What I Learned From an IRL Community Experience in the Woods
5 min read

What I Learned From an IRL Community Experience in the Woods

Reflections from a week at Founder Summit.
What I Learned From an IRL Community Experience in the Woods

I recently attended Founder Summit, a 3-day in-person gathering of founders building calm companies.

The organizers did a beautiful job designing a space where people felt welcome and where real connections started or deepened.

Community principles are transferable, and are often first developed based on in-person interactions. The team at Founder Summit really nailed many of the principles I consider core to helping people connect and feel like they belong.

Whether you’re working on an online, in-person, or hybrid community, I hope these spark ideas for the community you’re working on.

Connect around a disputable idea

Founder Summit and Calm Fund, its organizer, are for a specific type of founder. It’s for those of us who’ve decided that we don’t want work to be our single obsession at the expense of everything else in our lives. It’s for founders who would say they’re building a calm company.

Just reading the term “calm company” probably annoys people who legitimately see entrepreneurship differently. Founder Summit is built around an idea you can argue with. But if you want to argue with it, you probably wouldn’t want to make your way all the way to middle-of-nowhere North Carolina to do so.

So everyone who attended believed in a common vision for themselves and the world, that others could reasonably dispute. Knowing we share some hot takes and are on the same page about a few core things, allows a community to get closer faster.

Building a gathering or community around a disputable idea makes your job as a community builder easier. It’s a filter that helps you decide everything from who should be there, what you’ll do, and how it should feel.

A bunch of happy people on top of a mountain
On top of Chimney Rock

Give people a way to help each other

Before the event, the Founder Summit team put together a spreadsheet where people could offer and request rides to and from camp. It was easy to reach out to someone who was going the same way and get a ride from the airport or wherever you were coming from. I found a buddy from the spreadsheet (hi Anna!) and got a ride.

The result of the spreadsheet was that helping each other was normalized even before we got to camp. And almost everyone arrived with at least one friend who they made along the way. It makes things less awkward when you’re not showing up to the party by yourself.

Building a simple system that gives your community a way to easily help each other is a great way to foster connection. You give them a specific reason to reach out to each other and the interaction has the potential to result in a new connection.

Tell people how to connect

Founder Summit was the first conference I attended in a really long time. I had totally forgotten how things worked: what questions to ask people, how to squirrel out of a conversation when I need a break, the best side to put your nametag, and so many other little things. I was rusty after pandemic times, and I wasn’t the only one.

On the first day of the summit, our host Tyler Tringas, gave us 2 simple rules to follow:

  • When you’re having a conversation, don’t close the circle so that others can join (this was immediately rebranded by the crowd as ‘Pac-Man’)
  • When you join a new conversation, say “please continue” so that conversations aren’t derailed when someone new joins. Introduce yourself at the next break in the conversation.
A Pac-Man captured by Michael Freas Photography

These were simple rules, not hard to follow. And they signaled a few other things that didn’t have to be said:

  • Most of us are strangers here! You’re not the only one who may not know anyone.
  • This conference is not about status games. We don’t exclude people here.
  • Making people feel welcome is your job too.

This expectation setting at the start I think made a huge difference for how comfortable everyone felt later on. The behaviors we normalize in how we welcome people in makes a big difference.

Help grown-ups play

The theme of Founder Summit was playful from the start. It was camp! The activities we were invited to participate in helped us get to know each other in unexpected ways.

Founders making s'mores around the fire.
S'mores around the fire.

We weren’t just listening to talks, so we got to know each other in more playful ways: by talking about hobbies while wood-working, testing our risk tolerance while being fed questionable foods foraging in the woods, sharing childhood memories while eating s’mores around the fire, going for a cold dip in the lake after yoga, and learning each other’s karaoke songs and hidden talents.

Traditional conferences where you’re just listening to someone on a stage are unsurprisingly not a great format to meet people that you might want to stay friends with.

Early in adult relationships, we need excuses to spend time together as we get to know each other. As community builders, our job is to give people those excuses. Providing opportunities for play in person or online is a great way to do that.

Merge personal and professional

Besides frolicking in the woods, I also had a lot of business conversations and was really inspired by many of the stories from the people I got to know. I heard about how companies were acquired, why previous businesses failed, what led someone to pivot, break up with a cofounder, move, or take a company remote. In almost all these conversations, as people were telling their business stories, what we would consider “personal news” would naturally come up.

It seems totally natural to understand your business within the context of your life. But it also felt very unique to see entrepreneurs tell their stories that way. I couldn’t remember being at an event where people (not just women!) felt comfortable talking to strangers about how having kids changed what they wanted from their business, or how they make business decisions based on what will be best for their mental health.

This happened because Founder Summit fully normalized it. They provided childcare so that family was literally part of the experience. They gave primetime slots to speakers like Jonny Miller and Angela Parker who invited us to go deep about prioritizing our mental health and core values.

In the communities we’re building, there’s a lot we can do to normalize it through our programming and also via our own modeling.

I’m hopeful that the idea that personal needs are taboo in professional communities is changing so that more of us can feel more comfortable sharing our whole selves. Those are much more engaging versions of stories anyway.

Michael Freas Photography

After hosting and attending dozens of in-person meetups and events in the years leading up to 2020, since the pandemic, I personally hadn’t gone back to attending the types of events where you might meet strangers. Founder Summit was a great re-introduction to that world.

For those of us building online communities, there’s a lot we can learn about connection from well-done in-person events.

I left super inspired. People are great! Talking to them in 3D is unbeatable.

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