Dave Wilkin of Ten Thousand Coffees on why you should spend 1% of your time proactively building a network and how to build leadership muscle without 30 years of experience
Dave Wilkin is the Founder of Ten Thousand Coffees, the world’s largest peer to peer networking platform used by schools, companies and entrepreneurship organizations to better connect their members. Dave is a serial entrepreneur having previously founded and run his own brand consultancy Redwood Strategic, where he and his team advised countless organizations on how to better connect with Millennials. When not running Ten Thousand Coffees, Dave is a sought after speaker, accomplished board member and passionate skier.
Looking back five years, where did you think you’d be by this point in your career? How did you get here?
Looking back, I didn’t necessarily realize that I was going to be running a tech company by this point in my life, but I definitely knew that I wanted to be solving the problem that Ten Thousand Coffees is solving now. I’ve always been passionate about trying to help others become more successful and I wanted to find a way to help the next generation create greater opportunities for themselves to be successful. That ethos has been at the heart of all of the companies that I’ve started. Since high school, I’ve been thinking about the questions of “How can we help the next generation connect with the leaders of today so that they grow?” and “How can we connect the leaders of today with the leaders of tomorrow?”.
What gave you the big idea to start Ten Thousand Coffees and how did you go about getting started?
I’ve always been someone who has tried to do things to help other people build networks and create connections. I started a non-profit that worked towards accomplishing this mission, I was a spokesperson for the government on the importance of helping millennials build networks and I also started a brand consulting firm that helped organizations think about better ways to appeal to millennials. Ten Thousand Coffees came out of pivoting from my brand consulting firm because I realized that the real problem out there was helping millennials build their networks and connections with today’s leaders. That being said, it’s also important for the leaders of today to connect with the younger generations because if they don’t, they may not have a business when it comes time for the next generation to start purchasing their products or entering the workforce. We are tackling a two-sided problem that provides value to both sides of the issue.
What is the biggest challenge that you face as a business today and why?
We’ve found that most organizations out there offer mentoring and networking opportunities to about 2% of their employee population base. When you think about it however, mentoring and networking is actually needed by 100% of an organization’s population. With our platform, we can help organizations significantly move the needle when it comes to providing networking and mentoring to their people within the span of about a week. Our primary challenge then comes from helping to manage the communication and cultural change that comes about within an organization as a result of them helping their employees begin to build these diverse networks. That is something that a lot of business leaders overlook. Just because there is an intranet and people hypothetically have the ability to go out and meet others if they want to, there are so many ingrained barriers that stop individuals from doing that.
So how do today’s companies break down those kinds of barriers?
It comes down to a company’s leadership providing them with the permission to go out and build those diverse relationships. When we speak with employees (mostly millennials), they often believe that trying to build these kinds of relationships is a career limiting move. The perception is that if one is taking time out of their day to go and build a connection with someone else whose work doesn’t relate to what you are doing, your boss will just think that you are not busy enough, you are distracted or that you are looking for another job. It’s actually easier these days for employees to meet with competitors than it is to meet with people inside of their own company. Leaders need to let their people know that it is a part of their jobs to go out and build diverse relationships.
What were some of the most important business lessons you have had to learn the hard way? How have they enabled your success?
As a tech entrepreneur, you need to define the problem that you are solving and be very focused on the 2-3 ways in which you plan to go about solving it. People who start businesses are naturally big thinkers and when you think big, it’s easy to create big solutions to problems. The problem arises when the cost that is associated with those big solutions are not often thought out When trying to build a business, you need to start with something basic that solves your highest impact problem and then execute on the 1-2 things that you need to do that will drive the most value. If you are solving the right problem in the right way, you will feel the momentum building as you go.
What does leadership look like to you and how does the next generation need to start thinking differently about leadership?
Leadership is a muscle that needs to be worked on every day. It’s about having very clear expectations of your people, building trusted relationships with your team, making the tough decisions for your organization and building a culture for your organization where anyone feels like they can build something. Mentorship is a really important way to learn leadership given that the average age of the people who are starting companies these days has dropped significantly. It used to be that leadership came from 20-30 years of work experience; now one needs to become a leader at a much earlier age.
Leadership has also become much more of a two way street, and goes far beyond what your manager can give you. Now, you need to be a leader in return and give that leadership back to someone else. The younger generation has an amazing opportunity to help create and foster this two-way street of leadership. I continue to be thankful for my mentors and my team who keep me honest on a daily basis so that together we can create something where everyone can feel like they have what they need to succeed.
What would be your one piece of advice for those in the workforce today to get ahead and find work that is fulfilling?
People often don’t start networking until they need to find a job but that is approaching networking and relationship building like an antibiotic and not a vitamin. We believe that every person should be meeting someone very different from them every two-four weeks. If you spend 1% of your time doing this, the ability to build those diverse networks will open up such amazing opportunity whereby you will never need to go looking for a job ever again.
When it comes to finding fulfilling work, 85% of jobs come from people whom you know. Therefore, the more people you know, the more likely you are to find those interesting opportunities. If you spend that 1% of your time going out and building diverse networks through sharing and collaborating, good work finds you. Networking shouldn’t happen just when you need something.