Startup types in a place like Silicon Valley may take their network as a given. If you want to build a young company, you probably know where you can connect with the right people. But that’s less true in the U.K., according to Joel Gascoigne, co-founder of British startup OnePage. “There are people dotted around who are very capable in their own speciality,” Gascoigne says. “However there are few opportunities for these people to come together and collaborate.” That’s why, in late 2009, Gascoigne hosted his first networking event, in the city of Sheffield. Soon after, fellow entrepreneur Ash Mokhberi—of the fledgling DistinctID—got in touch about doing something similar in Manchester. There was clearly a hunger for this kind of networking. And so the two startup guys founded another startup… about startups. Called the StartupMill, this one is devoted to hosting events that can bring together people as motivated and creative as themselves.
Fun and a focus
For Gascoigne, the real key is just getting these people in the same room—the fruitful connections will happen on their own. Therefore some of the StartupMill’s events are deliberately left unstructured, and are explicitly labeled casual. Many a great idea was sketched on bar napkin, after all. Their main events are more focused, with presentations, demos, and bull sessions on technology and news. Gascoigne clearly aims to strike a balance: a community that really feels like one, but with plenty of opportunities for serious sharing of ideas.
Not surprisingly, the attendees the StartupMill attracts tend to be big social media users, which has in turn made them great viral promoters of the events. “Social media has been the main driver for us,” Gascoigne says. In other words, he’s managed to make a real community out of a ready-made virtual one—and this has in turn made the virtual one all the more powerful, because those connections can run deep and proliferate. Building on this, he’s interested in social media of all stripes: “We don’t stop at Twitter and Facebook. We make use of Goodreads which allows the StartupMill community to share the startup books they’re reading, and LinkedIn allows us to hold discussions and promote startup jobs.”
There are several great lessons to draw from the StartupMill. Chief among them is the simple fact that groups which don’t tend to get together for events are exactly those which events may benefit the most. They’ll have the most to talk about.