Munch n’ mingle your way to business success – three experts show you how

Communities of interest in various Canadian cities are offering startups and entrepreneurs a wide array of resources and tools to effectively grow their business.

The activities of these communities – and the benefits of they offer – were highlighted by experts at an event organized by Canadian Innovation Exchange (CIX) in Toronto recently.

CIX offers new Canadian technology companies a forum to meet and network with one another, as well as with potential investors. During the two-day event industry experts share insights, ideas and success stories. This year’s event also included sessions about private and public funding and how to get it.

A highlight of the Conference was a roundtable titled Social Networking for Entrepreneurs, during which three industry experts talked about bar-camps and other communities of interest being hosted in Toronto and other Canadian cities.

In most of these communities membership is free and requirements for participation in community events pretty simple.

New entrepreneurs and small business owners no longer go to events they have to pay to get into because they don’t need to, noted Jevon MacDonald, co-founder of Firestoker.com, an online collaboration forum used by a wide range of North American companies.

Instead, he said, in cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver budding entrepreneurs are either “attaching themselves to communities that other companies are building or that PR firms have set up.”

That’s a huge contrast from the situation just five years ago when such communities of interest for new entrepreneurs were virtually non-existent.

From an entrepreneur’s perspective, what are some specific benefits of attaching oneself to a “community of interest” and participating in its events?

The panellists threw out this one to attendees at the conference.

Monetizing community?

Money (access to new investment), networking opportunities, resources (such as learning new skills) and the good chance that you might pick up talented people from among event attendees to join your new venture – were some responses from the audience.

The panellists agreed but offered a caveat.

People ask if you can monetize community, said Will Pate, Community Manager, VenCorps.

His answer: “Yes you can. But it’s the same way you monetize a blog. Not directly – but on reputation and the things you get out of it. Very few companies monetize community directly. Facebook and MySpace, and all those guys are still trying to figure it out.”

According to Pate, a better way to view these communities is as forums to increase the number of stakeholders in your business – partners, coaches, potential customers or employees, investors…folk that you can receive from and give something to.

You get as much as you give

The aspect of giving is vital in Barcamps, networks of user generated conferences.

The motto of these open, participatory workshop-type events is: When you come, be prepared to share with bar-campers; When you leave, be prepared to share it with the world.

Content at BarCamps is entirely provided by participants and often focuses on early-stage Web applications, and related open source technologies, social protocols, and open data formats.

Attendees are required to a demo, a session, help with one, or otherwise volunteer/ contribute in some way to support the event.

In the case of budding entrepreneurs, contribution to the community not only enhances the sense of participation, it also ultimately determines how much business benefit you derive from your association with the community, Pate said.

That’s a lesson he’s learned from personal experience.

“I was lucky to be with start up communities in Vancouver, Toronto and in the Valley. We got a lot of business in Vancouver, because we spent much time helping other people get stuff done…and we just got into the centre of things because of that.”

There have been initiatives to empirically measure the value of such events, including a study done by a TorCamp member.

Torcamp is a Toronto area community comprising designers, developers, marketers, PR people, executives, testers, quality assurance specialists, consultants, recruiters, network administrators, business developers, venture capitalists, angel investors, policy analysts et al.

A study by one of its members sought to empirically relate the number of “connections” members to others Torcampers to the sense of community they experienced, noted David Crow, a UX Evangelist with Mississauga, Ont.-based Microsoft Canada, who also participated in the CIX roundtable.

Calculating the business payback of participation in communities of interest for startups isn’t easy, said Crow citing the example of his own work.
“At Microsoft, I’m engaged on a couple of metrics. It’s either satisfaction – how happy people have become with Microsoft [as a result of my efforts] – or it’s revenue.”

Crow said he didn’t have a direct revenue target. “That’s because I’m not sure whether using the community, we’d ever hit it, other than over a longer term cycle. The numbers I look at show probably a three year commitment, before we see any sort of fiscal payback from community involvement.

But the benefits of community association extend far beyond the payback to specific participants.

At a macro level, the buzz generated by such activities has to Canadian startups a whole lot of attention worldwide, Pate noted. “As a result, we’re getting a lot more funding that we used to.”

Participation in online communities of interest are also a great way for new entrepreneurs to get all these great benefits, the panellists noted.

Crow cited JavaRanch – the online portal developed by Kath Sierra as one of the greatest examples of online community including the techniques for reward and social capital.

JavaRach has effective metrics to evaluate the value of a member and the likelihood that they are willing to stay and engage over a longer period of time, Crow noted. These include the progress of ongoing engagement from early interest and awareness to the time when the person becomes a participating member.

Some of the most successful examples of a community of interest supporting a startup from an idea all the way to funding are to be found in towns such as Waterloo and Guelph, MacDonald noted. “They have Communitech there, and frankly it’s actually producing better results than we are.”

What’s available

Crow and MacDonald discussed forums and events that entrepreneurs can take advantage of.

“There are events like Startup Camp – which is very different from the traditional tech-based camps,” said Crow.

He urged startups to take advantage of Founders & Funders Toronto an event that brings together Canadian entrepreneurs and potential funders (angel, investors or other money sources) in a social setting.

“We’ve announced a dinner on June 4, which will bring together the people who start companies and those who fund them,” Crow said.

“If you’re not willing to have a coffee, or glass of water or wine with somebody – the odds of your giving them millions of dollars is pretty low.”

Panelists urged participants (either entrepreneurs or investors) who wanted to be extend their network to other Canadian cities to contact them. “Come to one of us and we’ll do our best to connect you to people in Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary or people on the east coast,” Crow said.

The panellists commended the folk in Toronto and elsewhere who are giving generously of their time and resources to support the entrepreneurial community.

MacDonald cited the work being done by Leila Boujnane, co-Founder & CEO of Idee Inc. a Toronto-based firm that develops advanced image identification and visual search software. Boujnane, is a regular speaker at industry conferences and an active advocate and mentor for young women entering the technology profession.

She and others spend a huge amount of their time coaching entrepreneurs and startups in various competencies, he noted.

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