We spoke to Michael Di Paola, founder of Freshwalks and Matthew Stafford, co-founder of 9Others on breaking the mould of traditional networking, events that foster genuine connections and more.
The idea had arrived, as the best ones often are, through a throwaway comment from a friend: Wouldn’t it be great to get a bunch of business people out in the hills for a day?
In August 2014, Michael Di Paola, co-founder of brand agency Studio North, was joined by twenty-six people for the ten mile walk up a hill — the first ever Freshwalks, the one that would start it all. As the founder of Twitfaced, he had run successful networking events before. But this one, he felt, was different.
“It really pushed people out of their comfort zones — myself included,” he says. “What I saw in people’s faces was something I’d not seen through organising networking events all these years prior. There was a real sense of camaraderie — a shared sense of achievement by the people who had been through this experience together.”
It was supposed to be a one-off event. But it wasn’t until afterwards at the pub, when the group was sitting around a table eating pies and chips and reminiscing on their adventure that Michael realised he was onto something special.
“There were genuinely happy faces around the table; there was this great feeling. I just said: who wants to do this again?”
What began as one ten mile walk up a hill has become a bit of a phenomenon. With iterations of the classic Freshwalk — walks in the countryside, coast, on moorlands and mountains — happening across the country, Michael has also expanded the format to include city walks, walks created for families, walks at sunrise and sunset as well as multi-day tours and overnighters. The ‘classic’ walks have expanded to include all levels of experience; Michael has planned walks anywhere between five to 30 kilometres. When he introduced the city walks, it was to create what he describes as a “bitesize version of what I do in the hills.”
“I started to recognise that not everyone can just take a Friday out of the office,” says Michael. “Instead, for the city walks, we meet at 12 and I collaborate with various tour guides. We’ll do a 45 minute walk around town and learn about the city we’re working and living in. Then we’ll go for lunch afterwards. It’s that simple.”
The premise was simple; but the impact was not. As Micheal sat around the table after that Freshwalks, the happy faces of those 26 people — many of them strangers — he realised that it was more than just endorphins and the feeling they’d accomplished something great.
“They’ve been able to get away from the rat race,” he says. “In an agency and tech world, in particular, we’re all on the treadmill. Many days when we go in, we have a list of things we need to do. And we knock some things off that list, some more comes in, it gets to the end of the day, we go home and then the cycle starts again the following day.
“It takes its toll,” he adds. “What I recognise now is you’ve got to force yourself to take that time out, take a step back, log off and properly think about what you’re doing. That’s where the strategic thinking — the real problem solving — can actually happen. Otherwise you’re just on that treadmill.”
For Matthew Stafford, co-founder of Dot Matrix Group Syndicate, it started off with dinner. It was 2010, and he had been organising dinners between several investors and several startup companies looking for investment; the aim was to build the connections between the startups and the investors, with the hope that it would accelerate their relationships.
“What began to happen was towards the end of the dinners, the CEOs of the startups would huddle together and spend more time talking to one another than the investors,” he said. “I was like ‘you’re here to pitch to get this investment, what are you doing talking to each other, you can do that at any time!’
“But then it began to happen often enough, that I realised something was going on.”
What these startup CEOs were being drawn to, Matthew realised, was the opportunity to talk to people that understood what they were going through.
“A lot of these CEOs were running their own companies for the first time, and that can be a lonely job,” says Matthew. “A lot of the time these CEOs are in sales mode all the time, pitching for investment. Trying to onboard staff, users, customers — whatever else. Sometimes they just want to talk with someone who is in their shoes, but not in their business.
“Putting that together I thought, I’ve done these dinners for the investors — let’s try it with just the entrepreneurs.”
Alongside co-founder Katie Lewis, Matthew launched 9Others — a dinner for 9 entrepreneurs to get together and share experiences, connections and perspectives. The first dinner hosted on 8th December 2011 was a success. So much so, that 9Others has now grown to a network of over 4,000 entrepreneurs in 45 cities around the globe.
“When me and Katie started it we both had full time jobs,” says Matthew. “We didn’t really need to make any money — so we didn’t need to do loads of them. We could focus on quality, and we just did one a month in London.
“Halfway through 2012, we thought — this is great. Me and Katie running it in London, we liked it. But there were these people we were doing business with and going to cities all around the world. And we thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could try and help them hit the ground running with it in these other cities? So we did that; and it’s grown ever since.”
J B Cole’s CEO Josh Bolland has been running 9Others dinners in Manchester since 2018. “It’s a powerful event, that I’ve seen result in some big life choices after the conversations we have around the table,” he says. “There are so many challenges and solutions shared and some really incredible stories have come from it.”
What Freshwalks and 9Others share in common is a way of connecting with other professionals — as individuals — that goes beyond the realms of traditional networking. As a result of COVID-19, both events have had to react to the changing restrictions. Freshwalks has hosted various online events including their City Virtual Walks, Mastermind groups, socials via Zoom and a weekly Step Challenge. In January, J B Cole ran our own walking challenge in lieu of the Freshwalks we had planned; there’s still a plan in place to get the team up Marple with Michael when we can.
The 9Others events have been moved online too, with Matthew and Katie cutting the numbers down to five to help replicate the sense of closeness you’d experience sitting around a dinner table. The shift to the virtual space hasn’t changed their purpose: to create genuine connections between those who attend.
“When you arrive at a networking event you can end up feeling quite flustered and distressed,” says Michael. “You might not see anyone you recognise. Someone, there’s somebody in front of you, speaking to you. They tell you their name and a few seconds later you can’t remember it because your brain was doing a million other things.
“When you’re walking, your brain gets distracted. Usually you walk in pairs. There’s something about the environment that just gets people talking on a deeper level that goes much, much further beyond those platitudes and small chat.”
Matthew shares the sentiment. “Sometimes with networking events, people think too much about how to mechanise things to quickly — how they can engineer connections as fast as possible.
“I don’t think anyone ever tried to develop a personal relationship with friends or partners like that. Or mates. Why do people think that’s how it works with business?”
It’s not that these events haven’t led to great business connections. Both 9Others and Freshwalks have led to business, investment, new customers and new collaborations. But what’s important is that they’re based on genuine relationships, fostered through these shared experiences. What both events require of their attendees is they bring to the table, or walk, more than they take.
“Some relationships made during a walk may convert to commercial value,” says Michael. “And some might just be friendship and support.
“If you’re on a hill and you’ve slipped, maybe you’ve fallen into a bog or river crossing, you’ll remember that hand that’s reached out to help you up or across. It’s amazing to observe that kind of human goodness, to see the best of people, to watch someone step up to the plate when a person needs a bit of help. That makes you think — if I do business with them, they’re going to be there for me.”
For Matthew and 9Others, it’s about flipping traditional networking events on the head.
“You get a sense of someone that’s just there for what they can take,” says Matthew. “What we’re asking is for people to come along, have a nice dinner and try and contribute and help out this group of other people. And they get to go to dinner with nine others who are doing the same.
“Of course you’re going to benefit from that. At our core, we’re about fostering those kinds of connections.”
To find out more about 9Others, visit: www.9others.com; to find out more about Freshwalks visit: www.freshwalks.co.uk