I've tried to start many initiatives, and some have succeeded.
In September 2020 I gave a talk for Village in the City on how to get things started.
You can view the talk here.
and slides that I showed here.
In 2016 I had just founded CAMentrepeneurs - the first Cambridge University alumni Group aimed at supporting business and social entrepreneurship among Cambridge University Alumni, current students and others.
This updated post is aimed at generalising the lessons learned from the CAMentrepreneurs and other experiences I have had putting new ideas into action. CAMentrepreneurs has organised about 30 meetups in Cambridge, Dubai, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, New York, Sydney and Warsaw on a near zero budget. I intentionally modelled CAMentrepreneurs on the way that TED supports TEDx around the world.
How to get a new initiative going
These recommendations and advice will not work for all ideas at all times and in all places. Yet, having tried to get many businesses and nonprofits off the ground, some with success and others with failure, many of my insights are going to be relevant for many readers in most times and places.
If you want to build an organisation that works at a large scale, look at the way TED supports TEDx-ers all over the world (www.tedx.com). The genius of TED-TEDx model is that a TEDx is only launched when there is a local leader, who has a) volunteered to take on this role and b) is deemed suitable by the TEDx team at TED headquarters. TED had and have a working model of the TED Conference, which TEDx-ers aim to re-create for and in their local community.
In this article I am focusing on the process of getting things up and running in the first place.
The CAMentrepreneurs movement I started in 2016 was a new initiative, and we used the TED-TEDx model from the get go, but it was also based on using the “best bits” of literally hundreds of startup community events I had attended, led, spoken at, organised and sponsored over the previous fifteen years - so I had event formats to choose from, and ways of doing things already worked out, to share with local leaders.
Before you start think about what you want to do and why
Brainstorm your definition of success, both at the start and longer term. Be honest with yourself, about what you want to achieve, what your purpose is, and why it is important. Describe these outcomes in terms of impacts and outcomes for other people and entities not just yourself.
Write your goals down and make the language in which you communicate simple, clear and free of jargon. Your list of objectives can and should be long to start with, but as you develop and think through your ideas and project, make sure you reflect on and highlight the most important.
Some of your goals may be personal and “about you”. For example “I want to be a leader, to be somebody, to feel important, to be a big cheese in the local community, to make lots of money, to be rich and famous” or whatever.
Howver - note that your personal goals will not inspire other people. More importantly, people achieve fame and status as a result of having done something notable and worthwhile. Let the impact of your project be the reason people know about you.
Review your goals with a trusted friend or colleague. Ask them to be constructively critical and tell you what could go wrong, is missing, and needs to be made clearer. When you start explaining your project to strangers - you will have limited time to describe your idea and project in a way that is attractive, appealing and clear. You never know when you are going to meet someone who could transform your project’s chances of success. Person you talk to will be assessing you: If you come across as credible, organised and well prepared , they are more likely to introduce you to their contacts and network, and to want to help you. You never have a second chance to make that first impression. Note what went well, and what you can do better each time you get to explain your project.
Once you feel you have a clear idea of what you want to do and why, there are some important early steps to take.
How ready are you?
Review the skills, experience, resources, contacts that are needed for your project, and note what is missing. Gap analysis forces you to think about what you are planning to do, and who you will need to do them. What you are going to do needs to be framed in terms of the outcomes you want to achieve. Unless you are wealthy it is important to think about the lowest cost way of getting things done. People and sponsors with the money you may need are more likely to think you are worth backing if you come across as being careful with money and are frugal.
This self-assessment may lead you to the conclusion that you are not ready. Be objective but not over cautious. Be aware of the Imposter Syndrome. Perhaps you are ready but just do not have the self belief? But perhaps you genuinely are not ready. Do an “opportunity readiness” check.
Are you on top of your health and fitness? Think about your diet, exercise and dependencies (alcohol, tobacco, other)
Are your relationships in order? Will your partner/the important people in your life be supportive or be trying to hold you back.
Are your finances in reasonable shape - Are you spending less that you make?
