Q+A Wednesday: How to Build a Creative Community in a Small Town

 Create a community of creative people in a small town

Hey Lauren!

I live in the South West of England, and am pretty lonely as a work from home biz lady. We're pretty rural and whilst only 10 minutes from a good sized town, we're easily an hour away from the nearest city. I feel like it's just me. I figure I might not be the only one feeling like this and I think Boss Lady Bashes, or something similar could be such an amazing things to run locally. I'd been thinking about it for a while but your website kind kicked me over the edge. 

Do you have any quick tips or advice for starting this up when the local network might be pretty sparse? 

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This is an AWESOME question, and one that I'm constantly answering in my local meetings with people. Mostly because I learned a lot about how community works after I had launched my own.

Here's the most important thing that I've learned about creating a community of people around a cause in the last 16 months:

Everyone WANTS community. Not everyone has the ability or interest to take the initiative and put the work in to consistently build and maintain the community.

Creating community is hard. It's why networking events exist, it's why most non-profit organizations have boards, and it's why you sent me this email.

People crave it. They want it. But they also expect a lot from it. Not that that's their fault -- we should be expecting a lot from the things that take our time up and take us away from our family, personal lives, and down time.

And as a business owner or an employee that has a side hustle or someone who takes care of their family and friends, creating a community that fills you up, that people WANT to be a part of, and that helps YOU in your business/life/whatever...takes a ton of work. I probably put more work into it than I put into my own business, but honestly, that's what makes it so good. And that's what makes people come back.

Simply put, your reward is directly related to your effort.

(There's a gardening and tending metaphor in here, but I live in an apartment and kill all the plants I own, so I'll let you make the connection on your own.)

So, that said, I'm going to tell you EXACTLY how I created my own community, and give you some takeaways about how to get started and how to maintain one that's engaged.

1. I had a LOT of 1:1 coffee meetings before I even THOUGHT about creating my own event.

This is sort of my "thing" so this never even felt like work to me, but I realize it's not everyone's "thing". (For the record, my thing is NOT sticking to an editorial calendar, which is why I'm sort of a terrible blogger. But 1:1 coffee meetings? It's my thing.)

I probably Google stalked, asked for introductions to other people like me, and reached out for 1:1 coffee meetings for 6 months before I ever launched my own group or event. 

It shouldn't take you this long if your ultimate goal is to eventually host a networking event or have a networking group. I'd make a goal to Google, research, and set up a meeting with one new person a week. Aim for 20 people. That will take you 20 weeks, or 4 months, but you will get really, really good at having meetings with people, asking the right questions, and making them like you and seem like you're a helpful person. (For the record, sometimes I do 10 non-business related, straight-networking meetings in a week. You can definitely do one. Promise.)

How do you meet those people? Start with people you already know and like (don't start with people who you don't like. Those never lead to fruitful connections). Have a meeting with one of them -- one person that sort of does what you do, and who might know someone that would be a good connection. Ask them if they know anyone else that you should meet that's similar to the two of you. 

There's your next meeting. Do that 18 more times.

2. After each meeting, ask them if they'd be interested in being a part of an exclusive, local group of people who do what you do (let's use the example of fashion bloggers, for example).

I always send a follow up email after every meeting, outlining things we talked about and making any necessary connections. This is WORK, but it builds your network SO fast because you are the most surprisingly helpful person that they've ever met. They like you instantly because you are helping them and they're not doing anything in return. 

This is a RARE thing in today's world. If you can do that rare thing, you are ahead of 99% of people. Trust me.

3. When enough people have said yes (between 8 - 10), set your meeting date.

It's best if none of these people know each other, or they don't know each other well.

PS They will all say yes. Everyone wants community, no one wants to do the work to build and maintain that community. Also, everyone likes to be personally invited to exclusive, secret things. Seriously. It's a BIG marketing tactic that helps me sell out all my events.

4. Before people arrive, make a list of 3 - 4 discussion questions. 

These don't have to be crazy in depth questions, especially at the first meeting. In fact, most people will be so conditioned to talking about things like we talk about them at school (don't offend anyone, agree, be nice) that the conversation in the first meeting may be a little surface level.

That's okay. But if you can start with an easy question ("Tell me about your business"), demonstrate it as a safe space, and then move to harder ones ("Tell me why you wake up every morning and do what you do"), your attendees will progressively feel more comfortable talking about the harder stuff.

5. Have food, wine, and think about other people's comfort a bit more than your own.

Here's another truth that doesn't get talked about a lot: when I'm facilitating an event, or hosting people, I RARELY get to dive as deeply into my own business or struggles as everyone else. This is because I'm genuinely concerned that everyone else is having a really positive experience, so that they'll come back again.

With facilitated discussion, you'll always have one person that is giving energy and attention to other people a little bit more. That's why facilitation is often hired out to companies, and why "workshop facilitator" is an actual job description.

Which means that unless you have the ability to delegate facilitation to someone else, you're going to be carrying a lot more of the weight and responsibility for caring for the other people in your group.

I get energy from that sort of stuff. If you don't OR if you can't figure out how to delegate facilitation to other members of the group, you're going to start feeling like everyone else is benefitting more than you are.

I suggest seeing if you can tag team facilitation with someone else OR being really honest with your group on your first meeting and setting the expectation that they will absolutely need to facilitate one meeting over the course of 6 months to a year, and empower them to do that.

6. Follow up with them after the event, thanking them, and asking them if they'd like to do it again next month.

This is the KEY to creating not just an event but a community.

Making these meetings regular, letting everyone else know that you'll plan and host and keep all the admin functions of the facilitated group under control and all they have to do is show up and participate encourages repeat attendance.

If people are more than willing to help and want to host an event at their house, that can be another way to create interest and buy-in to a group like this. Encourage other members to host an event, and help facilitate if they show interest. The more people feel that they own something, the more likely they'll be to return.

7. If everyone LOVES it, then think about creating a larger community event that's paid.

When I created the Creative Lady Club (which is what I call the free mastermind group that I run in my hometown), I didn't have any goals of turning it into anything more than a "business club" style monthly event.

However, when I saw the need for conversations like the ones we were having and how positively people reacted to the tone set by the group, I realized that there was an opportunity to grow the community and have these conversations on a larger scale.

If this is the direction you want to go in, awesome! But I really suggest testing out your model first in a small group format. People often feel more invested when they're invited to something secret and exclusive, and if they LOVE the experience, they're going to want to tell everyone they know about it.

Your turn! Have you created community around your business? Tell me what's worked for you in the comments below! Thanks for reading!

Lauren Caselli

Lauren Caselli Events, 217 West Koch Street, Bozeman, MT, 59715, United States