Connecting people and engaging the entire entrepreneurial stack with Startup Happy Hours
One of my favorite concepts in Brad Feld’s book Startup Communities is his idea of “events that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.” That idea, along with a program that Feld mentions in the book, open coffee clubs, sparked an idea in me for a regular startup community building event we could try.
In January of 2017, StartupSac launched a happy hour event with a twist — StartupSac Happy Hour. The event is part networking, part mentoring. It’s an informal monthly mentoring and community-building event for founders, entrepreneurs and innovators where entrepreneurs can get their startup questions answered by a veteran entrepreneur. We meet at a local bar, restaurant, or brewery where, after some initial socializing and networking, a startup veteran answers questions from other entrepreneurs. I think of it as a hybrid Happy Hour meets Office Hours.
The goal of the event is to provide an opportunity for early-stage entrepreneurs to gain insight and feedback from more experienced entrepreneurs, as well as to provide a supportive forum of encouragement and collaboration in the startup community.
Last week, during Global Entrepreneurship Week, we held our 20th StartupSac Happy hour event. Since launching, the event has provided a networking and mentoring platform for over 600 people in our community.
Our first event was in a funky backroom of a local pub. 35 people came out to network and hear our guest serial entrepreneur, Sonny Mayugba, whose startup had just been acquired. Since that initial event we’ve moved to somewhat more upscale venues and had 16 startup founders come out and share their insights and knowledge with the community on a wide variety of startup topics.
We haven’t been able to line up a guest entrepreneur for every event, but that aspect has become very popular and we get grateful feedback every time from those who attend — both the early stage entrepreneurs as well as our veteran guest entrepreneurs. The access to a successful startup founder definitely increases the value of these events over traditional mixers and happy hours.
An additional benefit of involving the successful founders is that it engages them with the ecosystem and gives them a taste of giving back. Startup ecosystems are most successful when led by entrepreneurs, so we view the event as a step to getting the successful, experienced founders involved in the community.
If you’re interested in launching something similar in your startup ecosystem, following is a quick rundown of how we did it, along with some tips and insights.
How we do it
- Find a venue
- Line up guest veteran entrepreneur
- Line up a food sponsor if possible
- Create an event on Eventbrite (we don’t charge admission/registration)
- Create an article on our website
- Promote via social media, newsletters, etc.
- Optional — Record audio of the event for later publishing as a podcast episode
Our Typical Agenda
6:30–7:15 AMA with Guest Entrepreneur
Insights and Tips
Over the two years that we’ve organized these events, we’ve learned a few lessons.
Define criteria for selecting your entrepreneurs/speakers
From the beginning, we set criteria for the type of guest entrepreneur we wanted to invite. We look for a founding CEO, CTO, etc. whose startup is earning revenue and/or has obtained a significant round of investment, or the entrepreneur has had a successful exit. We occasionally get requests from service providers who see the value of using the event as a marketing platform for their services. That doesn’t fit our criteria. Having the criteria defined from the start has made it a lot easier to politely decline some requests to be the featured guest. Define your criteria and stick to it.
Depending on the size of your startup community, it might be challenging to find guest entrepreneurs. Startup founders tend to be very busy people. We’ve found that it’s helpful to line-up guest entrepreneurs several months ahead of time so we’re not scrambling last minute to find someone.
Find a Venue
Assuming that you’re a small non-profit with limited budget like us, find a venue that doesn’t charge reservation fees, private room rentals, etc. We had to call around, explore, and solicit input from our community via social media to find venues that will work with us and let us meet in their space just for the food and drinks ordered. It’s also good if you can find a venue that has a somewhat separate area from the rest of the space to try to get away from the noise of the restaurant or bar.
In the early days, the events were strictly no-host. But after a year of doing the events we had some interest from sponsors to buy a limited amount of food for the events. Providing some amount of food helps draw out a few more people so it has become a standard feature for us. So, if possible, try to line up food & beverage sponsors to provide food for the event. Doing so also makes it more appealing for a restaurant or bar to host you. In exchange for the sponsoring food at one of the events, typically about $200/event, we include the sponsor’s logo on all promotional material (website article, newsletters, Eventbrite registration page), and give them a few minutes to introduce their business to the attendees at the event. While they all all appreciate that promotional aspect, we’ve heard from many food sponsors that they love the energy and the vibe that the events generate that they are happy to contribute as a part of community-building effort.
Since we don’t charge admission for these events, we could organize them without any kind of registration platform. But, we like the idea of having registrations via a platform like Eventbrite for a couple of reasons. By using Eventbrite, we can get a rough idea of how many people might show up. Since it’s a free event, we know that not all who register will show up. We’ve found that only about half those that register on Eventbrite will show up.
Eventbrite also has the nice feature of showing upcoming events in the region, so it’s yet another channel for people to discover the event. It also provides us a mechanism to send out emails through the platform to those who have registered in case there is a change to the event.
Looking back after nearly two years of organizing these events I’m pretty satisfied with the results. They’re not perfect. There are improvements we could make. But, they are effective in bringing the community together and making the knowledge and experience of successful entrepreneurs more accessible to early stage founders. They’re a great way to engage the entire entrepreneurial stack in your startup community and facilitate serendipitous connections. They also have the added bonus of being relatively easy to organize — they don’t require a lot of time. They also don’t require much budget other than the limited time to set up and attend each event.
Do you do something similar in your community? I’d love to hear about it. Cheers!