Do you have the skills and competences that will be needed? Investing in yourself, and your education can be effectively free, and do wonders to your sense of self worth and usefulness. Are your habits and daily routines set up to increase the number and diversity of experiences and human interactions?.
I explore this topic in more detail in my TEDxTarnow Talk here.
Be careful about how you think about money and your personal finances. Money can be a trap for many social enterprises where the primary objective gets swallowed up in a constant struggle to raise money to pay for unnecessary costs. Assuming your project is a non-profit, and you are not looking to make a salary out of it, can you afford the time and energy, even if it does not cost money? You do not need to be rich, but you should be covering your cost of living, and maybe looking for one or two people in your team who are better off, have a place you can meet, or contribute a bit extra if there are one off expenses.
If your idea and project is compelling, people will come and want to get involved even if it is not in a flashy venue or with fancy food and drink.
Think about a low cost way of testing if people are interested in your idea. Knocking on people’s doors, inviting them to come to your launch or information meeting costs time but not money. Putting up a poster in the local library, or making a group on social media is also free.
Your role as a leader
Leadership qualities, the ability to get other people to work willingly to a common goal - will be important. You will need faith, courage, hard work, dedication, integrity, self discipline, responsibility, to build trust, and to set an example.
Doing background research - mapping the ecosystem of people and organisations that are operating in the same domain your project is going to be active in is important. Why? You need to be aware of what is going on in order to see where your project fits in, and if it even makes sense. If other people have tried similar projects in the past, you may be able to learn from their successes and failures. You run the risk of coming across as arrogant and out of touch if you announce you are going to do a project to (for example) remove graffiti from schools without being aware of the fact that there is a local group or government office that does exactly that. Talking to the person responsible may make you aware of a range of issues that you had not thought of, from (in this example): health and safety, insurance, and liaising with Trades Unions and “facilities management” to name but a few.
How to do your research?
Looking for organisations, people, and venues that can help you and who you might want to work with. How they can help you may be in terms of helping organise whatever you want to do, getting the word out, publicity and promotion to their members and networks, access to premises and venues, finance, and management.
As you compile your list of people and organisations, be aware that some may regard you as competition, an unwelcome “new kid on the block”. Push back may be triggered by a mix of genuine reaosons, to ego and arrogance. It can be the “not invented here” syndrome, that your idea is “not necessary”, or even that what you are doing is perceived as an implicit criticism. For example, even if the park is filthy and dangerous, the person responsible for keeping it clean and safe may not want to know, or be hoping for a bigger budget to fix it, rather than working with a bunch of “busybody” volunteers.
A few minutes on Google, searching: events pages like Meetup, Facebook, Eventbrite, local newspaper sites, library notice boards, "What's on" listing, charities, clubs, societies, government bodies, politicians, consultants, journalists, authors, performers, speakers, newspapers, Parish magazines, Schools, Universities, Youth Clubs and Cultural Centres, venues, companies, vendors, and suppliers will lead to dozens if not hundreds of potential contacts. As you review them try to understand
what they do and why (in the area you are interested in),
how active they are (look at their newsletter and recent events)
Who is in charge?
What the best way of approaching them may be?
If you are focussing on your local area it will only take a few hours to get a sense of who is who, and who does what. Look out for people, individuals, and leaders. Every organisation has some kind of leadership. Think about and assess who you can and want to help. and who might be helpful to you and your cause. For most voluntary organisations, an approach that includes, “can I help you” is usually welcome. If any of organisation seems to be doing exactly what you want to do, maybe your project is not actually necessary; it may be enough to volunteer to get involved in their project. Go to events or meetings organised by the people/organisation active in the same area and offer to help them. If they do not want to do exactly what you are aiming to achieve, that difference may be a key feature of your mission and purpose. If you come across past events, see if you can find Live Streams on their Youtube or Facebook pages.
