by Kate Vandeveld

Business is changing. These days, an increasing number of people are choosing to forego the traditional 9-to-5 life in favor of forging their own paths to happiness and success. As we’ve mentioned before, freelancers are even forecasted to outpace full-time employees by 2020.

But it’s not always easy to get there, and it can be challenging to find ways to connect with people in meaningful ways outside of a structured work environment. Luckily, people like Levi Baer of Coffee & Conversation are working hard to change that. If you’re an entrepreneur, a “side hustler” (as Levi likes to call them), or just someone who wants to collaborate with others, he wants to help you connect.

Here’s what he has to say:

Tell us a bit about Coffee & Conversation, and why you started it. 

Coffee & Conversation, or C&C as we like to call it, is a Chicago-based community of entrepreneurs and innovators who value collaboration and face-to-face communication. We meet every other Saturday morning to get together, and share ideas, resources and support. C&C started because, as I was starting my own company, and my own entrepreneurial ventures, I realized how hard it was. There’s so much information out there, and I really value in-person information and personal referrals – I’d rather ask a friend than ask Yelp. So I started to pull together people who were interested in getting work done outside of the normal work hours. I just invited some friends to show up on a Saturday morning and get work done. The first time, six people showed up. We just talked and worked, and it was really good. It was just a Facebook post!

People are always “busy,” so the people who showed up on Saturday morning to get work done were people who had 9-to-5 jobs and were looking for support to continue to work beyond that. It was the side hustlers, the entrepreneurs – that crowd. I didn’t really intend for it to be an entrepreneur community, but that’s who showed up. So every couple weeks, we kept doing it, and different numbers of people would come. That number has ranged from 6 to 26 participants, with a total of over 70 people in the group.

Coffee & Conversation with Levi Baer -- via WhyWhisper

Sounds like a great way to get started! At WhyWhisper, we place a lot of emphasis on redefining business to be more people-focused. It sounds like Coffee & Conversation shares this commitment. How does this come to life for you?

Everything we do is built around face-to-face communication. We hold our meetings in person, and I always try to encourage people to come and just hang out. We do have a private Facebook group where the members of C&C get to continue their conversations and share ideas and resources online. So one of the ways we encourage face-to-face communication is by only letting people who have gone to at least one in-person meet-up join the group. It’s one of the only rules – you have to show up at least once to join the conversation online. 

This creates a community, and almost a family. Because you see these people regularly, and even if you don’t hang out in a traditional sense (though many of us do), when we come to C&C we have an easy rapport with one another and we know what’s going on in each other’s lives. It creates trust, which is necessary for us to take each other’s advice. After we’ve had coffee and donuts a number of times, we can trust each other’s opinions and advice more than we would a random person.

What does it take to join and how can people find out about it?

We’re working on what membership means, but at this point, I call anyone that comes to C&C regularly a member. To join, all you have to do is show up one time and express your intention. I try to get face time with everyone, have them join the Facebook group, and find out what their plans are.

Right now, we’ve been growing through word of mouth. It’s kind of like the first rule of C&C is “talk about C&C” – the opposite of Fight Club. Also, no fighting. Unless people want to fight – you know, I want to provide everyone with what they need. ;)

All of the services you offer are based around bringing people together and making meaningful connections. How did you hone in on this as your area of expertise?

I have always had a fascination with how and why people talk to each other the way they do – communication in general. I have a Bachelors in Communications Studies and a Masters in Organizational Communication.  So I’ve followed communication formally and informally, as well as in work and all sorts of scenarios. And I’m also an extrovert – I love talking about ideas and the exchange of information, both verbally and written. When I was twelve I had pen pals – that’s how far back this goes.

So for me, trying to build both a career and social outlets around that – conveying information to people and facilitating interactions – that has grown into facilitating teamwork and intentional communities.

Coffee & Conversation with Levi Baer -- via WhyWhisper

You also facilitate Game Night Chicago, a group that comes together to play board games and connect in a more light-hearted way. How did that start and how does it connect to Coffee & Conversation?

Game Night Chicago happens every other Wednesday. It’s sort of just like C&C, but for board games. We have a face-to-face group that plays board games in person, and we have an online group. The online group just passed 300 people. There’s no promotion of it whatsoever – people just love board games. The Midwest is a big hub for board gaming, and Chicago is big for it just because of its size.

