Brian Breslin on Building Community
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My guest today is Brian Breslin. Brian is a tech entrepreneur, educator, and community builder based in Miami. He’s the director of The Launch Pad, the entrepreneurship center at the University of Miami, and founder of Refresh Miami, a non-profit organization dedicated to growing South Florida’s tech and startup ecosystem. In this conversation, we focus on community-building, especially during this time when geographic boundaries are becoming blurred.

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Episode 50: Brian Breslin

Jorge: So, Brian, welcome to the show.

Brian: Thanks for having me.

Jorge: Well, it’s great to have you here. For folks who might not know who you are, could you please introduce yourself?

About Brian

Brian: Sure. My name is Brian Breslin, I’m a Miami-native tech-entrepreneur and community builder and educator. I’ve been working on the internet since 1995 — since I was a teenager — and I’ve been building different products and companies and helping other people with their stuff for the last 20-plus years.

Jorge: I’ve been aware of your work, I think from fairly early on, and I’ve seen you create what seems to me like a pretty thriving community in Miami. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Brian: Sure. About almost 15 years ago, coming up in the spring, I started an organization called Refresh Miami. Refresh Miami is one of my sort of proudest achievements at this point in my career. It’s the largest tech and startup community nonprofit in the Southeast United States. It’s got a little over 11,000 members, who come together to share ideas and to network and to learn about the entrepreneurial ecosystem and how to start a startup, how to bring their ideas to life, how to grow their businesses and their professional careers and all that. And, pre-pandemic, the format was a monthly meetup where we’d have speakers and guests talk about different topics related to building their businesses and things like that. And we had around two to three hundred people every month from the greater Miami metropolitan area coming to sort of break bread and have a drink and meet someone new.

The origins of Refresh Miami

Jorge: When you started it, it just started from scratch?

Brian: I was inspired by Refresh Dallas and Refresh Phoenix, which both had popped up a few months earlier. I had heard about them actually through the web accessibility community, which was more prominent back then in 2005, 2006. And there were sort of ad hoc , no central organization. But the idea was, how do we advance the local tech communities? And a lot of it was just people searching for their own tribes, you know, and trying to find like-minded individuals. And that was what inspired me. I was a solo entrepreneur in Miami having returned from University just a year and a half earlier, and I was looking for people who I could talk to about tech, and learn from, and collaborate with. That community didn’t exist in Miami at the time. There had been some during the first dot com boom, but then that all fizzled out in the early 2000s. And this was a lull in the market and a lull in the community where there wasn’t anywhere for people who wanted to learn about emerging technologies and where they could meet other people. And so this was as much me wanting to make friends as it was me hoping to coalesce a tribe.

Jorge: So, it sounds like there were precedents, but there wasn’t a community already in place in Miami. What did you do to get things kicked off there?

Brian: I think all I did in the beginning was I had set up a basic website and I put a little newsletter signup form where people could sign up for our Google group, which was like a LISTSERV-type tool that existed back in the early- to-mid 2000s. I posted a message saying, “who wants to go grab coffee and talk about tech?” And we had like twenty five people respond, randomly find me through the internet. And then the first meetup we had was five or six people at a Starbucks on South Beach, and we talked about everything from like MySpace to Friendster to HTML, CSS… JavaScript was starting to take off back then, and it was sort of a very nerdy meetup. But that was the first one.

And then everyone had fun and they were like, “let’s do this next month!” And the next month, everyone brought a friend, and it went from five to eight or nine and then to twelve to twenty. And soon it became this sort of regular thing where we quickly outgrew the Starbuckses and had to find people’s offices to hang out in. And people would bring their own beer, their own pizzas, you know, and the idea was very, very ad hoc and everyone was there to share, you know? So, you brought enough beer for you and other people that have some. You brought enough wine for you and other people that have some. And same for food and things like that.

Eventually I just started buying pizzas for everybody. I looked at it like this was my contribution-slash-marketing budget that I otherwise would have spent on my business. And, you know, it worked out. It became this sort of, regularly scheduled meeting point for people to find their underground community. And we continued that for years and years. And I think now we’ve done well over 150 events at this point.

Jorge: As someone who has been posting stuff to the internet for a long time, I have experienced the frustration that comes from putting something out there and not having anyone respond or look at it. And it seems to me that your first message that you posted got traction. And I’m wondering what about it drew people’s attention?