Money Try to understand how they are financed. Partners and sponsors are often listed on websites and event listings, often the bigger the logo the more money they give. Government and grant giving bodies as well. The organisations that fund existing players in the ecosystem may also be able to fund you. Be aware though - the idea that your future organisation - if successful - might be competing for a limited amount of grant money may well be in the mind of the better funded organisations you visit. They may be much less helpful in reality that they say they are going to be because they don’t want your snout in “their” funding trough. Have a nose for BS. Sometimes there is a difference between what is presented and what is really going on. Sometimes there is one rich sponsor for whom the initiative is a “pet project” who hoped that other funders would emerge. They do not want it to look as if they are the only donor, and so various other organisations and companies are listed as if they are sponsors. On other occasions the main objective of the NGO is (or has become) paying the salaries of the people who work there. This has many negative effects the most obvious of which is that resources are not used for the supposed cause the NGO was founded to serve.
Create a Google Sheet with contact details, links etc - it will be easy to share this later with other team members, (though be aware of privacy issues).
Start talking about and planning a Kick Off Meeting/Event
Almost always the first step is to organise some kind of event/meeting to discuss getting your initiative off the ground. It can be called an information meeting.
The date can (but does not have to be) a long way off. The fact that you are planning a meeting is a good reason to talk to and meet people. You may want to ask them to speak, join a panel, take part in a discussion, be part of an Open Space or just attend. Even if people don’t come, it is good to have invited them. The process of inviting them is your chance to explain what you are all about. In his book “Host Leadership” Mark Mckergow described how he scheduled the first meeting of the Solution Focused network a year ahead of the first meeting in 2002. He announced a specific date, the fact that people signed up and came was validation of the idea, and it was the end of a process of lots of conversations and communications prior to the event, during which you can gather allies and get people on board. See Mark's TEDxKazimierz talk about host leadership here .
Remember that having meetings is not a goal in itself. Meetings should have a purpose, and very often they are for discussion, reporting progress, agreeing actions to take place between meetings. Different people who show up will have wildly varying degrees of experience of getting things done. As a leader it’s up to you to keep the purpose in everyone’s mind, and momentum going.
Once you have made your list, decide which organisations who you want to contact and the best way to approach them. Organisations are always and only staffed by people, so you must identify the person or people you want to talk to. “Who is in charge?” and/or “who is the right person to deal with people like you? are the questions you need to ask. This information will be often available on their website and/or by googling the name of the organisation the town you are in. In deciding who you want to approach you obviously need to think why, what do they have that can be useful for your project and what you can do for them.
The more important the organisation and person, the less likely that a spammy "Dear Sir/Madam" type email is going to work. The more important the person, often the harder it is to get a meeting, though not always. Successful people often make themselves accessible though they will want you to be specific about why you want to meet. Sometimes people who have little to offer and have almost no authority make themselves hard to reach to give the impression of authority that is completely lacking.
Probably there will be a few local groups active in the same area of activity as your planned project. If you can get face to face meetings with them you should aim for that.
“Face to face is better than phone and phone is better than email” is the old rule, though since then we have to put video calls between phone and face to face.
A great way to get to meet organisers is to show up early to events they are organising or speaking at, introduce yourself and say you would like to meet, explaining why. Almost invariably they will be glad to agree to a meeting the next day, and if you hang around may well approach you later in the event during a break. Don’t make the meeting the objective in itself. Some people will gladly schedule a longer face to face meeting, others like me, will be happy to agree to everything in a few minutes. As with any meeting, you need to think about what you want to achieve, what information and action items you want and are able to share, and what would be a successful outcome.
When you approach people you are clearly going to need to be able to explain:
Who you are
What you are doing or want to do,
Why you hav got in touch.
What co-operation you propose.
Often people will expect you to follow up your first approach with an email so it is a good idea to have draft introductory emails ready to send if they are requested.
As you look through the different organisations and people who are active in your local area make a note of the venues that they are holding meetings in. It may be a community room in a housing association, a local library, a school, village hall, church room, cultural centre, cafe, pub or hotel. Venues have different characteristics, pluses and minuses, and the place you choose for your meetings and events will influence the type of people who come. You may be a "pub" person but there might be people who could really help with your project who never go to pubs. The terms and conditions one which you can get space may vary a lot from free/symbolic to very expensive, and unless you are seriously wealthy and want to signal that in your kick off meeting (in which case a function room in the most expensive hotel you can find is ideal), then somewhere cheap and easy to get to is best.
