As you may know, I recently decided to run a speed networking event to celebrate International Networking Week. It felt like a really fun idea at the time and I ran a poll on Instagram to find out who would be interested in taking part. 100% of respondents said yes. So I allowed the momentum to carry me and before I knew it I had reached out to a Virtual Assistant to help me with the logistics and we had a date and a venue booked.
But as the next few days passed something was niggling every time I wrote the word networking in my marketing. I felt slightly uncomfortable. Hadn’t I set up The Tribe precisely because I didn’t like the idea of networking? Because I could think of nothing worse than walking into a room full of strangers to deliver my 60-second elevator pitch in the hope of generating leads. God that sounds horrific!
A Community Happens Organically
I wanted to open a coworking space where networking would just happen organically while we work. Where connections are made in small groups through natural conversations that are not forced or awkward or salesy. Where people actually care about the success of those in the community.
So I found myself wondering what the hell am I doing running a speed networking event. I allowed myself some time to think it over and I looked back at my brand values which are like my business road map and help me find direction when I’m off course. My core values are community, connection, and collaboration. I wanted to build a community of women who find that connection and can come together to collaborate.
A Network is Transactional
A network seems so hollow in comparison to my vision. And networking seems ever so transactional. When I think of networks, I think of a group of people who don’t really know each other that well but who need something from one another. Networks feel too large and anonymous for my liking.
A Community is Intimate
I wanted to build a community that is intimate. Where everybody knows one another by name, they meet up outside of The Tribe, they go sea swimming together (but don’t invite me because I’m not coming brrrr), they know what pet they’ve got and which school their kids go to. They would be ready to show up and help you if you were ever in a crisis and needed support. You know, meaningful stuff that makes us human and not just a business transaction.
Networks Focus on One Aspect of our Being
Networks don’t embrace us holistically as a whole being. They focus solely on one part of our identity. In a business network, you are categorized by what your business does and not much else. In a community, the whole person matters, including all of your interests, dreams, hopes, and needs.
Networks are Anonymous
Because networks are often larger and more anonymous, they also seem more passive. People show up, but they don’t necessarily participate because there is always that assumption that someone else will do it and nobody will notice if I don’t take part. It’s a lot easier for people to show up, ask questions to get the information they need or the contact they need and then disappear without giving a thought to what the rest of the community might need from them and how they can contribute.
I think we have enough networks in our society, these shallow connections with acquaintances who aren’t really invested in our well-being or our success. People who wouldn’t go out of their way to help us if we needed it. Think about how many “friends” you have on your social network. Maybe a few hundred? Now ask yourself how many of them you could call on to help you in an emergency. What is it? A handful?
Networks Create Loneliness
You see, these networks don’t offer a real community and this is what we are so lacking in our modern society. Our move from a close community to an anonymous network is what is feeding our sense of loneliness today. We’re not meant to live in networks, we are social beings designed to live in communities. We may be better connected than ever before thanks to technology, but we’re also more isolated than we’ve ever been.
Nobody Gets Overlooked in a Community
When I feel like I’m failing because I don’t have hundreds of members coming into the Tribe, I have to go back to my values and remember that I wanted to keep this small. I wanted a small space so people had to talk, had to get to know one another. I wanted small meet-ups so that nobody could get overlooked and passed by. So that we have time to dedicate to each individual and can find out what matters most to them, what they need right now and we can help them to get there.
Communities are Small
Whilst networks are designed for efficiency and growth, communities only function within certain size limits. According to Dunbar’s Number, we as humans can’t sustain more than around 150 meaningful relationships. If communities don’t stop growing, they’ll slowly crumble and die as people disengage.
Communities are Anchored in a Location
Another interesting differentiation is that networks can function independently of location, whereas communities are anchored in a shared geography. Lots of people have told me that I should get on TikTok to get more exposure for my brand and many didn’t understand that going viral and reaching 100k followers from all over the world would add nothing to my community.
I don’t need a massive dispersed network of anonymous followers. I need Joanne and Emma down the road to know about our Tribe. The women who live in and around Totnes who can actually come and join us for in-person events and get to know everyone. A true community needs physical presence and face-to-face interaction.
Networks Can Become Communities
However, what struck me is that you need to form a network before you can build a community. Especially a community that is all about business. We don’t know each other to start with. We come together over shared values, visions, and experiences. But it takes time, patience, engagement, and contribution to feel like part of a community and not just a network.
So actually maybe a speed networking event is ok after all. Women can come along, see how they feel, and then decide if they want to develop this relationship into something more nurturing and that creates a sense of belonging.
Maybe we need the network before we can benefit from the community. So I will reframe this speed networking event as a community-building activity. If you’ve been put off by the word networking like I was, rest assured that this won’t be a huge anonymous event. We will still be doing things differently in the name of community!
So grab a ticket and come and enjoy yourself.
Stacey Sheppard is the founder of The Tribe, a small community-driven coworking space in Totnes that caters to creative, growth-oriented female entrepreneurs by providing an inspiring working environment designed to foster collaboration, connection and community.