BoS digest: an idea for large-scale, real-life networking

How do you take a group of 400 and introduce each person to a handful of relevant people? And get them to know each other, to discuss a mutual topic of interest, and form a bond that will last more than the hour they spend in each other's company?

That's the problem I'm facing with Business of Software 2009. I've tried a couple of things in previous years. In 2007, we had a handful of break out sessions. That didn't really work: there were too few sessions so each session had too many people and by the time introductions were done we'd run out of time. In 2008, we had table sessions. People signed up in advance to one of a series of topics and then sat at pre-allocated tables of 10, each with a moderator. This worked for some people, but failed for others, depending on the topic, the people at the table and the skill of the moderator.

Inspired in part by Open Space Technology, I'm contemplating moving away from a structured session in favour of a marketplace metaphor. Maybe I'd let people loose over the venue and tell them to self organise for an hour. I'd encourage them to set up topics in advance through the Business of Social network site, use Twitter to communicate locations and organise impromptu groups, and provide helium balloons,  large pieces of card and marker pens for anybody passionate enough about a topic to broadcast their interest. It could be an interesting experiment.

All of which leads me on to this week's question of the week: have you ever been to a remarkable networking session at a conference? The best answer will get $20 of Amazon vouchers. Post here.

Networking in smaller groups is much easier: food and alcohol normally do the trick. Over several centuries, the ancient Greeks perfected it to an art form. They gathered in private symposia, one or two to a couch, and the symposiarch watered down the wine to an appropriate level (usually three parts water to one part wine) and made sure that everybody got the correct level of alcohol calibrated to his (and it was always his) personal level of tolerance and reaction to alcohol. They then discussed poetry and philosophy, with the symposiarch guiding and regulating the talk. I can't promise anything like that, and there's certainly no requirement to drink, at next week's London BoS dinner. But it should be a good chance to talk about the business of software with like-minded people. It's open to all, and you can sign up at

The two previous QOTWs (What are your predictions for 2009?  and Who would you like to hear speak at Business of Software 2009?) have been won by Dave Collins and John Hsu.

Paul Graham has tentatively agreed to speak at BoS 2009. He joins the current line-up of Joel Spolsky, Don Norman and Geoffrey Moore. If you want to keep up to date as I announce new speakers then follow me on twitter.

On the forums, Sam Ng asks how do you price SaaS, Scott Cote would like to know how product managers fit into the sales process and Mark Dalgarno asks about rental models vs perpetual licences for software. Answer these questions, and more, on the forums.

How important is integrity in business? Read Phil Factor's opinion in his A chilling prophesy blog post, and I have a guest post on interruption marketing (is it really dead?) on Avangate's blog.

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2 responses to “BoS digest: an idea for large-scale, real-life networking”

  1. Hi, Joel. Charlie from ChiliSoft here…
    The way I’m going to do it in seminars this year has worked well in a few conferences held by It’s almost a Blink-type exercise, but people get a lot out of it and it sparks their creativity while creating lasting connections.
    -let people know the exercize is going to take a full hour and a half of important work, interaction, networking. You have to guide them through it and keep the on schedule
    -Form manageable groups–say 5 or 6 each. That’s 80 groups of five, which might sound hard to do but they can pull it off.
    -first 15 minutes, have each give 3 minutes on what each does and why. More than 3 minutes is too much information. If you have more in the group, it tends to go too long for people’s attention
    -second 15 minutes, have each talk about a problem or issue they face. Ask for complete honesty, with the rule that what is said at the conference stays at the conference, so people open up more. This is a listening session–no interaction, no solutions should be given
    -third fiften minutes, have each talk about solutions they came up with for someone else in the group. The ideas flow. It’s amazing how well people can see other people’s problems but have difficulty with their own.
    –then ask the groups to choose a story to share with the larger group, which is huge so you’ll have to limit it somehow. Sharing every story or issue isn’t helpful anyway. What’s helpful is how it catalyzes good ideas for your business –from people who know very little about you or your business.
    This way the topics are organic–they come from the groups up. The groups start to get unmanageable at 8 people, btw. Dunno…

  2. Have a table for each attendee with space for an A1 poster
    ( flip-chart size ) at each table.
    If space is a problem, put people into groups of 8-10 with a small amount of
    table-top space close to a flip-chart or white-board
    – maybe cluster them in U-shape groups around the white-board