October 25, 2017

The power of community to create business connections and opportunity

The AU staff regularly describes American Underground as a resource-rich environment for entrepreneurs, and we quickly follow that by saying that the most important resource is the community itself. But that’s not a marketing pitch. We truly believe in the power of social connection, and the opportunities it creates. We repeatedly see friendships and professional relationships develop within our walls, fueling personal and business growth.
On Wednesday, AU member Chris Rathgeb (founder of Digitova) echoed this idea in a motivating Helpfest talk that had the AU staff like…


He explained how he began to crave more connection within the AU, and resolved to meet as many new people as possible. He introduced himself in the hallways and at social events, and even went so far as to hit up the listserv to express his desire to have lunch with anyone willing. To his surprise, over 80 members responded to his proposal, signaling him that others were also hungry for connection…and for delicious downtown Durham cuisine. Within days, Chris created a web app called “Lunch with Strangers” allowing AU members to schedule lunch with others they didn’t know. Amazing!
Pulling from that experience and other defining moments in his life, Chris delivered a passionate (and at times mathematical) set of calls to action for any person or group seeking more fruitful connections.


Chris described community as both the sum of all the individual connections that exist within a diverse group of people, and that intangible feeling you get from being a part of something greater than yourself. He challenged individuals to consider their own community and determine how many possible connections exist. The equation for this is (n(n-1))/2 where “n” is the number of people in the community. So, with somewhere around 1,000 people in the AU community, there are about 499,500 possible connections that could be made. Whoa! Imagine if all of those possible connections were taken advantage of. Chris suggests that you evaluate how many real connections you’ve made in your community vs. how many still remain theoretical, and then work to change that ratio in favor of real connections.


While some connections are formed by chance, others are formed by creating the opportunity for chance. The latter, Chris argues, is our responsibility. Look approachable, he urges. Ask for help. Participate in social activities. And if you don’t like the social activities that already exist, make your own! Chris, for example, started a developer’s lunch at American Underground so that developers could meet up and talk about developer things…clearly I know very little about what developers talk about.


For people who are introverted or socially anxious, and even those who aren’t, the notion of connecting with others may be accompanied by a fear of rejection. Chris encourages you to challenge that fear. And while easier said than done, he offers this advice to take some of the pressure off:

Make it about the other person. Put them in a position to talk about themselves (which most people love to do), and the likelihood of you getting rejected will reduce significantly.
Approach people in groups. There is power in numbers and your confidence will go up.
Find commonality between you and the other person. It will make conversation happen more easily.

Once the initial connection is made, continue to be genuine and empathetic. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Create a safe place for the other person to be vulnerable as well. These actions build trust, and trust builds stronger connections.

There you have it. Despite the earlier mathematic equation, it’s not rocket science. It does take some guts and at times some leadership, but it is within all of us to do. As an entrepreneur, the series of connections you make could influence the outcome of your business in tremendous ways. But remember, focus on people first, not on what they can do for your business. The rest will come.

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