[Photo credit: Denise Bouffier]
Networks matter for entrepreneurs. Regardless of experience, location, liquidity, or past successes, studies have found that social and professional networks play a major role in how successful a venture will be. It’s even been found that existing social networks are the primary advantage that experienced entrepreneurs have over first-time founders.
There are thousands of professional networks, though, and being a part of a formal network can be both a major time commitment and a financial investment. So, what makes a network worth joining and what do you need to get out of it for the time and money to have been well spent?
This is the question Patrick Ip started asking himself after founding Kip Solutions, a company that offers social media support to nonprofits. A first-time entrepreneur, Ip discovered that he was missing the sense of community that he’d had when he was part of a larger team. To solve the problem, he created a Facebook group, invited around 40 of his closest and most driven friends from a range of professional spheres, and asked them to each invite a few of their own. He jokingly named it Ballers (a name that has stuck, to his periodic frustration), and began curating dinner parties and other small events that brought members face-to-face. Eventually, he began recruiting and training regional hosts to plan events in their respective cities for resident and visiting members.
Ip says that many professional networks are based on a particular vertical or job title. “Oftentimes, when you think about communities they’re based on your resume. They’re based on whether you’re the CEO or the co-founder of a company,” or whether you work in a particular field. This, he remarks, can undermine the value of bringing people with a diversity of divergent interests together. While most communities are focused on finding people who fit a mold, Ip recognized something that researchers have known for a while: entrepreneurs benefit from divergent information that is from sources outside of their typical networks and relationships. It is because of this that Ballers isn’t about a particular industry, but about shared values and entrepreneurial drive.
At the core of the Ballers philosophy is a simple question that has become their secret sauce. Instead of primarily looking out for their own interests, Ballers members are expected to lead by asking, “How can I help?” “The question of ‘how can I help you?’ catches people off guard,” Ip says. It prompts people to reflect on why they are there and how they can give back to the community, and it increases the overall willingness to be vulnerable.
Another benefit of the Ballers admissions philosophy is that the community’s collaborative and multidisciplinary design attracts a diverse group of entrepreneurs, creatives, and people in more traditional career paths looking to support innovation. This helps bridge structural holes in member’s networks.
A structural hole exists when there is a social or professional chasm between two individuals or groups who could greatly benefit from each other, but who aren’t likely to connect naturally. While more traditional networks that are limited by sector can be extremely beneficial for entrepreneurs, they can also result in homogeneous ideas, limited access to resources outside of their narrow realm of expertise, and many structural holes. Ballers isn’t a replacement for industry-focused networks, but the diversity of the Ballers membership does address the problem by encouraging cross-sector connection. This fills structural holes, building bridges between disconnected communities, and multiplying the resources available to members.
Today, Ballers has more than 1500 members from well-over a dozen countries. The community has become an important and unique resource by going beyond business and offering a truly supportive network for all aspects of life. The community continues to grow, guided by the question, “How can I help?” and Ip encourages anyone who is part of a community, or who is looking for support from a network, to lead with this same mentality. Don’t walk into an event or check-in online solely with expectations of what you can get, but also with knowledge of what you can give. Knowing that what you have to offer is valuable makes what you are given all the more meaningful.