How to Start a Local Networking Group
I’ve lived in several parts of the country and have learned that, unfortunately, there are often no local groups for assistants. This is true in smaller towns as well as in larger cities. If we want to expand our network, we often have to meet others through general networking events where we can only hope to come across others in our field, through social platforms and hope that our attempts might lead to an offline connection, or through introductions from our existing network.
I've found that those in our field really want to meet each other. We want to connect, share knowledge, and meet others who truly get it. And in order to help facilitate this type of networking, we often have to take the initiative and start our own local groups.
I reached out to a dear friend of mine, Angie Cartwright, who co-founded a local group in Austin called ATX HR in 2014. The group has grown immensely over the past few years to be a key group for Austin HR professionals. Starting a local group is no easy task, but she has made it appear seamless!
Angie has generously offered up a wealth of advice on what she learned about starting a local networking group, which I hope helps others in their own endeavors!
CH: Hi Angie, thank you so much for being here! Could you please share a little bit about your background?
AC: Sure! I’m an HR professional who loves creating value through talent potential and learning agility. In my early days I studied Marketing and Human Resources with an emphasis on Change Management and Leadership. My industry experience ranges from start-ups to large multinational organizations in healthcare IT, data analytics, multimedia, software, telecommunications, real-estate, healthcare, retail, and non-profits with global exposure in both privately owned and publicly traded companies. In addition, I have had the opportunity to live and work overseas for nearly a decade.
CH: Could you please give a general background about your local networking group, ATX HR?
AC: ATX HR originally began when you and I worked together at Media General. There was an incubator on a different floor of our building and a smart entrepreneur who was working out of that space, Praneeth Patlola, was building an HR product. I was coaching and mentoring folks in the HR community, and he approached me to brainstorm with various entrepreneurs, and later he suggested I begin a meetup, which we ended up doing together.
Today, ATX HR is a meetup backed by a community of HR Professionals and thought leaders, infused with the spirit of Austin, and Powered by Passion — Passion for People, Partnership, Possibility, and Place.
Passion for People: Everyone has a place here. You will always be greeted with a smile and even if you don’t know anyone when you get here, you will know someone when you leave. We are your meaningful connection to the local HR community. We are your HR friends.
Passion for Partnership: We believe the path forward is paved together. Every program we offer, every relationship developed between our members, and every sponsor and presenter who supports our efforts allows us to grow the capabilities of Austin’s HR community and enhance the reputation of the profession we love.
Passion for Possibility: We are a community of learners constantly looking ahead to see what’s next. What is demanded of us changes at the speed of business and we are willing to take risks and push boundaries to stay one step ahead of our customers.
Passion for Place: Austin is home and just like the city from which we get our name, what makes us weird makes us special. We’re laid back, we love music, and we’re not afraid to be different.
CH: What is the format of ATX HR events as well as the frequency?
AC: We typically have one event per month. Occasionally we will do two events per month.
For the first three to four years our format was generally a quick happy hour, welcome and guest introduction, learning session, followed by allowing some time for Q&A, and then we would wrap up the event with networking. This year, we have changed things a little. As I mentioned previously, we are passionate about place. Music is a big part of Austin, and since we are all connected through experiences, we solicited local musicians (which our sponsors cover). So far we have had about five musicians this year. We enjoy sharing our beautiful spaces with local talent and helping to raise their talent profile. It would be awesome to support others too, such as local painters, jewelers, and other artists in the future as well.
CH: I know your events have always been free. How does that work? And do you have any advice on how to approach sponsors?
AC: Yes, after four years, our group is still free! We have been able to do this through our generous community partners who sponsor the ATX HR Meetup.
Subject matter experts reach out to us an average of three to four times a month. Our decisions on who to accept is based on our members’ feedback, what the SME’s strengths are, as well as human capital and workplace trends. We are grateful for our community sponsors and those that are referred by our members.
We still solicit constantly, and we aren’t afraid to ask for support. Our group has been co-created from the beginning from members and partnerships in the community. We take in feedback and act on it. At the end of the day, the worst a potential sponsor can do is ignore us or say no.
When we first started out, my approach with potential sponsors was either online or in person. It still isn’t uncommon for me to inquire at restaurants, bars, grocery stores, etc. (my husband is quite used to me asking everywhere we go). Our members are also involved and make referrals and introductions, as well as sponsors hearing about us from other sponsors. When putting together emails, we’ve noticed that it’s been helpful to include a description of our group’s background, links, as well as a short video.
For example, I recently came across the local venue SPIN. I approached them in person, ended up being introduced to the manager, and was extended a complementary offer. Another example is iFly. When I was there for another occasion, I had a great experience and asked one of the representatives about sponsoring our group. They ended up offering free flights, which we gave away via a drawing at one of our previous meetups. Our members were thrilled.
It’s an effective marketing campaign for these local businesses. Our group tags them and posts thank you messages on our social platforms. Many of the sponsors receive in person exposure at the event they sponsor. It’s a great overall ROI.
I also thought of a way to thank local guest speakers who share their knowledge and time with our group. We partnered with Lawrence Hanley at Desk Plants, who generously provides a plant to each guest speaker and one drawing giveaway per event. We are always mindful of thanking our sponsors.