Brian: I think there’s a couple of factors. One was, there was no real expectation of people, so the risk level was super low. Like, what’s the worst that can happen? If you buy a cup of coffee, you don’t get along with everyone, you just leave. And there was no financial commitment, there was no expectation of you showing off your expertise or anything like that. And on top of that, you have to think about the context of the time. So back in 2005-6, there wasn’t as much stuff going on online and there wasn’t as much content being created on such a rapid clip as there is now. Now you’re competing with Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter timelines and all these things that everything is almost ephemeral. And so, if you don’t get the right person in the right location at the right time, it’s like hitting a target from very far away, you know? If you don’t hit that right target, then you miss them forever. And so, I think we benefited from that luck. And I like to think that we succeeded despite ourselves, because we didn’t really have an intention of saying, “we need to make this bigger.” It was just, we need to make this enjoyable for the people who are coming and make this something they can depend on and count on and make it welcoming. Because a lot of this was also in response to… I had experienced the local chamber of commerce at the time. And as a young 22-year-old entrepreneur trying to get his business off the ground and being basically told, “well, you’re not working at Microsoft? Why am I talking to you?” You know, type of attitude over and over from people. And feeling dismissed, right? And basically, made to feel like I wasn’t part of that community. And so, this was the flavor that worked for me and I was solving my own itch and it just so happened there were other people who had that same itch to scratch.

Focus, topics, and geography

Jorge: And it sounds like the itch has to do with the intersection between technology and entrepreneurship and location, right? One of the things that I’m hearing implicit in what you’re saying is that having focus is important to attract the people who are going to be interested in the same things that you’re interested in, is that fair?

Brian: I think so. I think a lot of it has to do with consistency, with carving out your niche in the broader sense. Miami’s got three, four million people in it, and so at the time you could have said, “we’re a community for business owners,” and that starts with too broad of a net, you’re casting too wide of a net in order to bring in too many people, and it doesn’t have the high enough signal-to-noise ratio than if you start with saying, “we’re really only catering to other techies or other nerds.” And that I think helped us, because we were self-selecting down to a smaller community of people that are geographically bound and are, career-bound in the sense that like they have the same interests and the same locations. And so, basically saying those are the two variables that we’re playing off of makes a lot of sense.

I’ve studied a lot of community-building patterns and trends over the years, and most of it’s been after the fact, not preemptively, as we grow our business or as we grow our organization, because it’s a nonprofit organization. But there’s so much more information out there now versus 15 years ago, as far as how to do this correctly versus what are the steps that one could make? And so, on many fronts, we lucked out along the way, and then in many senses we also could have done better if we’d had more mentorship, if we’d had more guidance as far as what’s the right way to do this. It could have been that Refresh Miami, would be at 25,000 or 45,000 people by now. But I’m happy with the levels of growth and the sustainability of it all. The fact that we’re going to be on our year 15 in this organization, which is remarkable as far as how long these things usually last, because we’ve seen so many organizations come and go and attempts at community building in other communities, and even in our own, over the years.

Online community infrastructure

Jorge: You mentioned the events, these monthly gatherings. I’m wondering if there is an online component to the community as well, where people come together. How does that aspect of it work?

Brian: So, over the years, we’ve played around with different sort of types of online engagement for people. Our main tool for broadcasting and outreach has been email the whole time, because that’s been surprisingly effective giving us the control we need in order to keep in touch with our community and also not being platform dependent. Because imagine if we had started off with being a MySpace page, right? That wouldn’t have lasted very long. Or if we had focused only on the Facebook group or things like that. So, we do have a Facebook group, and that has about 4,000 people in it. And then we also have a Slack community, which has another three or 4,000 people. And I don’t know what the overlap is between the two, as far as who’s in which one, if it’s a hundred percent overlap or not. And then we engage with people a lot on Twitter as well.

But one of the things that we’re working on actively right now is actually building out better tools in order to support peer-to-peer direct connections and also to give people the tools in order to allow them to communicate around their own interests. We used Meetup for a long time and we still do, but we use it mostly as casting another net because they have their own audience and their own ability to attract potential new members that we don’t necessarily have. Because people who search for “Miami tech meetup,” they will find us on there. But we use that as a funnel to bring people to our other channels. But meetup.com as a tool has gone through its own ups and downs, as far as, the software being maintained properly and then their ownership by WeWork, and then, later spun out by WeWork.

And so, we’re building our own technology in order to effectively replace that function for our community so that people can start their own micro-communities and have our audience to feed from. That’ll allow people with very obscure interests, like, “The Font Designers of Miami,” you know, there might be 10 of them, right? But it’d be impossible for them to find each other without our preexisting community to feed from. And so, that’s one of our next things that we’re working on and helping to launch in Q1 of 2021, to make that something that makes it easier for these types of groups to form and for them to sustain as well.

Jorge: And that would manifest as a web-based tool?

Brian: Yeah. So that would be a web and mobile based tool that lives on inside the refreshmiami.com domain.

