03.17.2015

For six months in a row, I told myself I’d wake up at 6AM and get out the door to a monthly CreativeMornings event. Instead, I’d hit snooze every time, missing it and then perusing the event photos longingly a few days later.

Last month, I was determined to break the cycle. So, at 8AM on February 13, I filled out my online profile, packed away some business cards, and headed out into the misty Seattle morning.

As soon as I arrived, I knew why this series had captured the hearts and minds of creatives in 106 cities around the world. And I knew why people got up so early to bask in it: someone greeted me warmly at the entrance and ushered me inside. We filled out name tags that asked us what would happen if we woke up after sleeping 100 years. Coffee flowed. Pastries sat neatly in rows. People smiled and went out of their way to say hello. It was a wonderful entry point into the Seattle creative community.

Later that day, I spoke with Sally Rumble, CreativeMornings’ Chief Happiness Officer, on how they’ve scaled their events and scaled the magic that comes with them. I wanted to learn how that magic took place in Seattle, London, Los Angeles, Toronto and beyond each month – for free – while the CreativeMornings internal team worked far away in New York City.

Whether you’re at a startup or established company, you may be asking yourself: how do they manage all of this? Should I add distributed events like this to my marketing strategy? Where do I even begin?

Today, Sally shares with us how the CreativeMornings team has built a global community of volunteers to spread CreativeMornings around the world. She’ll walk you through step-by-step how they’ve grown and how the company continues to scale all this creative love.

As Sally explains: “We have such a force behind us and it’s our job to leverage that.” Here’s how that job is done and how you can take a little bit of that magic and inject it into your community strategy.

Step One: Listen To Your Members

Each month, the CreativeMornings team adds an average of four new chapters and hosts over 10,000 people around the globe. That’s 10,000 people who get out of bed an hour or two earlier than usual to drink coffee (140,557 cups of it to date as of January, to be exact) and talk big ideas with strangers.

Sally is an industrial designer turned community builder, focused on scaling and driving event host happiness. But Sally joined the team when over 40 chapters were already up and running – so how did they get going from day one?

The  truth is that CreativeMornings was not meant to be a business. Tina Roth Eisenberg had grown the CreativeMornings series to four chapters hosted by trusted friends, and she had planned to stop there.

But her own community didn’t want this to be small. People were begging for her to expand it. So she had to stop and listen. One person in particular pushed the idea over the edge: “Craig Shapiro from Collaborative Fund got in her ear and implored her to keep going,” Sally says. “He knew that something so powerful happens when you get a group of like-minded people in the room.”

That call, over and over, to start something big is what moved her to take CreativeMornings to the next level.

If your community members have approached you and asked: how can I help? It’s time for you to stop ignoring them and do something.

Or better yet: give them something to do. Planning events alongside them brings them visibility and makes them feel powerful.

CreativeMornings NYC nametag

Step Two: Be “The Human Form of Fertilizer”

The first thing Tina did when she got the funds to move forward was hire Kevin Huynh, COO of CreativeMornings.

“By the time Kevin arrived, there was an enormous inbox filled with inquiries from other creatives who had either attended or saw Tina posting about CreativeMornings.” They wanted to spread the community far and wide.

Doing so required a delicate balance between an analytical mind to put all the small pieces together while allowing people the freedom to be flexible with their events and ideas.

“Kevin is very systems-oriented. He created an applications and submissions system,” which contributed to the way that the team was able to scale out. “Kevin is the human form of fertilizer.”

When Sally joined the team, there were already 48 chapters in place, which Kevin had nurtured almost single-handedly. He was the fertilizer that got the roots of CreativeMornings to sprout into full-blown community events.

How Do You Become the Fertilizer?

When you’re planning to grow your community events, keep this in mind: You don’t need to be down in the trenches. By doing all the work, you’re robbing your members the opportunity to showcase their strengths and be your partner in growth. You just have to make this as easy as possible for them:

“Kevin recognized that hosts needed a bunch of resources to keep them on track and make them feel like they knew what they were doing.”