If you have time you can go to events in suitable looking venues and just ask at the reception what the process is or look on the website. Aim at getting space for free. Sometimes you can provide advertising or a service for the venue that is valuable enough for them to consider giving you free use.
Organisations often have special rates for non-profits or will give space in return for recognition. Once you have found a suitable venue you need to make sure that they will give you a space if you need it. This can be quite tricky when you are at the start of your journey as they will often only give space to registered organisations and you don't have one yet. You will need to find the decision maker, explain that you want to have a meeting, and get to the "once you are sure that x number of people are going to come you will book it.” Having good relations with the managers of the best free local venues is important.
1. If you have a table in a pub or cafe then they are likely to be fine with you having extra space if they are not busy though they may (reasonably) expect those attending to buy something. Sunday-Wednesday evenings are usually less busy. Getting a room for free on a Friday or Saturday night is usually impossible.
2. If you use a free event tool like Meetup or Eventbrite you can always relocate if either fewer or more people than you expect sign up. Be careful with Facebook events which (at the time of writing) don't give you any means of messaging people who have clicked on "attending" an event.
Meeting in someone’s private flat or a pub is perfectly acceptable at the start.
The first meeting
Your first “real” public meeting is important, for many reasons.
You are on show - As the leader of the initiative those who are committed to helping you will be observing how you perform and subconsciously figuring out if they want to be part of it, and those who are not yet committed are also being “sold to”.
A well hosted and led meeting sets the tone for later.
As with anything, it is important to define what would be a success. There might be exceptions but almost certainly you will want to get across:
- What the initiative is about and what its goals are
- Who is in charge
- How people can get involved and help
- What needs to be done
You will want to
- Get “buy in” and recruit members/volunteers
- Have a discussion and answer questions
- Agree action items and next steps
Beyond this you almost certainly will want to create
- A friendly and welcoming atmosphere
- A professional well organised look and feel
Aim high, to make it the best organised meeting you have ever attended. If you achieve 75% of that, you will do better than most people most of the time.
Listen carefully to what the attendees have to say, they will be your key people down the line. You will want to consider their dreams and aspirations
It is usually better to “under promise” and “over deliver” in terms of the expectations that you create around what will be achieved. This is a delicate balancing act. Some people will only come if they believe that they are taking part in something “big”. It is tempting to “big it up” and raise expectations. This can lead to problems. If ten people show up that could be a big success but may feel like failure somehow you have communicated that many more people will want to come.
The moment where the first people show up, and say that they really want to get involved is a milestone.
It is also important to manage your own expectations. You may be hoping that loads of people will join and your ideas will be very well received but this may not happen. To get something new started requires persistence and determination.
Getting the word out
You need to make sure people know about your meeting.
Getting the atmosphere of the meeting right is important
Welcoming people as they arrive
Capturing names and contact details (easy if you have used a free registration tool like Eventbrite or Meetup)
Asking people to help you - for example writing badges for people as they arrive, (sticky labels are enough), or welcoming and greeting people.
Making it fun (getting everyone involved, asking them to introduce themselves at the start and saying why they came)
Having housekeeping rules, including good time keeping. This can be problematic if you want to start on time and people are still drifting in the first 15 minutes. A good solution for time keeping is to advertise that:
Doors open at X o’Clock, formal launch and welcome at X + 30. Min
Having good time keeping, and asking someone reliable to keep notes of what is discussed set the tone of a professional organisation.
A good structure of the meeting is to kick off with welcome and introductions
“Hi I’m Richard, and this gathering is my idea. Thank you so much for coming, before I get started in explaining why and how I believe we could revitalise that local park and turn in from a place that we are scared to go to in the evenings to a place where which is the heart of our local community, let’s have some introductions. It would be great if we can just take it in turns to introduce ourselves, say what we do, why we came this evening, and how we might be able to contribute…. And if IO could also you at this stage to be brief, up to a minute. We have time in the programme for longer discussions later “
Then point at someone and say “please go first”. The beauty of this approach is that you get to hear about what other people want and can do, you get them talking, active, and have a chance to see who might be future potential team members. Make notes. If someone says “I can do a web page”, or “I can talk to the local school” write down their name and the action they suggested. People are far more likely to help with things they have suggested.