It really started because I had an email list going of people that I would reach out to in order to get together and play games. I was curating this email list – adding people and dropping people off – and I was doing it for eight years. I did it in every city I lived in, and it was a great way to find friends and community. So when Facebook rolled out its group function, I saw it as a great tool for organizing these game nights. 

For me, Game Night Chicago also acts as a way to ensure that I have scheduled time for fun in my life.  Starting your own business is a lot of work, and having a set time to play games seems silly, but it gives me built-in time to relax, connect with friends, and sort of release. And it’s just a way for people who share a common interest to come together and build a community around that common interest – sort of like C&C.

How do you see C&C evolving over the next few years?

Truthfully, I have no idea what’ll happen in the coming years. I’ve never actually had a distinct plan for it – I’m not a big planner. I’m just letting it grow organically, which is maybe why it’s grown as much as it has. It hasn’t been forced to be anything. I try to respond to the needs and the requests of the community. As its leader, I try not to make decisions that I think are best; instead, I try to make decisions that are based on the general consensus of the group. It might stay small, and it might grow.  At the rate it’s been growing, it looks like the latter might be the case. No matter what happens, my focus is maintaining the quality, in-person interactions and engagement that we’ve always had. So even if 400 people show up, my goal is to make sure that each of them walks away with good, meaningful moments. It’s challenging and exciting.

Functionally, C&C has a lot of potential as well. We can start to provide tangible resources, like events and information to the community, even outside of the group. We don’t want to keep anything internal – the whole point is sharing information and collaborating with the community in general. We might be able to host classes or do specific events on branding or business plans – things that would help people who are side hustling. We might even do something that goes through the “how to quit your job” experience. That’s something that a lot of C&C members have expressed interest in, and a lot of people relate to.

How is C&C different from traditional networking events that lots of people sort of dread?

First of all, we never call it a networking event. We don’t think of it like that. You sort of do informal networking, but we don’t treat it as such. Two, we’re cross discipline. There are no boundaries on who can come. Which is really interesting, because usually you go to a tech networking event, or a photography networking event. We have non-profits, for-profits, lawyers, gardeners, fashion people – those are just some of the industries that are represented at C&C. The only people who aren’t welcome are those who make other people feel unwelcome. And that’s it.

Finally, it’s really unstructured. It’s from 10 until 1, but you can come whenever you want. And it’s just about getting whatever you want to get from it. Some people bring their laptops and do work, others just come to hang out. The only structured moment is at noon, when we go around the room and do a check-in where people say who they are and what they’re working on. Some people roll their eyes at having to check in, but you’ll see immediately afterward that people beeline toward each other once they know who everyone is and what they do.

What's your best piece of advice for someone who is looking to build a professional community in a new industry or place?

Go out and get involved in something – just show your face. Whether it’s something like C&C, which is really informal – or any number of other types of groups where others don’t know people.

Here in Chicago, Mac & Cheese Productions, is an amazing way to get to know other people who are cool and interested in connecting with others. Freelancers Union is a national organization that is starting to host monthly events that focus on industry topics. Creative Mornings is a great way for people to start their day around other creative people working on a project. And then of course, you could focus in on your industry and do a meet-up. Co-working spaces go a step beyond what a coffee shop can provide – there’s much more facilitated interaction.

Also, though I personally prefer in-person interactions, you can find some online spaces that might help you. Everyone networks differently. I do a lot of work on personality types and know a lot about introverts and extroverts and they should both be respected and utilized. I had a business partner who was an introvert and she was great at utilizing LinkedIn to build connections for us. Twitter chats are great for that as well. You can get your name and ideas out there just by chiming in on a common hashtag. And then of course, there are Facebook groups and all sorts of other intentional communities online.

You asked me this once, and now the tables are turned: what's your secret skill that someone who knows you might not know?

My secret skill comes from my upbringing on a farm in Minnesota: I have a lot of outdoorsy, woodsman skills that don’t get used a lot in Chicago. I’m very good at splitting wood and building fires. It’s something I still do to this day when I go home – we still split wood.

Levi recently re-launched his own consulting brand, focusing on team building, training and facilitation, personality analysis, community building, youth workshops, and even games. Check him out here, and stay on top of his latest and greatest ideas and initiatives on his blog.

If you’re in Chicago, you can connect with him at Coffee & Conversation, Game Night Chicago, or Workshop Chicago, among other places. You can find him on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn as well. We’re guessing he’s down to chat. ;)

Do you know someone who is changing the game in some way and you think we should tell their story? We’d love to connect. Send us an email, reach out on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn, or just post a comment below.