Three steps to break into a new scene: meet, listen, give
“I don’t usually like the spotlight!” says Danielle Smith. She’s the Community Engagement Lead at the DMZ in Toronto, a startup incubator-accelerator based at Ryerson University. She has a down-to-earth humility that makes her easy to chat with—we can practically hear her smile on the phone.
Danielle takes our call from her office at Dundas Square, the city’s pulsing commercial heart. Think Piccadilly Circus and Shibuya Crossing having a baby.
The DMZ is one of the world’s best university-supported incubators. Since it opened seven years ago, it’s been home to over 300 startups that have raised over $300 million in funding.
In her role Danielle finds opportunities and makes connections on behalf of the DMZ, bringing founders, mentors, investors, and other strategic partners together. In other words, she’s a professional relationship-builder.
Since joining the DMZ in 2014, Danielle’s become a figure in Toronto’s tech startup scene with a network that spans the university; municipal, provincial, and federal governments; as well as private industry. She shares with us three steps to break into any new network.
Step One: Meet
There’s no easy to way to put yourself out there. Meeting folks can be awkward, especially if your baseline awkwardness is high. Danielle says that one great way is through sites like meetup.com. “If you’re trying to break into a new scene or just see something that seems really cool, meetup.com is your best friend.”
Meetups are great because everyone is in the same boat of wanting to meet new people over shared interests, so the insider vs. outsider mentality isn’t something to stress about. Go find a meetup that’s directly or indirectly related to what you’re interested in.
Let’s say you want to start a music-related SaaS business. One meetup that you could look for would be audio enthusiasts who, say, meet up to swap headphones. While these people may or may not be your target market, they all share a love of music. You never know what kinds of people you’ll meet and you can’t predict what kinds of experiences they have to share with you.
Step Two: Listen
It’s tempting to talk about all the lovely things you’ve done in your sparkling years on Earth when you first meet people—after all, you’re trying to impress them! But Danielle says this is the wrong way to go about it:
“If you’re going to be a community builder your #1 job is to listen. You need to understand what’s important to people and what they want to achieve. Getting their attention is going to be so much easier if you really know what’s going to connect with them.”
The same applies on social media, too. By following keywords, industry organizations, and vocal champions you quickly learn who the influencers are and understand the major conversations taking place in any space. And on a platform like Twitter, breaking the ice with a friendly comment or question is super easy.
“Most people are flattered and love to engage. It's incredible how many of my relationships started out as Twitter love, and then I finally meet someone in person months later!”
Step Three: Give
You want to join a community presumably because you stand to gain from it, whether it be prospects, partners, or knowledge. That said, the key to successfully breaking into any new scene is to add value. Jumping in and immediately asking for expertise or making requests is a great way to become a pariah. You probably know this already through common sense, yet it happens all the time.
“The best approach I’ve seen is coming into a community and being genuine and asking what you can do to help first,” says Danielle.
Communities owe you nothing when you first join. Whether it’s through putting in the hours to get admin work done, connecting members to your own network, or bringing in resources, you need to actually be a decent, helpful person. What a crazy idea.
Only after you’ve built a rapport with people and have made a valuable contribution to their lives can you start to ask for stuff. Give to get.
Here are Danielle’s secret weapons in a nutshell. Step One: Use sites like meetup.com to find niches you’re interested in. Step Two: Swallow your pride and listen to what’s happening around you. You’re there to learn. Step Three: Don’t be the idiot that makes demands on Day One. Help people and they’ll be more willing to help you. Now rinse and repeat until you’re Regina George—minus all the bad stuff, of course.
If you want to connect with Danielle, you can find her on Twitter at @DaniMcSmith, where she would love to answer any additional questions!