After you have got a sense of the people in the room you should present the agenda for the meeting, including five minutes for what your idea and goals are, focussing on what you want to achieve and why, and what help you need. Refer back to what people have said in their introductions. “As Peter said, we have to tidy the park up, get rid of the graffiti and litter - no one want to hang out in a place that looks terrible, and if the local council won’t do anything I’m doing to start doing it myself”
Allow time for discussion about goals and actions. During the discussion, it is good to separate long term vision goals and things that can be done. You will need short term wins to get going so keep an eye out for feasible realistic short term projects that you see as being potentially feasible.
A good “housekeeping rule” for the discussion is to say, “ when you saying how you could contribute, please focus on suggesting things that you are ready to help with that are your top priorities. And if you are ready to help with someone else’s idea make that clear. It is highly motivating for the person with an idea to hear that there are other people here who want to help.
Depending on the scale of the project and the size/time of the meeting, there are various choices. You may want to break out into smaller meetings with sub groups on specific topics, but if only you can encourage the sub meetings to happen on the spot, so that you can ask each group to report back to the whole group on what they have discussed.
Be on the lookout for pessimism, time wasters unrealistic and disruptive personality types. While you do not want to expel them, it is good not to let them hijack or send the meeting of course the meeting for their own agenda Examples might be
Dave the pessimist, who says
“I’m Dave and I’m more a thinker. This is never going to work.. “
“Thanks Dave, you are right it’s going to be a challenge to get everything done. By the end of this meeting, let’s try make sure we have agreed some actions items that we all believe can actually be done.
Sue the diverter/time waster
“I’m Sue and I’d just like to contribute that we ought to be worrying more about
(X Y and Z) (doesn’t matter whether they are right or wrong - you just have to say.
“Thanks Sue that’s very important - and today let’s focussing our attention on the reason we came to this meeting”
“Ian the unrealistic”
“I’m Ian, we ought to do this in every park in the country, can someone talk to the Ministry?”
“Thanks Ian, let’s think about that when we have done such a good job here that we have something to talk about”
“Harriet the Hi-Jacker”
I’m Harriet from the x organisation. I’d like to talk about my project which is on the other side of town. We’ve such serious problems and I need help and volunteers, so if anyone would like to help me, I’m here to meet you”.
“Thanks Harriet - We will be thrilled to find ways we can work together in the future. Today’s lets focus on this meeting”
Identify potential team members and define roles. Circulate a written “who what when” to everyone who shows up. Actions speak louder than words, so it is important to observe how far people stick to their commitments and do what they say they are going to do.
At this stage, you may be on the way to getting your project started. If there is an overlap between your vision and what the people who show up want to do, get to work on those. Let one thing lead to another, be flexible and opportunistic, remember your underlying external and internal goals, and make sure that you are moving closer to your goals.
Other tips and tricks
Define roles and try to identify different people’s strengths
Be consultative rather than (too) democratic. A new organization is vulnerable to disruptive strong personalities who can push it and in you in directions you don’t want to go. Be clear in your own mind the limits and communicate clearly again and again, what your initiative is for (and what it is not).
Benchmark against the best organisations of your type anywhere in the world.
See what they do, and be ambitious in planning how to do feasible local versions of what they are doing.
Be ready for rejection - it is inevitable that some people will not want to help and not be interested. Don’t take it personally.
Make your meetings and events work for the shy and timid. If it works for them it will work for everyone.
Develop a sense of process, now you document meetings and agree next steps
Running your new initiative planning and doing the things that you aiming to do.
If you can assemble a team, you are determined and patient, you have incredible opportunities to make things happen and get things done. It’s never been easier to find people with similar goals and problems, though finding and leading the ones who are willing to help and are well organised and motivated is far from trivial.