There could hardly be a more appropriate theme for Workspace, which seeks to build both strong business communities with great ingredients within each of its sites and foster networks across the group and beyond through events and communications.
Judging by the length of time attendees to the Grand Union Studios launch lingered afterwards and the number of business cards exchanged, the mood of the evening lived up to the subject.
An impressive and varied panel was led by Ashraf Kamel, head of LinkedIn UK Marketing Solutions since 2013. Ashraf took the audience through three headline concepts around which LinkedIn members can empower themselves - Identity, Network and Knowledge – with reference to how the platform has shaped his own career.
How the LinkedIn platform shapes careers
Work offers were made to him after his redundancy from HP, he discovered, on the basis that he was one LinkedIn introduction away from all the biggest names in IT in his native Canada. His arrival at the company came thanks to his connection to LinkedIn Canada’s boss, whose career progression he had followed on LinkedIn. And after a contract with a UK government department failed to transpire, a shared love of mountain biking with a recent recruit to 10 Downing Street who was in his network brought him a meeting with the Prime Minister and an agreement to do business.
The two highly-networked panellists from beyond the IT world, Linzi Boyd and Nigel Stowe, outlined their contrasting relationships with social media. Linzi, who built and sold two companies by the time she was 24, established PR firm Surgery Group and is currently a partner of global business consultancy Shirlaws Group. She used LinkedIn as a tool of introduction when working for big clients like Ted Baker or masterminding the opening of the new Debenhams on Oxford Street.
This led to offline engagements, such as sending people an enticing afternoon tea set to their desk, which they would then “start Tweeting about like crazy and doing selfies with, creating a huge amount of conversation”, while Linzi sent them a 15-minute video about the brand.
[The social media landscape shows how] conversations are now created in completely different ways and if you can engage people in that moment ... who's to say who you can and can't go and work with?
Nigel Stowe, former head waiter at The Ivy, who subsequently built up the Ivy Club, relaunched the Arts Club and was in charge of relationship activity at Bulgari Hotel prior to his current role as director of the club at the Hotel Café Royal, was an early social media adopter who dropped it all when he realized he was “more of a people person.”
“I physically still love to meet someone and chat to them,” said Nigel.
Overwhelmed by the amount of requests he found coming in, Nigel’s preferred strategy now is to nurture just a dozen or more key contacts in different industries who can open doors for him and colleagues. But he came back to LinkedIn as an ideal repository for his contacts – and it demonstrated its value when he wanted to put out news that the head chef of El Bulli was coming for a residency at the hotel, leading to unexpected new top-level connections.
LinkedIn connection etiquette
Both Nigel and Linzi use LinkedIn to connect with people they’ve never met. Ashraf only seeks out people he knows personally. He will respond to - but is unlikely to connect - with strangers reaching out to him within his own industry; on the other hand, he says he might well connect with students seeking a mentor. Ashraf stresses these are his own rules, and everyone should work out their own.
Linzi and Nigel shared with Workspace members deceptively simple advice for effective networking. Have a solid objective when entering a room for a networking event, Linzi suggests. Speak to that one person, create the conversation you are intending to, and you walk away with a sense of achievement. “Everything else is a bonus,” Linzi adds.
An equal sense of purpose is needed online. Standing out in a crowded marketplace is about knowing first of all what your brand DNA is: “Once you do that, then you can strategically talk to the right level of people who are right for your brand and your purpose. And you build out the proposition around that”. Ashraf concurs that it’s important your identity online and offline match.
For Nigel, if companies want to get a load of people in the room, it’s partly an issue of the right atmosphere. He muses on events he’s been to “where it’s a bit of warm wine, a vol-au-vent and a bit of cheese and it’s just a bit awkward” – a world away from the fare Workspace had laid on: generous sized burgers, aubergine wraps and cauliflower fritters as canapes and a subtle vodka-and-Moroccan tea cocktail among the bar offerings. But first and foremost, he said, organisers need to answer the simple question of what they are trying to achieve from their gathering: quite often they don’t.
Members clubs themselves have a challenge in establishing what their purpose is. So many have been set up in London in recent years, “people are getting a bit fed up of them… I think you need to change the content of them,” Nigel adds. The Arts Club managed to sign up 50 members a day on its relaunch in 2010 because of the strong identity it set out with the decision to make Gwyneth Paltrow the face of the club. “It’s not about fawning over celebrities: people like to sit in a room with an A-List star, be a bit inquisitive. It becomes very easy to sell”.
The sense of community, trust and connectivity
Nigel’s vision of the ideal club environment chimes closely with the Workspace formula. “The reason I would say join a club, is that you are joining a community - I actually quite like the word community instead of networking”, he says. Unlike some other club managers, he doesn’t see people who use a club as their office day after day as abusing their membership: “I’m in hospitality, they’ve paid to join, they’ll always be welcome”. He emphasizes an old-fashioned sense of trust and connection between clubs and their membership: at the Ivy, “we used to know who the customers were, everything about their company. The food and drink was just one aspect of it”. Linzi asked the audience how many of them were club members. One woman said she was a member of Soho House and that she loved the club, but that she doesn’t use it to network.
How much is LinkedIn like a club, Ashraf was asked. Early on, he said, there were lots of exclusive groups on the site reflecting personal networks, such as one for the CFOs of all the Canadian banks. He referred proudly to a developers’ group he was involved in building that became a forum for developers to network with each other, through which they started to get each other freelance work.
LinkedIn has a balance to strike between open networking platform and commercial imperatives. “Every time we make a decision, we work out is it going to enhance the free members’ experience or take something away from it” Ashraf says, and he admits the outcome sometimes leans towards the latter. But, he points out, the engineering team that develops the free member experience is kept separate to the one developing monetisation products. At the moment that Microsoft has acquired the company, he suggested, LinkedIn’s mission is still “helping professionals become more productive and successful, not making us money”.
The power of social networks for start-ups
Ashraf believes the power of social networks today is that “there’s absolutely no reason why a start-up can’t build a big professional marketplace.
You have access to cloud capabilities that didn’t exist 5-6 years ago. You can have one or two licences; you don’t need a $100,000 infrastructure just to build a couple of tools. You can look to your target audience as a complete corporation, with service desk, with financial, with online booking, with everything you need, and it’s very, very accessible.
Ashraf Kamel, Head of LinkedIn UK Marketing Solutions
It’s a vision that Linzi endorses too. It’s engaged data rather volume data which creates traction online – Linzi gives the example of her book going to number 1 in 24 hours, “not because I’ve got thousands of people in my network, but because everyone on the network has got a huge channel and they really buy into my brand and my purpose. And they can actually go and sell your product… You’re no longer selling to the market - you’re actually attracting the market”.
Food for thought for audience members, about how to harness all the opportunities in Workspace’s powerful in-built networks as well as construct their own personal web.