Experiments in tribe building
In 2011, Ivan Owen created a puppet-hand to attend a steampunk convention. Seeing his video on YouTube, Richard a carpenter from South Africa wrote him an email. Richard had lost his fingers and was interested in collaborating to create an artificial hand for himself.
A little while later, the mother of a 5-year old boy named Liam contacted them. She wanted a tiny version of their hand for Liam who was born with no fingers on his right hand.
These collaborations eventually led to a global community of 3D printed prosthetic hands for kids with no digits.
That led to random people across the world creating 3D printed designs of hands. To help many others who needed those hands - people whom they would never meet.
In its first two years, the community e-NABLE led to the creation of 2,000 hands in 45 countries. Including Iron Man hands!
Isn't it amazing what tribes can do?
They cause a shift in what we know is possible through traditional team structures - such as in organizations (for-profit or non-profit). Allowing people to express talents that they otherwise may not utilize. To learn skills that can be applied elsewhere. They put into question the role of money in making things happen at a massive scale.
Under the right conditions, a single spark can light a fire. But sometimes it takes a stone to strike another. Again and again and again. To make things go wild.
Here are a few lessons that I’m learning even as I go about experiments in tribe-building.
First, it’s not about YOU
Yes, it's your tribe. You belong here. But it’s their tribe too. It’s important to remember that different people join a tribe for different reasons.
Don't start one if you aren't inspired by a higher issue. For which you are willing go beyond yourself.
What’s that something that would easily wake you up at 4am on a Sunday morning? Do it for that reason.
When water flows through a pipe, it also cleans the pipe.
I’ve found that whenever I’ve worked on a bigger issue, somehow it benefits my day-to-day life. Somehow what I say begins to matter more. Somehow it becomes easier to mobilize others to take action.
Next, build those plumbing systems
Many tribes fail or are in for a struggle because they run out of energy to keep it going.
One of the first steps we took while building the University of Michigan alumni network in India was to move from spreadsheets to email automation software like Mailchimp. Just getting your list in order and creating a mechanism to add to it automatically is a huge initial step.
When we started, we had 270+ emails spread out in a few XL sheets.
Then we spent a few hundred dollars on ads via LinkedIn and Facebook - targeting Michigan alumni in India. All we did was show a Wufoo form for alumni to join. Within a few weeks, our list expanded to 1,000.
We used tools to keep nurturing the list, encouraging people to invite others. That and a few physical events expanded the group to 3,000+ within a year. That’s about 70-80% of all Michigan alumni in India.
Last year, that tribe celebrated Michigan's 200th anniversary in Mumbai.
The lesson is this: you do need systems and data. Nothing fancy but very functional. Systems or well-thought out processes will save you enormous amount of time, money, and energy.
After that, build partnerships to sustain the tribe
A tree's initial years as a plant are the most vulnerable. It needs water, soil, sunlight, and the right conditions to grow. And grow more. But after it becomes a tree, it builds enough capability to sustain itself and several other forms of life around it.
You may not know how long it might take for your tribe to sustain itself. But expecting that it’ll give sweet fruits soon after you start would disappoint you.
If you start for the right reasons, it’ll be easier for you to build partnerships.
For example, it became easier for my company to partner with an academic institution for a health-tech community. Because our primary interest was to get like-minded healthcare people together in the region.
That desire led to a sold-out conference. We invited speakers from companies like ours - a tribe changes energy-draining competition to productive collaboration.
Many traveled from other cities to participate.
People gladly paid and registered. Because the fee mainly covered costs of the event and the topics addressed pertinent issues. It almost didn't cost us beyond the time and stress of organizing a conference.
Finally, magic happens when you connect the dots
It’s when the dots connect that a tribe begins to create something of tangible value - as it happened with e-NABLE. You run into someone whom you would otherwise never meet. One thing leads to another. Magic happens.
Even while working as the Editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson built a community of drone enthusiasts on the side. Nurturing a bit here. And a bit there. In 2012, after 10 years at Wired, Chris quit and started a drone company. With Jordi Munoz, a teenager from Tijuana, Mexico.
(His company 3D Robotics has since evolved into a drone software platform).
Look for things that draw you naturally. Professionally. Personally. Dabble with various communities by joining them. Participate. Observe what they do and how they do it. Say yes to things. Learn from random experiments. Be genuinely, genuinely useful to someone else. Repeat that many times over.
That's how tribes happen.