Kevin discovered that you must always do these two things to keep the community train moving:

  1. Keep people on track: putting in milestones and doing regular check-ins
  2. Reassure people: let them know they’re doing a great job
Kevin at the Creative Mornings Summit (photo by Bekka Palmer)

Kevin at the Creative Mornings Summit (photo by Bekka Palmer)

Step Three: Putting Together a Handbook

Kevin created the handbook and Sally has “just been adding to it and updating and refreshing it,” she humbly insists.

In terms of the actual look and feel, the handbook is fully integrated in the CreativeMornings site rather than being a Google doc or other cumbersome document. It also happens to look exceptional, which should come as no surprise.

“Beyond that, the harder part was working out what hosts needed at every step.”

The 3 Most Challenging Elements of an Organizer Handbook

  1. Planning 101: How to plan an event

Many of your organizers have never done anything like this before, but some have. Leverage your know-how but make it a little flexible so they can plan for the needs of their local community. Don’t be so prescriptive to start. Do give general guidelines to make organizers feel supported and secure.

CreativeMornings Schedule Handbook

  1. Sponsorship

“Our events rely on local sponsorship, so we share ‘tips and tricks on how to approach sponsorship and venues.’” This is absolutely vital to any distributed event strategy.

Creative Mornings Sponsorship

  1. Social media tips

Social media can be a delicate balancing act for organizers. It’s often last on people’s minds until event day. Give them the tools they need, whether that’s a branded Twitter and Instagram account and hashtag (like CreativeMornings does).

CreativeMornings social media guidelines

You’ll notice that all of this information is in a “grab and go” format that allows hosts to come back to the site when they’re ready to tackle different pieces of the organizing process. It’s not one giant handbook, but rather broken-up pages that mark progress.

Step Four: Establishing an Application Process

The team immediately put in place a clear process for becoming a chapter host, which goes like this:

  1. Express interest (you can apply right on CreativeMornings.com)
  2. Read the FAQ
  3. Apply
  4. Get an application and fill it out via email
  5. Get the handbook and work through it
  6. Launch your first event

It’s important to put these processes in place as well as check in with prospective organizers each and every step of the way. Here, it’s your job to over-communicate your expectations so hosts begin to trust you and deliver an amazing product.

Step Five: Find the Best Organizers

Even if you have a solid handbook and application process, nothing will fall into place without the right organizers. Sally says they rely on instinct much of the time when picking the right folks: “I think what it comes down to is that during the interview process (a Skype interview), a lot of our decisions rely on gut.”

CreativeMornings has identified the core of their work — it’s about heart and service and creating anything in any form. Their organizers must embody that core to the fullest.

There are also red flags that apply to anyone looking to find community leaders. Sally says that if an organizer says anything about “what CreativeMornings will do for their career or agency,” that’s a red flag.

CreativeMornings Host Team

6 Key Signs You’ve Found the Right Organizer:

  1. “Look for how community-focused the answers are. We ask: ‘Why CreativeMornings?’ Nine times out of 10, the answer is, ‘Because there are so many silos in my city, and I’ve been waiting for something to bring everyone together.’ That’s how we know they see the value of connecting on that multidisciplinary level.”
  2. Blue-sky thinking is a good sign. Good organizers “speak about lifting the community’s overall creativity. They say things like, ‘It would revitalize the city.’”
  3. The best organizers “get excited about working with new people and serving a higher purpose.”
  4. “Look for humility.”
  5. “Look for enthusiasm at the idea of running a chapter.”
  6. “Ask: ‘How do you feel about not making money? Not getting paid?’ This is purpose-driven work. A lot of people who run these events are over-achievers. They see a hole in their community and put their hand up to do the extra work.”

Step Six: Continuously Engage Your Organizers

After you have the right organizers, how do you keep them around for the long haul? It really comes down to three key elements: sherpherding, listening, and buddy-ing up.

  1. Shepherd, don’t manage.

“We don’t manage you. We shepherd you,” Sally says, noting with a laugh the biblical reference. “But if they really need help, we act like their therapists as well.”

  1. Listen actively.

One of the things that really sets the CreativeMornings team apart is that “we’re flexible and available,” Sally says.”I try to have as many one on ones with hosts as I can.”

How to Run One-on-Ones with Your Hosts

“I was trying to run three one-on-ones per week,” Sally says. But this was far too ambitious, as these conversations are usually in-depth and extended. “I do about one per week now, and Lisa, our community coordinator, helps with these.”