Jorge: You talked about using email as the primary means of communication. How are you managing that? Are you using a mass emailing platform?

Brian: We use MailChimp as our email service provider, and we’ve been using them for probably about 10 years. And we jumped around from different platforms before that. We used Constant Contact for a while. We used a handful of others and the honest answer as far as why we shifted from one to another was cost. It wasn’t a matter of, was one a better tool than the other? There was some learning curve at each sort of change, but it was really like, this was the right balance of cost-to-features that we liked. And they also gave us the ability to have portability in that we could take our list, export it, and then import it into the next provider. And so, we weren’t locked in and we weren’t at the sort of beck and call or at the will of say like Facebook, right? So, Facebook doesn’t give us the ability to outreach to all of our members of our Facebook fan page or a group directly. We’d have to pay every single time to run ads at those people because it’s such a small percentage that get engaged with otherwise. Whereas on our email platforms, we’re regularly averaging… 30 to 35% of our list is opening every single email that we send out. And so that ends up being a much more cost-effective and effective platform and sort of channel for us.

Jorge: Are these emails mostly announcing upcoming events? What type of content goes out?

Brian: For the last two years, we’ve been doing news coverage. We hired a reporter from The Miami Herald to spearhead this, and we’ve been basically the sole source of news coverage in the local startup ecosystem. We felt that it was important to have these stories be told because The Miami Herald was the main news source in Miami, but it was basically scaling back on how much coverage it would give to entrepreneurial endeavors and startups and the tech ecosystem. So, if it wasn’t for our coverage, no one locally would be talking about the billions of dollars that Magic Leap raised, or the $1.2 billion that REEF, formerly known as ParkJockey, raised to build cloud kitchens and things like that. We felt it was important for those stories to be told because one of the big challenges when you’re building a community is people aren’t necessarily aware that there’s other people like them around.

We want the people who are building interesting stuff to know that there’s other people that are building interesting stuff near them in the broader geographic area as well. That helps on several fronts, one being inspirational to people to see that people are trying big things, and the other on making it easier for job creation and job placement. Because a lot of the talent that comes to our community comes from outside of our community or would otherwise leave our community because they don’t know that there’s second or third options in case of the one job that they come to Miami for fails, they don’t have to leave. And so, the fact that you can come get a job at REEF and know that if that company were to fail, there’s a half a dozen other well-funded startups that are doing interesting sort of global scale projects that you could go work on. You don’t immediately have to leave to go to San Francisco or New York or Austin or Seattle to get another tech job.

Jorge: Hearing you describe this just makes me think how complex such an ecosystem can be. You said you have over 11,000 members. Are you using any kind of system to keep track of those relationships? Like a CRM or something like that?

Brian: So, we haven’t used a CRM. What we’ve been doing though on some fronts… I’m a huge advocate of Airtable. And so, I’ve been diving heavily into Airtable over the last six to nine months. COVID has given me an extra time to work from home and dabble on these things. So, we do a lot of Airtable and Zapier. Zapier, I’m also another power user of. I have so many zaps built to automate things and stuff like that, that, if it wasn’t for their like pretty interface, I’d have a hard time keeping track of them. But yeah. So, we use Airtable to track all the companies, all the investors, and then a subset of the members that are doing interesting things that we know about. because the idea is that if we can keep somewhat tabs on what these people are doing, we can suggest those people to others or invite them to give talks or speak or share their stories. And having that in an organized fashion has helped us immensely in being able to manage this stuff because Refresh is run by an all-volunteer community. There’s no full-time staff for it at the moment. We have a few interns here and there and we have one person who’s the executive director who splits her time between her actual full-time job and Refresh.

The impact of COVID on regional communities

Jorge: You mentioned COVID, and one of the effects of the current situation is that, like you said, those of us who can work from home or working from home. And I’ve experienced local groups who have meetups and who have regular events for their members, recruit speakers from further afield. Over the last year, I’ve been invited to speak for a group, for example, in Argentina. I spoke with folks in Peru. Tomorrow I’m speaking at a conference in Amsterdam. And I’m doing it all from the very place where I’m sitting now. And I’m wondering, how has the pandemic changed the geographic nature of Refresh?

Brian: So, that’s an interesting thread that you bring up. On one hand, one of the things that we were known for before the pandemic was, we were the only group that flew in speakers from around the country to come and give talks and workshops in Miami. And occasionally, we would do a live stream back then to an in-person audience here. And we haven’t replaced those events with just purely virtual events. Other groups here in Miami have been doing virtual events with local speakers. But one of our thoughts on this was: there are so many people doing online webinars and Zoom-style video conferences. And they know that model and they know how to monetize that model and make it sustainable.

