More of my energy has gone into community building this year than any other time in my life. Being locked in dramatically increased my desire to reach out.
For me, this happened through the Bento Society — a global community that gathers virtually every week to connect and explore ideas. A number of communities like the Bento Society gained steam this year: Exponential View, Ness Labs, The Third, and countless Discords, Slack groups, and other dark forests of the internet that arose to offer collective enlightenment.
This is a tremendously great thing, but also harder than it looks. Community building requires extreme thoughtfulness and care. If you create the right balance magic happens. But how?
I was recently facing this question, so I reached out to the most knowledgeable person I know on the subject: Tina Roth Eisenberg, better known on the internet as Swiss Miss, the founder of CreativeMornings, a free monthly event series in more than 200 cities that celebrates creativity and is extraordinary at what it does. I’ve spoken at and attended multiple CreativeMornings events, including an online workshop earlier this year that had 500 attendees. From their programming to their format, what Tina and her team have built and are still building is exceptional.
I knew going in that talking to Tina would be enlightening, so I recorded our chat to refer to later. Tina’s approach to making CreativeMornings was so intentional and her advice so helpful that I immediately changed several of my plans based on our conversation. At the end of our chat, I asked Tina if I could share our discussion in this newsletter. Tina graciously agreed. Read on for Tina’s wisdom on community-building, trust, and defining the non-negotiables that let others take the lead.
YANCEY: I’m at a pivot point for the Bento Society. There’s a real community of people and a lot of momentum, but we’re heading into a new phase and it’s raising lots of questions. What do I want to own as the experience of my community? How do I feel about someone else communicating the idea or holding the space? How do I philosophically approach this? And I thought: Tina knows things about that. So I reached out.
TINA: Well, let me just start out by saying, even what you have built already, a lot of people are trying and you should be really proud of what you’ve made. You have hardcore regular people that show up. Those are the heartbeat of your community. Those are the ones you really need to nourish and nurture. They're going to be the ones that are going to help you decentralize this. So really pay attention and analyze who they are. I would actually have someone on ones with them and just get to know them. What makes them tick, why they are attracted to this and listen to them, and how they describe it. There's a lot of wisdom in how other people talk about your thing. I always learned that I'm too close to it and I don't have the language to describe what I’m doing. But they know. Customers give you the language for your marketing in the end. So that's advice number one. The hardcore people that show up, they're your people. They're the people that will carry the torch forward.
I was really lucky that the first few people that approached me about taking CreativeMornings to their cities understood what it was. One of them was a close friend of mine. He'd attended so many CreativeMornings in New York, then moved to LA. There was a trust there. He said, “Tina, I will honor this, I know how they feel.” The other was a guy in Zurich who had been to two events, so at least he'd seen how I want it to be run.
I was exactly at that point where you are. It was an extension of me and of my values and how do I freaking package this up so it doesn’t become some stupid unthoughtful networking bullshit. What I learned is, and, I mean, this is probably very obvious, that I just had to become very clear on what my values and the values of this event are. Get really intentional, clear, and put that on paper. What is non-negotiable? What is the core essence? So for example, for me, it was that it's one event a month. It’s free. It's on a Friday morning. There’s a mini talk and there's free breakfast. It doesn't have to be fancy, but those were the very beginning essence non-negotiables. But then I also made it very clear to the people, especially in the beginning, to go experiment. “You are a creative human. I trust you,” I told them.
“I trust you” was the thing I said the most. These are the magic words. I've learned that trust breeds magic. If you inherently trust someone, if you extend your trust, it's the biggest compliment of all. If you pick good people, thoughtful people, they will surprise you. That's what's happened to me.
A community is not a living breathing thing until it self-organizes. Make sure your organizers have some sense of ownership and they're not just executing. You have to shift into energizing volunteers, right? Which is so different than just being the boss that says get this work done. Motivating volunteers come down to finding the humans who deeply resonate with what you're doing and where it's purpose-driven to them. It fulfills them. It's nourishing to them. That's why they keep showing up. Make them feel seen and make them feel trusted.
[As we scaled] we had to figure out what makes them tick. We have a super-thorough host application system now. If you go on our website and apply to host on the footer, I mean it's insane what you have to jump through to become a host. First, we weed out the ones that are just there on a whim. We make you go through so much. You have to show us your team. We have you tell us what your plan is. You have to make a video so we’re sure of your capability. We learned to ask questions that go into the essence of the person we need.
I don't know who your bento person is, Yancey, but our person needs to be in complete service of their creative community. That’s their drive. Every month after an event is over they feel nourished and like they contributed. This is their currency. CreativeMornings resonates with organizers who are in service of humans.
I'm sure you will create your own type of human that you will crystallize. You’ll realize, Oh, the person that’s attracted to bento is X. Once you start realizing who your people are, it’s amazing because it becomes a thing on its own. Eventually, you take a step back and start realizing this is so beyond me. You can’t turn it off the day you realize it.
What was that day for you?
