How we continue to flourish?

by Santosh

The Pune OpenCoffee Club

… for startup founders put down roots in 2008. The group started out with the idea of meeting up at a regular time, place to exchange notes and to help each other out. Over time, our identity has changed.

Today, the group is an open platform for events in entrepreneurial education, building ties with the rest of the startup eco-system and encouraging networking. As a community co-founder, I’ve watched our identity morph to better reflect the needs of the community, and my own needs as well. In October of 2012, with a little reflection on how things had worked out so far, we realized our organization needed leadership and succession. Summarized here is the journey and lessons learned in organization building and community engagement.

Importance of Community. The purpose of a community, if nothing else – is to provide a shared context that penetrates the walls of startups. This wider context encourages founders to open up, share know-how and collaborate on projects. When founders learned of the Startups internship mela, where students from prominent Pune colleges were offered internships, that was a tangible benefit. The intangible reverberations of the event continued long after. I’d occasionally bump into founders at cafe’s and events who’d ask me for the resumes we collected. That’d serve as a great conversation starter for more.

At it’s center. We’ve learned early that the challenge is engaging the community consistently. In our first two years, the seed group of founders turned itself over completely. As an attendee, you’d spot different faces at every other event. While it has been hard to build loyalty with a regular audience online, it is even harder to do so offline. Our event content has always drawn greater interest with founders who’re just starting out and in turn lost the interest of the more experienced founders. Those who’ve stuck gave us the much needed momentum to keep going. This core group is really a small but dynamic set of people who believe in the mission and have made time from their busy routines to attend, take events live and participate on our forums. I believe that’s a great foundation to develop further.

Getting out of the woods. If at any time we were closest to folding, it was in the first twelve months. The founding members persisted with monthly meetings even when the attendance fell to as little as six. It was in this time that we acquired a regular venue and sealed the fate of the community to grow. A regular meeting schedule and a regular venue proved to be key ingredients.

Volunteerism. For most of our history, we’d had a simple flat hierarchy where volunteers stepped up to drive as many as six to twelve events in a month. I was responsible for filling in the gaps that crept it in from this ad-hoc arrangement. Mid-way through, I realized that this wasn’t a very desirable equation. I was burning out from being involved in practically everything. The rest of the active community weren’t clear on where they could start out to leverage the available resources. As a result, I’d get a whole bunch of new ideas, feedback and I’d rarely have the mental bandwidth to commit. I had become a bottleneck.

A first attempt to breakout. At this point in 2011, I figured that it was time to fill the leadership vacuum by asking others to step up and create local area Pune OpenCoffee Clubs. This offered an ideal combination of ownership, leadership, focus and extended the idea of volunteerism. Moreover, existing resources could be leveraged for all these new clubs, so the thought went. This direction was promising at first, but then the dozen local clubs that got started all failed to cross the chasm that we’d already faced in our own growing years.

Peer recognition. Peer recognition had helped spur the interest to get local clubs going but it wasn’t enough to keep the initiative in the air. At the same time, we still had our small band of volunteers who were driving individual initiatives such as moderation on the Google groups and more. What had not worked was the same personal challenge I had faced – an individual should not have to take on the responsibility of eleven or twelve annual events. Putting together an event requires co-ordination over a span of two weeks with the venue, sponsors and speakers, and spreading the word leading up to the event. Without a clear allocation of events to owners, that one group owner would have to step up every time to put things into motion.

Going by what we’d learned it began to make more sense to reinforce and reward the structure within the group rather than attempt to grow out. We decided that one leadership team of three could work. Since the tacit knowledge of events could be shared within the team, we’d always be ready to step up if an event were to slip through the gaps. Moreover, this time all our resources would be available within this one team, including the money we’d raise through donations, our website and any event partnerships we usually extend to. We’d also assemble a smaller community that can be directly addressed. As the level of ownership and drive in this ‘core’ team of about twenty people is higher than the rest of the community, they’d serve as a ‘conscience’ for the leadership team .

I’m grateful that we’ve negotiated this turn so well. Thanks to timely intervention I’ve been able to take a step back and continue on as an observer. I now believe that I have a share of what is a much bigger pie now thanks to the refreshing energy from the leadership team that comprises of Amod, Ashish, and Jayesh. Thank you to the three of them and Radha, Amit, Prashant, Navin, Nikhil Kadadi, Nikhil Karkare, Mandar, Saurabh, Sushrut, donors, sponsors from the community, and everyone who’ve put in sincere effort to keep the ball rolling through 2012 to get us to this point (About the team).

Pune OCC has started this year on a high note, kickstarting office hours for startups, going from 8,000 uniques to 10,000 uniques in as little as two months, and attracting a lead sponsor in the premier venture capital partner Sequoia Capital. We’ve had a fantastic series of three events. Each of our events have stuck to an exacting standard that includes content quality, audience, and participation. We’ve encouraged Investors to regularly visit Pune and our community for relationship builders, an opportunity founders did not have earlier. Finally, we held a bonus event – an internship mela for students and startup founders. Our potential to develop the Pune Startup eco-system together is ever present and I am excited to see what more the Pune OCC team will achieve this year.

Onward!

A ten slide guide to the Pune OpenCoffee Club for Startups (2012).

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