Monday, September 19, 2011

Celebrating Two Years of WaterCooler: Young Entrepreneurs Networking in Nashville

Two years ago, I was talking with my friend Wade Munday about how I wanted to start a fun, informal, monthly event for young entrepreneurs in Nashville to meet each other.  The goal was to provide networking opportunities and to learn about interesting topics or hear from speakers within our own age range (20s through 40s).  He helped me come up with the name WaterCooler, which sounded a lot better than CornerOffice and other names that we considered.  Then he moved to Boston for a year before coming home and getting married.
My friend Renata Soto, who runs Conexión Americas, graciously agreed to co-chair and co-host these events with me.  Our first speaker was Kimberly Pace of Owen Management School at Vanderbilt University, who talked about personal brands:  how each of us creates a personal brand with every action or inaction that we take.  We hosted the first one at Cantina Laredo, which had awesome guacamole and margaritas, but didn’t have the best acoustics.  We later moved to 1808 Grille at The Hutton Hotel, which provided a rock star environment, but was too small for our growing crowds.  Then we moved to Miro District.  We decided it was time to take the show on the road. 
During that time, we hosted some amazing speakers, ranging from Becca Stevens, who talked about her work with former prostitutes at Magdalene and Thistle Farms, to Clint Smith of Emma, Laura Creekmore, who gave an overview of social media (which now seems like it was eons ago), and Alan Young of Armor Concepts, whose products I see on billboards all around the city.
Our first field trip was to Yazoo Tap Room, where Linus Hall and Neil McCormick gave everyone a tour of their brewery and free tastes of Yazoo.  That event turned out to be our most popular yet, and it showed us that WaterCooler was good not only for participants (who, in that case, reaped free beer) but also for the hosts whose businesses we showcased, because it gave them an opportunity to connect with their audience and further build brand loyalty.  I know, for myself, that I buy a lot more Yazoo beer now than I did before, because I heard Linus’ story and know how fresh it is, in addition to merely wishing to support the local economy.
From there, we realized that our niche was really in focusing on locally-owned businesses and entrepreneurs, and not just hearing from a variety of speakers in our age range.  We went to Oliver & Sinclair Chocolate Factory, which was so jam packed that we had to turn people away at the doors for fear of overcrowding/fire marshals.  We also visited Corsair Distillery and heard from Darek Bell and his partner.  More recently, we toured CentreSouce, then walked down the street to City House for drinks.
Our hope in doing this, in hosting and starting WaterCooler, was to build connections, for ourselves, and with each other.  We want folks to come whenever they’re inspired by the topic or have an interest in the location or the host or the product.  But we didn’t want to do anything that required people to sign up for one more commitment.  Everyone has enough of those already.  Because of that, we don’t have an official membership, and we don’t ask people to pay dues. 
We know that we are achieving our goal, because we have made connections with you resulting in new clients for our businesses/practices, new donors for our non-profits, new jobs, and more generally new friends.  And we know that you have done the same.  Emma has gotten new clients because one person who attended was impressed with Clint Smith's story.  And at least one person has gotten a new job because of a relationship she made while trying to attend our event at Olive & Sinclair.  These are the sorts of things we want to happen with WaterCooler.  If you have more examples of good connections that you’ve made, or if you have interesting locally-owned businesses based in Nashville that you want to highlight, please let us know.  These are the stories that we want to help you tell.

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