Starting an Open Coffee (Club) in Your Community

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been moderating Boulder Open Coffee for over 6 years already but it continues to be an honor and I’ve learned a tremendous amount along the way. I thought I’d share some of my experience in the event that you or somebody you know is interested in bringing Open Coffee to your community.

12 Years in Boulder

The OpenCoffee Club concept was launched in London in 2007 and brought to Boulder by Foundry Group’s Jason Mendelson in that same year. The group has been meeting regularly ever since, evolving to meet the needs of the community along the way. We’ve changed the name to Boulder Open Coffee, had four venues, four moderators, and broadened the focus of the group from meeting with investors to being a general resource to the startup community. That said, Jason’s thoughts on the group from 2010 still ring true today:

Bottom line, is that I’ve never seen such an engaged, smart, passionate and honest group of people get together every two weeks and talk about interesting things. I always leave the event much more energized than I started.

Starting an Open Coffee in Your Community

Like most things related to the startup community, you don’t need permission from anybody to get a group going. With that said, my hope is that some of my experience moderating Open Coffee in Boulder and Denver and my experience helping a few people start open coffees in other cities will be helpful to you.

Find a Venue

There’s no need to overthink your venue for your first few Open Coffees. Just make sure people know where to find it and make sure that there’s coffee available - that’s it!

If you start to get some traction and your group grows, here are some other factors to keep in mind:

  • Check to see if your group is welcome. While we’ve had great luck with being met with open arms, we’ve discovered that not every manager sees value in having a large group show up in their place of business.

  • Providing sponsored coffee in carafes is a nice gesture but I’ve found that people would rather pay for their own coffee so that they can have their latte or other favorite drink prepared just so.

  • Acoustics matter - if people can’t hear each other the whole concept falls apart. Venues that have a semi-private meeting area are ideal.

  • Natural light has been a surprisingly important factor in keeping people coming back regularly, particularly in the winter months.

Get the Word Out

We’ve relied on word of mouth as the foundation for getting the word out about Boulder Open Coffee. Here are some of the variations we’ve used, along with a few others:

  • Social media, particularly if you’re able to enlist influential friends in the startup community to help you out. I’ve experimented with creating accounts specific to the event but ultimately think that your best bet is to share using your personal accounts instead.

  • Event sites: we’ve used Facebook, a custom built site, and throughout the years. We’re currently on and have seen great results with it.

  • Startup event listings: for those of you here in Colorado I highly recommend Startup Digest and Built in Colorado.

  • I’ve dropped the word Club from the name to make it seem less, well clubby. There’s no secret handshake so let’s not make people think there may be one!

Don’t Forget to Moderate

After you’ve put effort into getting everybody together, make sure you create the conditions for great conversations.

  • Welcome people as they arrive, especially newcomers.

  • Jot down a few notes about topics to inject if there’s a lull in the conversation. I generally sit down for 10 minutes or less to review what’s been in technology news since the last meeting.

  • Don’t be afraid to politely cut somebody off if they go too far off topic or hold the group hostage with a long, rambling rant.

  • Get lots of people involved. Lately I’ve been letting the group know that there’s no need to raise hands before speaking, but for those who have trouble getting a word in edgewise, to either raise their hand or make eye contact with me so that I can be sure to give them the opportunity to chime in. Some days I’m able to just let the conversation be free flow and others require a heavier hand - it just depends on the team dynamic.

A Few More Thoughts

  • Be patient! Building a critical mass of people takes time. Once you get there the group will take on a life of its own. If I were to no-show at the next Boulder Open Coffee one of the regulars would slide right into my place without skipping a beat.

  • Attendance will drop after a long weekend and when a stretch of lousy weather is followed by sunshine. Don’t worry about fluctuations in attendance from one week to the next.

  • The conversations are great no matter how big or small the group is. I’ve moderated groups of four all the way up to 150. While I’ve got manage the conversations a little differently, the quality has always been high.

Need More?

Get in touch with me and/or drop by a Boulder Open Coffee any time! I’m happy to help in whatever way I can.