I facilitate a lot of small group events and gatherings for my job. Throughout the year, my colleagues and I collectively coordinate more than 100 convening moments for employees throughout our portfolio network. At each of these, we set out to bring together a highly curated or specialized group of people.
One of the unique benefits of working at a venture capital firm is the ability to recognize trends and patterns at a macro level. While you might be the only person at your company thinking about the nuances of a new subscription pricing model, we can (fairly easily) identify the exact individuals at dozens of other companies who are going through the same thought process in real time.
We refer to these convenings as events. But more often than not, there’s little fanfare or hype associated with them. Our typical “event” is more like a roundtable or a discussion group. Sometimes we call them “summits.”
This isn’t your normal conference gathering, where you have lightning round networking breaks in between a packed schedule of panels and keynote speakers. You don’t walk away with swag, and more often than not, we break from the schedule that we established at the onset.
Nearly 90% of the events that we host are smaller than 30 people. Given all this, it can be a little tricky to manage the expectations around what’s going to happen at these group gatherings.
If you sign up for our USV Design Summit expecting a massive blowout event, with colorful swag, mood lighting, and hundreds of attendees, then walk into our office and see 12 people sitting around a table, you might be initially disappointed.
“Why am I here?” you might wonder. “If I’m going to take time away from work, I want to meet as many people as possible and network to the max. This feels like a waste of time.”
And that’s exactly the bias we are setting out to overcome: Just because there are fewer people in the room doesn’t mean it’s a less valuable use of your time.
Our Bias Toward Big Events
I think humans naturally harbor a bias toward big-group events for a few reasons:
- We jump to that natural conclusion that, if more people want to attend, it must be more valuable
- We assume that (much like dating) the larger the pool, the better your odds are of meeting someone great
- We get some tiny tingle of social validation by “also going” to a big event that other people you know, admire, and respect are attending
And let’s be honest — social validation feels really good. Going to the “it” event feels like it adds a tiny badge of respect to your own tagline or resume.
Frankly, this feeling, combined with the “fear of missing out” factor is probably the only reason why South By Southwest manages to stay in vogue after all of these years. (Also why I’ve never been. And never plan to go.)
But let’s get really real: At large events like that, how often do you actually meet people for meaningful conversations? At hundred-person keynote discussions, how often do you really remember more than one or two Tweetable catchphrases from the speaker?
And, at the end of the day, how far do you manage to stretch your own learning?
Learning Through Connection
When I think back to moments and interactions that have really “wowed” me in my life, more often than not, they have taken place in very small group settings. A Christmas holiday spent with expats my husband and I met for the first time. A cup of tea with a stranger in a new country. A passing comment at a small dinner of PR and communications professionals.
You might think it’s easier to facilitate collisions in massive group events. More people = more random spontaneity, right? Not so much.
Often times, the larger the setting, the harder it can be to really connect. You don’t have more than 60 seconds to introduce yourself. You get constantly interrupted in conversations as people come and go. Everything becomes purely transactional. (“I’ll give you my email address; do you have your business card too?”)
That’s not connecting. That’s collecting.
Networking shouldn’t be like collecting Pokemon. It should imply a deeper level of understanding and purpose.
The Small Group Opportunity
At USV, we’ve found that the small group trainings we facilitate — with no more than 10-12 people in the room — consistently yield some of the highest net promoter scores we’ve seen. By the end of these sessions, people often bond with each other, and you can see folks lingering around the room after each session to chit chat and share contact details.
Why is this the case? Because the smaller the group, the bigger the opportunity to actually connect.
In conversations with fewer than 15 people, everybody has a chance to insert their voice. Not only that, but people don’t feel as rushed to complete their thoughts on a tight timeline or schedule. This allows for creative rumination and ideation in a new way.
Smaller events also lend themselves to high levels of vulnerability. Typically, we start all of our USV discussions with a round of group introductions. More often than not, in addition to telling your name and where you work, we also ask you to share something a little deeper — making a challenge you’re facing at work, or something you are looking for help with from the group.
Right off the bat, this precedent establishes a group norm of cohesion and trust. This gets harder to establish as the group grows larger in size, and after a certain point, it becomes downright impossible.
Finally, small-group events encourage one of my favorite skills of all time: Active listening.
Yes, it’s possible that the people who showed up aren’t the people you expected to meet. It’s even possible that none of them is a VIP of “celebrity status” figure in their domain of expertise. But if you believe that everybody has something to teach, then this introduces a chance to really listen and learn from a variety of perspectives.
It’s not often than you might have the opportunity to meeting people from a drone marketplace, a period-tracking app, an artificial intelligence platform, and a video learning company all in one room. When you get the chance, we hope you’ll find a way to take advantage of the collective brainpower and come away with something new.
Also published on Medium.