I've been involved in the startup community in Madison for about six years now, but had a hard time fitting into the networking scene, especially as a college student who was also running a business. Most of the entrepreneurship and networking events in Madison were cost to much for what's provided, are overrun by service providers trying to sell you something, or were at bad times or locations. The signal vs. noise ratio at most of these events was pretty poor. At some of the other events, I'd be the youngest person by 3o years.
There really wasn't a good, free, entrepreneurship organization that was limited to founders. To fill the gap, I founded Capital Entrepreneurs, an invite only meet up for founders of startups. We meet up once per month at a bar in Madison, grab drinks and talk about our businesses, ideas and how we're moving forward.
Here are some Capital Entrepreneurs stats from the last year:
- Grew from 10 companies at the first meeting to over 65 now
- CE companies raised over $7.5m in funding
- CE companies were featured in The Washington Post, New York Times, Tech Crunch, Mashable, Lifehacker, BBC, Fox Business and tons of others
- There have been 15+ partnerships and services exchanged between CE member companies
- We’ve started the CE incubator that has six early stage companies sharing office space right off the Capital Square. Entrustet and Hardin Design and Development are anchor tenants.
- Started the CE Angel List to help connect startups and investors in Madison
- Instrumental in creating Google Fiber effort in Madison
Best of all, it's been something that we all look forward to each month. It's lonely starting a startup. In the early stages, you might only see one other person (your co-founder) each day for months at a time. Founders groups like CE help create a scene and allow you to commiserate with others in your situation. You also get "coworkers" and if you're lucky like we are in Madison, most of the startups will be located close together to facilitate lunches and happy hours.
The awesome thing is that it's been really easy to get Capital Entrepreneurs started and it's been incredibly successful, moreseo than I ever envisioned back in May 2009. If your city doesn't have a good founders group, I’m here to give you the steps to take to replicate the success that we've had with Capital Entrepreneurs.
Your startup group should have the following characteristics:
- Exclusive to Founders -- No attorneys, accountants, people searching for jobs, consultants etc. These are all nice people, but do not belong in an entrepreneurship group.
- Private Email List -- People like to keep their emails private. Use BCC to send out invites
- Open to new members -- You'll never grow if you exclude startups
- Free -- Do not charge admission
- Website -- Create a website and post updates
- 1-2 people should control it -- If there's more, it gets too complex
- Sponsors – After you've been going for awhile, you'll find that attorneys, accountants and others will want to be invited. We started offering sponsorships where service providers can attend one meeting per year as long as they do not try to sell their services.
Survey the existing startup groups in your city and try them all out. There are 6-7 entrepreneur and young professional groups here in Madison. All are valuable, but none provided exactly what we wanted to do with Capital Entrepreneurs
Reach out to your network. I emailed all of the founders that I had gotten to know, about 15 of them, and asked if they were interested in a meet up specifically for founders. I got a good response and moved forward.
Set up a wordpress site. I bought the Capital Entrepreneurs domain name and installed wordpress. I created a members page that includes everyone’s logos and a 2 sentence description of their business. The home page is a feed of press that our member companies gets and we have a contact form so that new businesses, press and other can get in contact with us. We later added a resources page that lists some service provider sponsors to advertise to our members, along with a list of helpful articles and resources that came from Entrepreneur 101.
Find a location. We've been fortunate that we’ve had a regular meeting location. The great guys at Brocach let us have a private room upstairs, give us free appetizers and run us a tab for drinks. I called 5-6 bars in town to find the one with the best deal and you can too. Try to find a place that will not charge you fees.
Pick dates and time that people will be able to come to. We've picked Wednesdays or Thursdays from 7-9pm, as we are a somewhat younger crowd and most of the people walk to the events. Pick a time that works for your members and your city.
Send invitation. Shoot emails to all of the people who've expressed interest and tell them that they should forward the email on to any other startup founders. Make sure that everyone understands that it is for founders, not service providers like attorneys, accountants or for people searching for jobs.
At the first meeting, make sure to introduce everyone so that everyone is comfortable. Explain that this will be a monthly event and that it is for founders. Keep it casual and then schedule the next monthly meeting at the end of the event.
If you follow these steps, you'll likely be able to replicate what we’ve done in Madison. I think cities of just about any size can benefit from founders groups. Even if the groups are small, they can be fun, easy ways to connect with your fellow entrepreneurs. If you'd like help starting a founders group in your city, please feel free to contact me.
Are there good startup groups in your city? Have you started one? Would you go to one if there was one in your city?
Nathan Lustig, from Madison, WI, is the cofounder of Entrustet, a website that helps people access, transfer and delete online accounts when someone passes away.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the country's most promising young entrepreneurs. The YEC promotes entrepreneurship as a solution to youth unemployment and underemployment and provides its members with access to tools, mentorship, and resources that support each stage of a business's development and growth.