Networking can be a powerful way of generating new business. Armed with a well-planned strategy, entrepreneurs and business owners, descend on networking events, working the room with clear business goals and high expectations of achieving them.
But one entrepreneur is disrupting networking convention, turning the model of anticipated outcomes on its head, and encouraging people from all walks of business life, to network without any preconceived expectations of doing a deal.
Businessman, author and raconteur Howard Lewis, who is also the director of the Schorr Collection of Old Master paintings, is the founder of OFFLINE, a business and social networking experience, with some unconventional rules, which include strictly no technology – no smartphones – and no emphasis on conducting business. Attendees are asked to only come in the generosity of spirit, and by leaving expectations of business outcomes at the door, often achieve business outcomes they hadn’t been looking for.
The lightbulb moment that sparked the idea happened 15 years ago when Lewis bumped into a former school colleague. “He was a year or two above me and, unlike myself, had been a consummate overachiever; school captain, and scholar par excellence and subsequently developed a very successful career in TV and film, before running a management consultancy,” he recalls.
“We became very good friends and, whenever we met, I would bring him a few articles of whatsoever nature that I believed he would like. I had long been in the habit of dispensing articles to friends and associates, but his feedback was so positive that it encouraged me to invite a bunch of past recipients to dinner to share different articles and see where the conversation took us.”
Based at London’s distinguished Savile Club, OFFLINE initially attracted many high net worth individuals, including high profile entrepreneurs and top company directors, all observing Lewis’s strict rules of attendance.
He says: “Events with anticipated outcomes are prescriptive and limit the possibilities of the unexpected. Curiosity must not be shackled. Moreover, it is enhanced when conducted in great company, a lovely setting, with good food and wine, not too long, not too late, and not too expensive.”
But the events have proved valuable to attendees in serendipitous ways. Bill Cunningham runs Endeavour Ventures, which focuses on relatively early stage investments in specific areas of technology, such as cyber security, payments systems, and fintech.
He says: “It isn’t always easy to match the right investor for the right deal, and it is often only by talking with sophisticated investors, or family office managers that you stumble across someone with similar investment interests. I have met a wealth of interesting people at OFFLINE from all over the world, people who I wouldn’t necessarily encounter in the normal course of our business. A few have become lasting friends, and one in particular has ended up participating in a $10 million-plus funding of one of our larger software businesses.”
Are we looking at a disruptive business networking model, where simply connecting with others without any expectation of an outcome actually delivers some of the most positive outcomes? “Absolutely,” says Lewis. “There is no false premise behind OFFLINE, just an invitation to join 30 or so smart and engaging individuals, of all ages and backgrounds, for dinner. I have welcomed guests from the world of finance, technology, publishing, law, fashion, security, art, journalism, science, hotels, diplomacy and the rest.
“When there is no expectation, multiple outcomes can emerge. If you show a genuine interest in other participants, they will assuredly reciprocate in kind. There is often a pleasure in sharing the pleasure of other people, even if it does not accord with your own.”
This year OFFLINE was opened up to the general public, with every event sold out within a day of seats being released, while Lewis has been approached to take the concept to both New York and Mumbai.
He says: “My personal pleasure is to see the physical interaction of attendees, often from entirely disparate backgrounds. We are social animals by nature and the success of OFFLINE has been an affirmation of my belief that many in the business world overcomplicate possible outcomes in the search for validation and endorsement. The simplest form of communication is also the oldest and talking face to face, rather than online, only reinforces your authenticity.”
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