When Community Works

If you’re a leader anywhere, a large part of your role will include bringing people together from different backgrounds and sometimes even different cultures—people who hold varying or even conflicting value sets. And getting these varying values and backgrounds and opinions and personalities together can be a huge challenge, especially when they all walk into a room as relative strangers. So, when you actually bring people together and it works well, it can feel truly special.

That’s exactly what happened last week. We hosted the first-ever Global Startup Studio Network (GSSN) retreat. As a refresher, GAN took over GSSN a few months back, after Boulder Bits—its founding company—had to cease operations due to some unfortunate health issues on the leadership team.

At GAN, we often bring our global community of accelerators together in person in order to build relationships, share insights, and to not only work through challenges with their peers but to share their wins as a group. These retreats are some of the most fruitful gatherings we host and we knew that, as soon as we could, we wanted to facilitate a similar gathering with studios that had already been actively involved with GSSN.

Creating Real Connection

Still, going in, we had some nerves. That’s not unusual but, this time around, we were especially worried about the dynamic. Unlike our community of accelerators, we’d never met these leaders. So we had no idea if they’d even get along, much less whether the collective culture would feel like a fit. Would they share enough similar values that bringing them together in this way would be helpful or productive?

But, after the 48 hours together, I’m happy to report that something seriously magic happened. As soon as it was over, we knew it had been one of the best events we’d ever hosted. Actually, before we even wrapped things up, I told everyone who’d attended that this event felt particularly special. From their responses, it sounds like they felt similarly.

So, as I take a look back at our few days together, here’s what I think made it so unique:

1) We kept the group purposefully small.
John Schnipkoweit, a former GAN employee, used to always say that a meeting should never have more than four people and it’s something I think about all the time. Keeping a group small simply allows you to connect in radically different ways. While it was necessary to have slightly more than four individuals join us for this gathering, we still knew we wanted to maintain the same sentiment. So, only six participants joined us along with three people from our team, including Nick Zasowski, GAN’s head of accelerator business development and the newly-appointed Director of GSSN.

2) We hung out in a small space.
For this trip, we stayed in a cabin in the woods. Small spaces, especially ones that are a bit more secluded from daily life, create a much more natural intimacy. (Having a small group helps in this way, too—you don’t have to worry about booking much larger spaces). And, though it was a cabin, it was still a really nice one. We weren’t camping or going without running water. We were just set out, away from most distractions we would have experienced if we were in a city. This allowed us to feel like no one could bother us and we were the only ones in the world on that mountain.

3) People wanted to be there.
People flew in from all over the world, which is always impressive because getting to Denver isn’t the easiest thing to do. People really had to want to be here and that intentionality showed. The second we sat down to meet, everyone had notebooks out and immediately began to jot down what they were thinking about and working through.

4) No one wanted to escape.
I’m using the word “escape” here purposefully. No one wanted to physically escape, of course. But, more importantly, no one wanted to escape mentally, either. We consistently paid attention to if and when people were on their phones. Surprisingly, the entire group barely even touched their cell phones the entire time we were together—without us even requesting that they restrict their usage. Everyone there truly wanted to be present.

5) Everyone had space to talk.
We format these gatherings so that every person in the room gets a chance to talk about whatever they want to talk about over the course of our time together. This opens the door for the discussions that people feel are the most important to address. Neither myself, nor Nick, nor Dani dictates what people should discuss. Everyone can either share something about their studio, ask questions of other studios, or dive into something else.

6) Which actually led to incredible vulnerability.
This was, by far, the most important takeaway from our time together. Without pre-planning it (as I said, we don’t dictate what people talk about), Tom Higley at 10.10.10 kicked off our discussions and he made one simple but important observation shortly after we did a round of individual introductions. It was, “I just heard you all give your standard elevator pitch for who your studios are, but what you didn’t tell us is who you are and what really drives you. I want to hear that.” What’s more impressive is that Tom then shared his story, one of both triumph and loss, and it completely opened the door to radically vulnerable conversations, right from the start. I’ll remind you, this group came together from all over the world—Belgium, Dubai, Colombia, Seattle, Denver, and New York. And you never know if this kind of cross-section of different cultures and values will be able to break down its walls and connect in a real way, especially in a professional setting. So, to our surprise, Tom’s candid discussion about his past and what brings him to this work allowed the group to move beyond surface-level discussion and into something much deeper. It set the stage for immediate vulnerability and I’m so grateful that he helped get us there.

7) Which led to a total lack of competition.
As you can imagine, this kind of vulnerability also set an important tone that removed any possible competitive instincts. No one, especially after Tom spoke, was there to compete with one another. As soon as everyone felt more comfortable being vulnerable, it meant no one felt forced to protect themselves or to wield their egos or professional achievements any time they had a chance to do so.

8) Ultimately, trust was built.
Again, this level of vulnerability—paired with our standard request that everything discussed during our time together remain confidential—created a high amount of trust with one another in a short amount of time. That allowed us to talk about anything we wanted to talk about and established an environment where it was truly okay to do so.

Going Further

I’m curious—how do you create spaces where people can come together in ways that result in meaningful connection? If you have additional suggestions, I’d love to hear them.