The business of being social

The final Mobile Monday before the summer break; it’s a barbeque tonight and purely for networking. “This is the first event we have had without a speaker.” Norbert Sangard is one of the co-founders. “We have been going for 15 months and when we meet we have a different topic which the members have suggested. It’s usually one hour of speakers and one hour of networking.” Mobile Monday is a monthly event in Belfast. The speakers are drawn from all over Ireland with the most popular topics being Mobile Advertising and Mobile Demo nights. “The people who come have something to do with the mobile industry or are interested in the development of the industry. There are about 65 people who come regularly.”

Mobile Monday was started in Helsinki in 1999. “The biggest is in Amsterdam; but they charge 9 Euro but they still get 400 people, this is free. We have a genuine interest in connecting people.” Norbert cannot say whether real business is being done at these events, “But you have the first connections. A business might need something and they go to Prague to get it not knowing an SME in the next town makes it.”

Mobile Monday is about networking, learning and a bit of business. It is one of several social business events held in Belfast every month. The first event that brought together internet entrepreneurs and potential investors came to Belfast in 1999. First Tuesday had launched a few months before in London. Kim Johnston was a friend of the founders. “We are natural networkers in Northern Ireland.” explained Kim, now a business head hunter explained. The aim of First Tuesday was to introduce businesses and investors, but there was no route for First Tuesday to share any future success. It could have been a lucrative business. “It turned out to be a social event. You can’t make money out of a social event. Even if I made money I didn’t have to give any to the London organisers.”

There are still First Tuesday events around the world including Dublin. First Tuesday was held in expensive hotels and sponsors were needed to cover the costs. Open Coffee is the antithesis. The meetings are in Coffee Shops and you buy your own coffee.

Charlie’s Coffee Shop in Bradbury Place is full of people carrying Apple laptops and iPhones. On alternate Tuesday evenings the Open Coffee Belfast meets here. It’s just conversation and people hanging out; some are students others have their own start-up businesses. Errol Maxwell who runs a property website propertypal.com is among them. “I come to catch up on the local scene, to meet people that I now consider friends and to find out about any new technology that I am not aware of.”

Errol goes to learn about who is doing what and what organisations or people can help him in his business. “I learn that a lot more about other people and their problems and how they are getting them resolved.” Does Open Coffee and similar events attract small businesses and individuals who are in competition for work? “There are, but there is enough work to go around and the people that go to these events are not the kind of guys that will chase every penny by building websites for £500. We are being led by quality not quantity. NI can carve its own niche by simply being good not cheap.”

There are Open Coffee events in Newry and Lisburn. They can all be found through Twitter or a blog or web site. Mark Nagurski of iddictive.com is one of the founders of Open Coffee Derry. “We started as an informal, relaxed environment where people with an interest in business, technology and social media could get together and share ideas. It’s been surprising just how positive the response from ‘traditional’ businesses has been.” Their events are held monthly attracting designers, developers, entrepreneurs and business owners from more traditional industries, keen to learn more about social media and emerging business models. “The feedback we get is that the informal style of Open Coffee – no name tags, no speeches and no dress code – makes it easy for the group to connect with people they might never have met otherwise.”

Real business is getting done both at the events and as a result of the connections made. “Business is, and always has been, about the people involved. The growing popularity of more relaxed, social business events is simply a reflection of that.

Lisburn Open Coffee meets every week, alternating between Tuesday evenings and Friday morning both at 7.15. Andrew Gribben is one of the organisers. “We get an average of around 10 people. Interestingly the early Friday morning is the best attended as people can call in on the way to work. It’s a mix of local business owners and employees, people passing on their commute and locals who just like IT and a geeky get together. Everyone comes back; I don’t think there is anyone who has only been once.”

Leeanne Lowe arranges Girl Geek Dinners networking event. “I prefer to think of it as connecting and socialising with like-minded ladies. There is the potential for collaboration – for example myself, organizer Martha Rotter, and blogger and e-learning specialist Michelle Gallen are looking to hold speaker training sessions for girl geeks later this year that will culminate in a Girl Geek Dinner with a short talk from each attendee.” The dinners attract web designers, programmers, computer engineers, bloggers, those from digital and broadcast media, e-learning, and a few who just have a keen interest in technology and the Internet.

“Twitter is really the glue that holds us all together. It’s how we stay connected – I know that I don’t communicate with the ladies via phone at all, and only occasionally via email when we are planning specific events.” While boys aren’t banned, they just have to be invited by a female attendee. “A surprising number of guys still seem to think that girls can’t be geeks, and that the simple fact they are male somehow means that in matters of technology they obviously know best.” While Twitter and blogs are used by all of the social business networks, to keep in contact, they are not a substitute for “meet-ups”.

All of the events are driven by social media. “Social media is good,” says Kim Johnston, “But face to face is better. You must be proactive. You need to know what you are looking for.”

Errol believes its boom-time for IT in Northern Ireland. “Lots of talented folk are coming out of this place right now. Open Coffee has seen a lot of people dropping their shields and opening up to complete strangers. It’s very refreshing.”

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