Four years ago I met a group of entrepreneurs who had embarked on a mission to spread the word about the Lean startup method. They proposed events for new business creators and eventually founded an association together. I joined them, and for the past several years I have been facilitating events called Founders coffees.
The concept is simple: a dozen or so entrepreneurs, business founders or people with an idea meet for an hour and a half, in the heart of Paris, to discuss questions, opportunities or challenges. The group is diverse: from students in the last years of a master’s degree who want to launch a venture, long-term employees aiming to become freelancers to founders who are on the lookout for developers or partners, or who wish to get feedback on their solution.
Before each event, participants go through a simple registration process in which they provide four pieces of information: name, email address, key skill and the challenge or opportunity they are seeking to address.
And that’s it.
The formula for the event is efficient: in a matter of minutes, people who have never previously met mould into an outgoing, empathetic and supportive group. They find ways to connect interests, solve issues together, and embrace the event’s mission, which is to apply the group’s experience and insights so as to take everyone’s idea a step further.
Differences in background, professional situation, life stage or nationality do not seem to matter. Trust is built quickly and people talk confidently within the newly formed group about projects, even those they have not mentioned in their immediate circles. Everyone participates – advising, asking questions, providing feedback. On the rare occasion when a sceptic attends the event, the group has a way to include them and manage the energy.
The event officially ends after an hour and a half, but I have seen people deep in discussion for hours afterward, exchanging business cards, connecting on LinkedIn, and, in some cases, building partnerships. These actions are in line with the objective of the event: facilitation of a professional, friendly network that helps entrepreneurs succeed.
Feedback from participants
- “I loved meeting entrepreneurs. I liked the diversity of their projects, their history.”
- “It enabled me to clarify my ideas.”
- “I discovered that the entrepreneur’s job is a matter of sharing and receiving energy! The more I worked with others on this project, the more energy I had to share with them.”
- “The event and the way it was been conducted has been really useful for me. It helps a project owner to collect several feedbacks at once in an interactive session. In my case, one of the participants contacted me to consider a collaboration and we worked together for several weeks.”
- "When you are starting something from scratch, it is hard to share it with other people because of the fear to be misjudged. The event helped us to take the first step to share our project with other people."
- “Founders need to meet with peers because they can’t really ask tough questions and share their doubts with anyone else: investors, employees, family, and even co-founders.”
I found that a couple of simple yet essential ingredients are required to create this synergy:
Define the purpose: The purpose of the event is stated clearly both in the invitation text and on the website of the association that organizes the event. Two words stand out: help and succeed. This short, simple communication gets everyone in the right frame of mind and prepares the ground for creating a network.
Find a place: We meet in a café over a cup of coffee. Participants experience the sometimes overwhelming, sometimes magical ambience of a cosy yet busy café early in the morning in one of Paris’s central districts, where people hustle around all day. We literally stop, for coffee, amid all the madness, in a welcoming place shared with like-minded people. Everyone orders, everyone participates.
Ensure right group size: The group is usually between 12 and 16 people. In a group this size, people have the opportunity to explain who they are and what they are trying to achieve. The fact that all participants manage to speak builds an atmosphere of intimacy and trust: by the end of the meeting we will have heard about the ups and downs of entrepreneurship from every person present.
Use the facilitator’s role: I use appreciative inquiry and the facilitator’s role to enable the instant culture during the event. I share my own story of founding and developing a business, I mention my questions and struggles. I provide a role model of the behaviour sought, displaying an attitude of goodwill and benevolence.