People who know me usually see me as a people person, and I definitely am someone who’s interested in other people and in how relationships and communities work. I have always placed a high value on my connections with others, and have undoubtedly spent a considerable amount of time just entering and maintaining address book and contact data.
When I first came to New York City in 2007 my local network size was effectively zero. I’m a software engineer by trade, so I of course wanted to make inroads into the tech community. At that time the big banks dominated the tech sector in the city, so if I wanted a job I’d have to get into the financial sector. Since I didn’t know anyone and didn’t have the required industry-specific experience, I ended up hanging a shingle and starting a consulting business. And while I did land good business deals and did connect with people (primarily through coworking spaces like New Work City and various Meetup groups), my network expanded explosively after I joined an organization called StartupBus.
Myself and others have written much about StartupBus in the last four years; search engine results will tell you more about it than I could in a few sentences. What’s relevant is that it’s a worldwide alumni group of self-selecting innovators and entrepreneurs who have bonded over the common experience of competing in a three-day road trip hackathon on a moving bus.
Measuring My Network
I discovered the effect that StartupBus had on my network growth when I was analyzing my contacts with a visualization tool. I had plugged my main email account into the MIT Immersion project; it made headlines some time back by being able to analyze the metadata in your email headers to determine what your network of contacts looks like and how they all relate to you (similar to how the NSA has been spying on all Americans). It’s still online now if you’re interested in learning more about your own communications.
The coolest thing about this tool is that it gives you a snapshot of your network at any point in time. I made some screen captures showing my web of contacts and figured out quickly which ones were from the StartupBus network. What blew me away was to see how tightly interconnected and powerful the StartupBus cluster grew in just 36 months. It quickly got to the point where it practically dominates everything else in the graph.
As you can see in the first image, the StartupBus connections (within the circled area) started out quite small, not much different from my other network connections. Each successive image is a snapshot of the network 6 months after the previous image. Every circle represents a person; the size of each circle indicates the number of emails exchanged with that person, and the lines between circles are the connections between all the people. (In case you were wondering, the big circles near the center are my immediate family)
What Was So Different About The StartupBus Network?
This kind of growth didn’t happen for the first 3.5 years I lived and worked in New York; it only occurred after I joined StartupBus. I really had to wonder: what was it about being a part of this organization, as opposed to the other organizations I was a part of, that changed things so dramatically for me? Here are a few things I realized when I stopped to consider what had happened:
1. Instead Of Networking, I Grew Inside A Growing Network
The skill of meeting new people and connecting with them is not an easy one to master. Unless one is born a social butterfly, it always takes a mix of courage and charm to overcome the self-defense mechanism of keeping to oneself and avoiding any potential embarrassment. In ordinary situations, you’re a stranger attempting to associate with another stranger, and there’s no way to know how the interaction will go.
This is one of best things about StartupBus; everyone on the bus starts off as strangers, but they quickly unite to cope with the unusual situation they have all found themselves in. They have all chosen to take the plunge and commit themselves to a cross-country road trip, so they already share that ambition and spirit of adventure, and once they form a team they then share a common goal. Additionally, the conductor of the bus has interviewed and hand-picked every crew member, effectively curating what he or she thinks will be the best mix of people for that year. It turns out that this is an insanely potent recipe for networking success; a wild stew that’s thrown into a pressure cooker, and what comes out of it is anybody’s guess, but it somehow always tastes delicious.
Anyone who’s taken the StartupBus can identify with and bond with anyone else who’s gone on that journey. I have no doubt that when I meet someone from StartupBus Africa, we will become fast friends and will have great stories to tell each other. That common experience overcomes the typical barriers to making connections between members, and what you end up with is an extremely tight-knit group of people who all work really well together.
2. Helping Everyone To Help Everyone
Whenever anyone in my network asks for help, I do whatever I can to lend my support. And while this is true of everyone I know, it’s doubly true for anyone who’s a StartupBus alumnus, because I know that helping other StartupBus members will lead to success for every other member. A rising tide lifts all boats!