Regardless of the time required, they’re essential to host success: “It’s really quite magic. It’s a chance to check in and make them feel recognized and not forgotten.”

“I ask what’s working and what’s not working. How can we improve as an organization? Where would you like to see CreativeMornings in five years?”

“It’s really important for me to communicate to organizers and their teams that their input matters as much as mine does.”

3. Create a Buddy System. 

“One of the most helpful things we have introduced is the buddy system. We provide each organizer with a buddy who is a more seasoned organizer. They include both past and current organizers.”

One of the keystones of the Creative Mornings community is that turnover is not a devastating issue, as it can be in many other communities. Why is that?

“We’ve had quite a few but most of the time it’s because of family duties – babies being born, etc. Everyone feels torn when they leave, and they usually recommend a fellow team member to step up to the helm, which makes the transition more seamless.

CreativeMornings BeloHorizante

Step Seven: Deepening Engagement: Throwing an Organizer Summit

After you’ve fostered this many chapters, it’s time to think about scale and growing in the long term. CreativeMornings did this by turning to their organizers and asking them what they wanted to see.

“Our future goals are really set by our community. We had the great fortune to get together for the Creative Mornings Summit — we invited 200 organizers to Brooklyn. We had 90 chapters at the time. I created a brainstorm brief surrounding the future of CreativeMornings.”

“The groups chose two topics [from the group below] and brainstormed on those two only. They were more focused and had divergent thinking and then converged on focused ideas.That collective spirit to generate so many ideas is really powerful stuff.”CM Summit Brainstorming IDEO

  1. Connection
  2. Impact
  3. Sustainability
  4. Revenue
  5. Access
  6. Growth
  7. Content
  8. Sponsorship

“With the help of Fred Dust of IDEO, we hosted a three-hour brainstorm with 20 groups of people. Now we have a deck of ideas to turn to when we want to think about how to grow the business.”

“Because these ideas are coming from our community, we know that we’re on track. If we implement them, we validate their work. That breeds even more trust.”

CreativeMornings Summit

Step Eight: Bringing It Back Online

Once you have all the offline pieces in place, it’s time to bring things full circle and connect your organizers online.

“We have an amazing design and developer team who help us build the Creative Mornings community platform.”

“We work with Oak Studios (OAK.is) — they’re the force behind Dropmark and Site Leaf. They are responsible for our website and the handbook is built into the backend of that.”

“The original website was just a WordPress with links to Flickr and Eventbrite so we’ve come a long way.” Even still, they’ve got lofty goals for community growth and shaping the future potential of creatives around the globe.

Takeaways from CreativeMornings

  1. If people are coming to you, asking how they can help you grow, that’s a good sign that you’re ready for offline community. And for the love of all things community, give those people a way to get involved.
  2. Before anything else, you must develop a process and give your organizers tools. These will change in time, but you need to have them in place to get started.
  3. Be unbelievably available to your first organizers. That will really set you apart.
  4. Make your handbook readable and beautiful if you can, but also pair it with a buddy system. Even if that buddy is someone internal on the team at first, you’ll ensure that organizers have someone to turn to whenever they feel lost.
  5. Tie your offline strategy back into what you’re building online. Give people a way to greet others before and after events and connect more widely.
  6. People need a lot of hand-holding if they’re going to run events with your brand. You need to be there to guide them. Keep showing up.

CreativeMornings After Party

What is the Future of the Creative Mornings Distributed Event Community?

As far as the online community goes, the team is planning some huge changes in the coming year. For instance, “we have a much grander idea of what the profile can be. The online community should be a place to share and collaborate as well” as go to curate quotes and videos you love.

“We’re moving more towards being the creative guild for the world — we strongly believe that we’re creating a space for people to start to live a creative life. That can come in all sizes and flavors of awesome. We’re toying with the idea of playing with what a creative means.”

And it all starts with a global, distributed community that shares the CreativeMornings message around the world.

Main Image Credit: Ace Boothby

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Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones | @caremjo

Carrie is the COO and Founding Partner of CMX. She has built community at Chegg and Scribd and has consulted with community companies around the world. She lives in Seattle, WA with her pup, Bruce Wayne.