It was maybe three years in. Kevin [Huynh], my first hire, helped me grow CreativeMornings from four chapters to 111. He is an incredible systems thinker, an engineer by trade. I remember one day when we must have been around maybe twenty chapters, and I looked at Kevin and said “we can't even turn this off anymore.” If we were to say this is it, we're pulling the plug, they will continue. It's really magical because it becomes something that's so much bigger than you. It's not about me and it's not about me having started it. It's so much bigger.
I relate to that moment when you knew it was bigger than you. I had a moment in bento where I could clearly see the meaning it had for other people. My internal dialogue that questioned whether I was doing the right thing immediately switched to an energy of being in service to others. There are people here that this is helping so I’ve got to keep this up. It made things so much easier. There was a shift in my energy where I felt like I was honoring a bigger truth.
And I can tell you that you don't need to hold that alone. It becomes more magical the more you allow other people to hold it with you. As long as you're really clear on what the essence of it is. Because at the end of the day, if we go a little whoo, you’re already the energetic source of what you've built. It channels through you. But now if you find the right people, everyone that comes in helps add their own energy. Find the right people that the resonance is there. They’re going to amplify and make it so much better. You probably have to do a little bit of trial and error to find the right people. To be honest, without Kevin, I don’t think I would be here. He was a community person at heart. I hired him right out of college and he already had a portfolio of side projects that all had a community slant to it. There was a love for humans that was visible. Kevin really helped me systematize and pin-point the essence of CreativeMornings.
How have you thought about letting money enter that picture? I'm sure there have been moments when you think, “these people do so much — what can we do for them?”
That has come up so often. And I love it when it does. I love when people push back. Because then I sense where my conviction is really strong.
So in the very beginning, I ran it for two years just by myself in New York. Going beyond that was never on my mind. I just did this for my community in New York. In the beginning, people laughed at me because it was in the morning and there wasn't anything in the morning. People laughed at me saying Tina, you cannot continue keeping this for free.
I'm a very intuitive person, I oftentimes cannot describe why I do what I do. And I just always knew that the innocence that comes with being free was one of the core components for me. That's not to say that you couldn't figure out a business model — I just knew for what I'm doing, like getting venues, getting speakers, the minute there's a charge there's this innocence that's gone. Our business model is radical generosity. Either you're into radical generosity or you're not. And that's totally fine.
I was once invited by Simon Sinek to this teeny-tiny 16 people summit, and he asked me to speak on CreativeMornings. Bill Ury, one of the guys that co-wrote Getting to Yes, was there and heard my talk. Afterward, he came up to me and said, “Tina, do you mind if I sit across from you at lunch? I want to talk to you about CreativeMornings. Do you mind if I tell you why this works?” And I'm like, yes, please give me the language. This man is really remarkable. He said the reason why this works is because CreativeMornings is based on non-transactional giving. People come not as customers, they come as guests. And then you wrap them in a blanket of love and generosity and kindness, and they don't know what to do with themselves.
That to me was a big epiphany. And to be honest, because of my need to preserve that, I've always struggled with how to also have a business model that doesn't make me struggle. So in hindsight, I wish I would have started the [CreativeMornings] Guild sooner as a component. Think of it as the beginnings of a soulful version of LinkedIn for the creative community. It is a membership, subscription-based business model.
The other day I watched your conversation with Priya Parker from the start of the pandemic. She talks about the importance of knowing the purpose of why you're gathering. Can you speak a bit about that?
I hope you've read her book, The Art of Gathering. That book will change your life. You will never look at any gathering, be it family or business, the same way again. Priya talks about being intentional with your gatherings, paying attention to how you “open the container and close it,” how to guide your guests. You, the host, are setting the tone of your gathering.
What’s interesting is that once you explicitly say that we're very intentional about how we design our events, people stop questioning why we do things. Especially if we let them in on what we’re thinking if we don't surprise them if we let them see around the corner if we explain why we're doing what we're doing. Again and again, it comes down to thoughtfulness. The more thoughtful you are, the more clear you are on what you are, the better. For example, we read our Manifesto at the very beginning of every event. It states why we exist. It's about joy. It's about community. It's about creativity. It's about learning. There's no way somebody leaves our events and doesn’t know what we’re about.
The one thing I have to say is that I had to relax a bit. I’m a Capricorn, I want to control things. But then I realized that there's real beauty in surrendering and just letting other people lead. CreativeMornings has become more and more beautiful the more I let go. Just be patient with yourself as you let other people come in. The life hack that I've learned as a designer is to always say let's prototype. You're not committing, just experimenting. Let's see how this goes. Nobody gets hurt. Even if it doesn’t go great, it’s still a good experiment.
- Tina’s blog: Swiss-Miss.com
- CreativeMornings manifesto
- CreativeMornings host application process
- CreativeMornings Guild
- Kevin Huynh (the person who helped Tina scale CreativeMornings)
- Get Together: How to Build a Community With Your People by Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto
- Getting to Yes by William Ury and Bruce Patton
- The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker
Thanks again to Tina for her wisdom and generosity.
Peace and love my friends,
The Bento Society