Buspreneurs tell each other about open positions at their companies and give sales leads, short and long-term contract work, and candidate referrals. They help each other with their current startups, or join forces to create new startup companies. Buspreneurs share knowledge and advice and expertise. They even hang out together and socialize! And when one or more of us is in trouble, the rest of us rally to their aid.
This exercise of the Golden Rule leads to forming incredibly strong relationships and strengthens the entire group. It’s been scientifically shown that when people help each other, they tend to keep on helping each other, and become more and more inclined to help others (The Benjamin Franklin Effect). A network guided by this principle can’t help but become immense and powerful.
3. Using Social Networking Tools To Get Superpowers
The best tools I have at my disposal for maintaining relationships with all my contacts are the fledgling social networking and social media systems we have available today. I say “fledgling” as I feel that effective applications to manage interpersonal relationships still don’t exist yet.
Every time new members join the StartupBus community, I add all of them to every social service I use – primarily Twitter, Foursquare, and most importantly, Linkedin. When we’re attending events en masse and we need real-time chatter, we usually create GroupMe groups and use those to be able to message each other rapidly. Also, lest we forget, there’s the most important social networking tool of them all… email! The StartupBus community maintains a number of internal mailing lists where alumni regularly share news, job postings, etc. with each other.
When I have access to these tools, I practically feel omniscient; I can see what events people are going to, where they check in, whether they’ve changed jobs, who they’re connected to and who they can introduce me to, what they’re having conversations about at any given moment. Being able to tap in to those feeds allows me to show up at places to say hi to people, catch up with folks I haven’t seen in a while, and have something to chat about when I next see them in person (“Hey, I saw you post about your new project on Twitter, how’s that going?”). Monitoring all of these channels can be a significant investment of your time, but there’s a lot of value to be had by concentrating your focus on the people who are important to you.
4. Encouraging Connectivity Between Community Ecosystems
No person is an island, and no individual is a member of just one community. Likewise, no community is perfectly isolated – more often than not, communities overlap with one another through the individuals who represent the intersections between them.
When I became the StartupBus conductor for the 2012 crew of the New York tribe, the first pool of people I recruited from were my fellow coworkers at New Work City. Here was a ready-made community that I knew was full of awesome people, and the result was that both ecosystems grew stronger! Over the last three years, StartupBus has also managed to spin off its own new communities – myself and co-organizer Alice Ng founded Space Apps NYC, the local chapter of the NASA International Space Apps Challenge. Alice successfully recruited some of the awesome people we met through Space Apps for the New York 2014 Buspreneur crew, and once again both communities benefit from that synergy.
Here’s some proof: below you can visualize my Linkedin connections using the Linkedin Labs InMap tool. There are at least a dozen communities and subgroups reflected in the labeled clusters in the legend. Their mapping is not perfect, but you can easily see a number of “nexuses” between the clusters. Those people are the super connectors, the primary nodes that intersect between communities. You can see pretty clearly how community clusters overlap with one another.
Each of us belongs to many communities, whether we recognize them all or not; some may be official affiliations with other workers in our field, others may be less structured or may just be loose groups of people centered around our hobbies or side interests, and still other communities may be intrinsically tied to our fundamental identities themselves. In the case of the map above, I can pretty easily find the people who sit at the intersections of several of my communities. In most cases I’m not surprised when I see certain names as I already know them as superconnectors – but a tool like this can help me find paths between communities I didn’t know existed and identify undiscovered or emerging superconnectors. And imagine how much more powerful this tool could be if I could navigate into other people’s networks, and determine who else might be mutual contacts in those other communities and discover other hidden links to people I haven’t met, but probably should!
I hope you enjoyed this bit of meditation on community growth! Please feel free to send along any questions or comments directly to me via Twitter: http://twitter.com/mik3cap