🚪 Matthew Stafford: Building Startup Communities & Scaling Intimacy
Matthew Stafford is a founder and serial startup investor, who co-founded the 9others entrepreneurs network in 2011. 9others runs monthly dinners for groups of 10 entrepreneurs, and has grown into a 5000+ member community across 6 continents.
We asked Matthew about how he managed to scale a tightly knit community into an organisation that spanned the world, all whilst maintaining that sense of intimacy.
What inspired you to create 9others?
There’s a fairly long version of this story, but in a nutshell I’d run some investor & entrepreneur dinners with Katie Lewis as part of an investment readiness programme in 2011 which were incredibly successful. The entrepreneurs would pitch investors and answer some of their questions – all in amongst a nice dinner. Then what we noticed was that at the end of each of those dinners, the entrepreneurs would huddle together in a corner for the last 20 minutes or so. It annoyed us at first because we’d got them there to talk to the investors and they were no longer doing that! However we then figured out what was going on – they were talking to each other about the everyday, business-of-business problems – hiring, firing, office space, cash flow etc – and they just weren’t able to do that at any other event because they were alway in ‘pitch mode’ (pitching to investors, selling to customers, recruiting staff).
That’s when Katie and I wondered if there was something we could do just for those entrepreneurs – something deliberately small (only ever 10, oneself and nine others) and loosely curated (ambitious entrepreneurs with challenges), where they could openly talk about their challenges and get help from the others who were ‘in their shoes but not in their business’.
And because we’d run those investor dinners successfully we thought, let’s do a dinner!
How did you get your first 100 members?
One by one. For the first dinner we needed eight more people to make up the 10 with Katie and me. We sent out lots of personal invitations saying that our challenge was whether we should start 9others! That led to the first dinner and those people challenged us but liked what we were thinking of doing. So we asked everyone to suggest a couple of people they knew who might also like 9others. That’s something we still do today.
For any builder on the fence about starting a community, what advice would you have for them?
Be patient, don’t force it and just keep chipping away. If you think of the best and longest lasting communities in history they take a long time. I look at some (particularly if they’ve had investment) and it looks like the equivalent of being told to go out and make five friends today. Then tomorrow make five more. Then 10 the next day and 15 the next, all while maintaining a good relationship with the first five. That’s just not sustainable.
A better way is to establish a strong core belief – something you’ll never compromise on – and let people join you one by one. Some people just don’t get 9others, or perhaps not yet, and that’s fine. Others come many times each year and others come along, then we don’t see them for many years, but they come back when they have something to share or something to contribute.
You managed to maintain a sense of intimacy within the community even as you’ve grown to 1000s of members - what’s your secret?
Firstly a good co-founder who has the same core beliefs as me! I think that's the best thing – whether we somehow hit the jackpot or it all goes horribly wrong we can still host a meal with 9others each month.
I also love talking to and understanding each person that comes to 9others. Someone once described me as a ‘social introvert’ and I think that’s spot on – hosting one dinner a month is perfect for me and trying to help them out or figuring out what questions they might need to ask themselves is something I love to think about.
We also have amazing hosts around the world who have hosted hundreds of meals with 9others. They have the same values and come at it with the right attitude. You have to think long-term and give to get.
Can you share your favourite story about 9others and how it’s helped one of your community members?
Ah, so many – you’ll have to read the book! (Out in July, pre-order here). 9others is all about contributing – sharing a challenge and helping others. That way you get to go to dinner with nine other people who’ll do the same. Naturally after doing that each month since 2011 people have done business, invested, collaborated, become friends and even been bridesmaids at each other's weddings!
What is the long term vision for 9others?
For the network to help the network. The first meal with 9others was on Thursday 8th December 2011 and they haven’t really changed since so I’d love to keep hosting them throughout the 2020s and beyond and I’d love others to host around the world too.
I’ve learned it’s hard to predict what will happen with whom and when, but I know that from 9others everything follows – my work advising startups, corporates, NGOs and other organisations, the companies I invest in and the people I get to hang out with are all amazing and a direct result of 9others.
Want to find out more? You can find Matthew at the below links
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