So, we decided we’re going to defer for six to eight months or however long, to other groups, because you’re no longer competing with your other local geographic groups for online content. You’re competing with the whole world, right? And so, if we didn’t have a way to enable the peer-to-peer networking that was the icing on top of the cake from our local communities, it didn’t make sense for us to go to all the effort to coordinate and organize an online event where it was no more engaging than watching a YouTube video. And so, as a result, we scaled back and it hurt us from a financial standpoint because our revenue came from event sponsorships beforehand, and that went towards covering the cost of flying people in and renting space and catering and things like that. We haven’t found a tool that makes it easy to replicate the social aspect of the events. We’re still figuring that out. We think that maybe on our new platform, once that goes live, we’ll be able to replicate that in that you are watching with your peers, and you’re able to interact with them and discover who they are and hopefully get to that sort of serendipitous collision factor that Tony Hsieh from Zappos loves to focus on.

Getting that right is more important than having a continuous stream of content, because we could just as easily say, “well, we’re going to run whatever New York tech meetup is broadcasting,” and make that our content for the month. Unless we have the social aspect, all our members could find that on their own, you know? They don’t need us to curate that, or to produce that for them. Because low quality, unedited and unpolished video conferences and stuff like that are painfully hard to watch for extended periods of time compared to high quality, production-level stuff that’s been edited and polished and has all the onscreen effects and things like that. On top of the fact that you’re competing with other things geographically, you’re also competing with other things on the person’s computer. So, people will shift their attention to their emails that come in or back to their work that they were working on and things like that. So it’s not a one-to-one substitute to what existed before.

Jorge: You talked about the peer-to-peer connections as the icing, but it almost sounds to me like that’s the cake and the content is there to give the community a reason to come together.

Brian: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And you know, the other… I guess you could say it’s sort of the sprinkles were the fact that you could meet the person who came in as the expert before, right? You know, and the 30 seconds of email or business card exchanges with that person or asking them a question specific to your business. You know, like so-and-so grew Wealthfront, so how does his experience relate to my business doing something else — the new Venmo or whatever it is. That’s often more valuable than hearing the person’s biography, or their pre-cooked-up slides or whatever it is. And so, I think that’s a big challenge that’s still yet to be solved though for most of these in-person meetups and stuff like that.

Networks

Jorge: When I reached out to you about being on the show, I mentioned that I believe that we’re heading into a period where community building is going to be very important. I feel like we need to find ways of coming together as a society and we are having to do so online especially now, because of the pandemic, and I’m wondering if you have any advice for folks who might be inspired by our conversation and wanting to bring their local community closer together.

Brian: So, I think there’s a number of layers to this conversation, and it depends on whether it’s a macro-level or a micro-level that you’re focused on and also whether it’s a commercial versus non-commercial. My thesis is that companies that are trying to build brands, all of these D2C companies, the ones that are going to be really successful long-term are the ones that build communities around their products. Because for many products and services, there isn’t much of a moat that defends your business from the next competitor that’s slightly shinier or slightly cheaper or has better manufacturing or whatever the case may be. And so, community is such a great way to build loyalty in your product and your consumers. And that’s also I think important for physical communities too. I think the analog is like you see companies that build strong bonds between their employees end up having higher retention rates, lower churn, and things like that because people feel like the company is connected to them.

In cases of geographic communities like Miami, one of our underlying theses here with Refresh is that the more bonds and the more connections that people can make, the less likely they are to leave physically. And if they do leave physically, they’ll at least maintain connections with the local community. I guess it’s like Metcalfe’s law, right? The more nodes there are in the network, the stronger the network becomes. The more individual connections you can create amongst your customers or amongst your constituents, depending on what type of community it is, you know, the stronger the bond can be. You see this in small ethnic and religious and other communities where the communities are super tight because everybody knows each other, and everybody knows who knows each other and who’s the right person to introduce to if you need something, or to call. And so I think that’s becoming more and more relevant in whether it’s technology communities or design communities or different areas of focus, you know? These tribes, the more tight-knit the tribes can be, the higher likelihood they are to survive, and to thrive.

Closing

Jorge: I’m glad you brought up Metcalfe’s law. I think this sounds like a good place to wrap the conversation, this notion of stronger bonds. Thank you for bringing it up. Where can folks find you, Brian?

Brian: I usually point people to my Twitter, which is Brian Breslin, @BrianBreslin on Twitter. Or you can find my website, brianbreslin.com, which has links to my Twitter and all these other things, and my occasional blog posts whenever I feel like it.

Jorge: Well, thank you very much. I’m going to include the links to both in our show notes.

Brian: Perfect. Jorge, thank you so much for having me.

Jorge: Oh, thank you for being here.

Brian: My pleasure.

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