When we accept a sponsor, we do ask them to be cognizant about not selling. Our members have shared that they simply don’t want to be sold to or bombarded with business cards. The exception is if a member asks for details about their business or for a card. If that happens, then a sponsor may extend their information.
Check out this short video to learn more about ATX HR!
CH: There are many tools out there to consider when starting a local group. What tools do you use to get the word out and keep your members informed of upcoming events? Also, are there any pros or cons about the platforms to keep in mind?
AC: ATX HR began on Meetup and we now have about 1000 members on that platform. Some pros are that it’s easy to use, they have a calendaring system, and you can share those events on other platforms with just a click. A few cons are that members typically don’t use the discussion feature. Also, many have preferences for other platforms.
I kept getting asked to use Facebook, so I created a group there, too. Our Facebook Group has about 500 members. A pro is that you can hold an event in the calendar on that platform. In addition, the discussions are more lively. You can also send reminders, however, sometimes people don’t see reminder messages. Another feature to point out is that it is missing a direct download to calendars.
We also have a LinkedIn Group, which has almost 300 members. This group is more about raising awareness of future events. We redirect people on that platform to Facebook or Meetup for RSVPs.
All of our groups are closed private membership. We list our membership requirements on our platforms and redirect those who do not fit the closed group profile. It is a delicate balance of who to accept in our group, which is a constant challenge. When it comes to our members being sold to, we have noticed people do appreciate discount codes, though, because it’s more of a passive form of selling.
We are platform agnostic. We exist in all spaces and post events in all places. We try not to go outside of our social platforms to manage our events. However, when it comes time to pull RSVPs, we export those into Excel to avoid duplicate RSVPs.
People learn about our events through other ways, too. Sometimes people will see a LinkedIn or Facebook update about an event one of our members attended which they shared through their personal social account. In addition, people learn about us by word of mouth.
CH: I know your group has grown so much over the years! How have things changed as it went from a handful of members to hundreds and now in the thousands? And how do you gauge an accurate headcount?
AC: ATX HR started out with half a dozen members, then it went up to a dozen, then up to several hundred, and now it’s at fifteen hundred members! It has taken over four years to get to that point. We actually just had our fifty-seventh event last week!
In general, we have always looked at the amount of RSVPs to decide on the setup and location of the event. What we have found is that cutting the amount of RSVPs in half gives us a pretty accurate headcount. Life events, distractions, weather, and other factors affect RSVPs.
As our membership grows, it creates better opportunities for brand recognition and the validity of the group since it’s heavily referral-based. In addition, we receive LinkedIn and Facebook messages from members saying how much they love our events and what they learned and will implement in their office. It’s neat seeing how our group ignites creativity and impacts the workplaces in our community.
ATX HR back in the early days
ATX HR now
(and check out the video above to also see it's growth!)
CH: That’s so great to hear you’re getting lots of feedback! Are there any quotes you’d like to share?
AC: “Everyone feels welcome.”
“Thanks for putting together a wonderful event last night. It was my first time joining ATX HR, and it was both fun and informative. I'll definitely attend again in the future.”
“Y’all kill it with the giveaways. My cryo “refresh” day at Restore was AMAZING. Thank you for doing these.”
“A friend of mine recommended ATX HR as a new and engaging monthly event. The content has been interesting and practical, and I’ve even started using the agile practices we learned about in the last meeting. Looking forward to the next event!”
CH: It must be a lot of work to run this group. Have you enlisted others to assist? And how much time on average do you spend on tasks related to your events each month?
AC: For the first three years, it was just Praneeth and me doing everything. We now have an Assistant Organizer, Samantha Wiseman, who reviews membership requests and posts event photos online and all kinds of other tasks. Sam is a BIG help!!! Other people have approached us to volunteer, especially in person at events. When that happens, we usually come up with roles on the spot that will help us that evening, such as greeting members when they arrive. For those who have volunteered online, we will be aiming to have more frequent planning sessions to determine how to move forward. As the organization grows, we will be looking for strength-based volunteer opportunities.
Outside of the time spent at the actual events, I average about two hours per month posting online and taking care of general planning for the next month’s meeting. I also spend about one more hour each month on other miscellaneous items related to the group.
CH: Do you have any other advice for those considering starting their own local networking group?
AC: Have fun! It’s easy to take it so seriously that you lose the intent.
In addition, form a committee. I highly recommend doing this early on.
At the end of the day, remember that it’s really about community learning and giving. It’s about supporting the community, learning, and lighting that spark in others. It’s about creating value through talent potential and learning agility for members, the organizations the members are apart of, and for the community as a whole.
CH: Thank you so much for your time and sharing what you’ve learned, Angie!
AC: Absolutely, thank you for the opportunity to share.
Angie Cartwright is an accomplished HR professional with extensive skills in Talent Management, Organizational Development, Learning and Development, Change Management, and Performance Management. She has broad transactional, tactical, and strategic HR success with exceptional focus on follow-through and leadership. She earned a Master’s in Human Relations Management and a Bachelor's in Marketing and Business Administration. Currently, Angie is serving as the Director of Learning and Organizational Development at ClearDATA. When she isn't in the office, Angie can be found outside or spending her time supporting individuals within the community either through Potentiality Coaching or the ATX HR Meetup.
You can connect with Angie on the following platforms: