as a big fan of Kickstarter, I would order and support many projects on the platform. One that stood up was a USD 9 computer chip that I purchased. But to use it, you needed a monitor. For a USD 9 computer, I didn’t want to buy something new. Now, I’m from Ukraine, a place where you can easily find second-hand websites and buy cheap stuff for fun. I couldn’t find something similar here in Shanghai, and I thought to myself that many other people were probably facing the same challenge. That’s how China Classifieds got started. We added various categories such as apartments, jobs, event listings, and more. Somehow, it didn’t work with the audience, and they couldn’t see the value in China Classifieds to the point where they’d use it all the time. Plus, it was tough to push the strategy in different directions to test new markets fast. And people were confused about the concept itself – whether it was to find apartments, jobs, a platform for communities – it wasn’t clear. As my real passion was around entrepreneurship and innovation, we decided to narrow down our categories and simply keep “jobs” and “events.” We changed the name to weHustle to reflect the new direction, and we now have a platform that connects innovators from the region.
How is it going so far? What was the response from the community?
As we announced the rebranding, we got surprised by the number of positive feedback from people. So many private messages were telling us how they love the new name and positioning. Doing it was a smart move. Also, people associate weHustle with WeWork, so it helps me market the product. The word “hustle” itself is very trendy and a hot topic, for example, with Gary Vee talks or people fighting against the concept. So we can see many conversations around it, helping us get visibility. Plus, it’s way shorter than China Classifieds, so people remember our new name more easily. And since the rebranding, we’ve seen many companies that didn’t use our service under China Classifieds, now more willing to try our platform.
How do you see the evolution of that platform considering that now you have more user engagement?
As we have more user engagement, we can track how many people apply for jobs, how many people post events. The number is increasing. Now, we’re trying to create more sophisticated ways to track and to retain people on the platform.
So far, it goes well. We have some crazy ideas that we are working on right now, and that will help engage visitors.
If you had to boil down the business plan into a general concept, what is weHustle in a few words?
“weHustle is a recruitment platform with the community.”
How do you nurture this community? How do you make sure that it exists and helps you compete with alternatives?
We don’t say that we have “our community.” Instead, we work with many other existing groups like Slush, Startup Grind, AngelHack, Ladies Who Tech, Chinaccelerator, and Technode. These communities have their circles with active followers and events. We channel their and our activities in one place. So by following weHustle, people can stay up to date with the broad spectrum of upcoming events from different communities. In this way, we share an audience passionate about innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology. And that aggregated community is the audience that companies, startups, and organizations would like to get in touch to find talents, partners, co-founders, or clients.
Have you identified any differences with the Shanghai tech ecosystem? Is there something that stands out?
The Shanghai community is very dynamic, well engaged, and international. Shanghai has it all, communities such as Google Developer Group which has localized their content and attracts local geeks. Startup Grind which is also global but hasn’t localized that much and many foreigners and locals alike attending their events.
How do you see the future of tech and entrepreneurship in Shanghai?
Shanghai is growing very fast. There are more and more global communities entering China with Shanghai as the first landing pad. It is easy to test a model, adapt and then replicate in more cities. That’s the case with Le Wagon: they’ve been here in China just for a couple of years. Shanghai was their first city, and now they have a presence in Chengdu and more recently in Shenzhen. The same happened to Angelhack, we did three successful hackathons last year in big cities, and now we’re moving to other provinces.
How do you see your involvement as a volunteer for AngelHack and Startup Grind benefiting yourself, and weHustle?
First of all, I don’t see community building and engagement as a direct source of benefits. That’s the wrong attitude. Instead, join the community because you feel the passion and you like its mission. Once you invest more time and efforts in it, you’ll harvest some benefits in return. What you get is access to vast networking, you learn a lot from your teammates and speakers. For me, it helped a lot getting inbound connections such as: “I’ve seen you at Startup Grind, I have some questions…” and then we start a conversation.
We typically associate Startup Grind with inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs and AngelHack as a way to put in practice what you’ve learned.
Have you have you considered what would happen afterward for your participants? What are they supposed to do in Shanghai? What are the suitable solutions for them?
What we see are two options:
Work for big corporations. For example, running incubators, corporate innovation programs, or building bridges with local startups.
Create your startup;
Once you get inspired and motivated at events, you start your project with good connections and some knowledge obtained.
Last month, you announced TECOM to the world! Can you share why you considered starting a conference for community builders?
I’ve been following many of conferences recently, including RISE, Slush, TechCrunch, etc. And what I saw were VCs, startups, and pitches. After the event, you can tell that people were excited but didn’t get enough follow up. Sometimes, even if you have pitched to investors at the conference, you wouldn’t get the return on your time invested.
We have been working with many communities for a few years. We see that they provide a lot of support and value to startups and help grow the whole ecosystem. Why not put a conference for them?
I believe that a community should be the pillars on which startups can grow.
If you go to a smaller city like Suzhou or Hangzhou, you can’t find that many communities where to pitch your project or talk with peers.
I want to use TECOM to bring most communities under one roof and showcase their values, missions, and how they help the next generation. We will also talk about their impact, their challenges, their focus, and so much more. It will also allow communities to know and talk with each other. It will enable new people to join these groups, and we can foster best practices sharing among different community builders. For example, we will have one panel with four organizations that started here in Shanghai. They are small but are building a stronger presence quickly. They can learn from larger communities and can follow some of the steps.
Can you share some of the of the activities that will be taking place during TECOM?
TECOM is a day-long event, on March 23rd.
It has a main stage with over 30 confirmed speakers. There will be keynotes – deep dives – and two panels.
We will host three workshops:
One run by a digital marketing agency 31Ten to help community builders refine their WeChat strategy and how to leverage it to full potential when it comes to marketing events on WeChat.
Another one from Qalista that will focus on how to make your pitch interview with employers better. That’s for job seekers.
The third workshop will be run by nihub for startups to raise funds and improve their pitch.
TECOM will host the Digital Talent Job Fair. It feels important to support the best people that are looking for new opportunities. We are bringing 40 companies to exhibit their job openings. We will also have a Community Alley where the general public can find more information about participating tech and entrepreneur communities.
Why should somebody join TECOM?
If you want to know what’s happening within the tech and entrepreneurship ecosystem in town;
if you’re a community builder;
if you’re looking for a new job opportunity;
if you’re an innovator or entrepreneur, then you should join TECOM.
What did you like the most about creating TECOM?
My best moments are hearing “yes” replies from companies and communities once you’ve reached out to them. You pitch the idea, and they love it! Then you start building the schedule, confirming speakers, lining up partners – that’s another beautiful moment to reflect how you’re making something that didn’t exist before. It is now coming to life!
Were you surprised during the journey of organizing TECOM?
Yes, if we take the example of my conversation with Feiyue after reaching out to them. I was pitching the idea around TECOM and bringing the communities together, gathering motivated, international people together. They agreed to co-brand their shoes with us, and we’ll have awesome Feiyue x TECOM shoes for volunteers and teams. What a big surprise!
What’s your ambition with TECOM?
2019 is our first year, so it’s hard to know what will happen next, but the idea is to bring TECOM to different cities and make it a yearly conference. In this way, we can facilitate and strengthen the startup ecosystem in various cities across China. By doing this, we help startups have more opportunities to grow. At the same time, I’d hope to get support from the government to make it larger.
You’ve partnered with large organizations, what do they hope to get out of their involvement with TECOM?
These big companies are trying to get into the startup community. But if they target startups one by one, they’ll waste a lot of time and resources in the process. The easiest way for them is, therefore, to work with the communities and us and leverage these connections to identify good startups.