A love letter to my community #2 💌

Silicon Drinkabout, featuring Vicky Hunter

This is part 2 of the community love letters series, where we showcase human stories from around the world and explore the connection between community and belonging. You can read the first edition here. You can subscribe to the series here.

A love letter to Silicon Drinkabout London, 

My journey to Silicon Drinkabout began in 2011.  I studied drama at University but didn’t want to go into the acting world. I decided to move to London and, after a few interviews, I got a job with Central Working in the Google Campus workspace. At that time Google had bought a building with four floors and essentially gave it to the community, which was fairly fledgling at the time. In London's Old Street the Roundabout scene was very much just being born. Google had a small office on the top where two or three of their staff were permanently based, but it was generally very low touch with Google staff throughout the rest of the building. There was an event space with a rotating accelerator, and they had a Tech Hub.  Tech Hub wasn't a shiny co-working space; it was much more community-focused with raw desk space.  It was less polished and more authentic than the co-working we’ve come to know. I think that often happens; the less shiny you make something, the more the community has to build itself. There was another event space on the ground floor, and in the basement was Central Working, where anybody could just sign up with their name and email address and work from this space for the day. It was a really accessible space.  

This is where I was based for my first job. To this day I’m not really sure what my role was. I was called an Event Manager but I was rarely asked to run an event. I was asked to sell catering for events already happening in the building which was unglamorous but taught me a lot. If I could give myself a job title in retrospect it would have been Community Manager because I was the person with the lanyard. Entrepreneurs, anyone wanting to be an entrepreneur, or people wanting to know more about tech, were flying into London from all over the world.  It was the kind of place that they might come to.  I met a lot of people here, including my future husband, and it was a hugely exciting group, often quite young and in their 20s.  People would come to the space to work on their dreams, projects and laptops. That natural shyness that we have as humans meant that many people there would plugin and sit for hours and potentially not talk to anybody in a room of hundreds of others, who were also working quietly from their laptops. Often nobody was talking to each other so it was my job to go and sit next to people and say, “Hi, shuffle up.” I was always having conversations and introducing people.  My role was to interrupt and be friendly, which at 22 years old was a perfectly good job to have. I was there as a type of Community Manager but that was part of a bigger picture going on in the building that was super magical. 

Google really gifted this building to the community and said - use this space to make - whether that's businesses or to run events or to make connections or build networks and community.

At this time, there was no agenda other than this space being a melting pot of people looking to create tech stuff. It was incredible for me, coming down to the capital city from the north of England. I could have been eaten alive by London but the tech community just picked me up and welcomed me in a really wonderful way.

As a part of Google Campus people would go to Silicon Drinkabout, an every-Friday night event in a different pub run by a bunch of people calling themselves the 3beards. Michael Acton Smith, the co-founder of Calm, started Silicon Drinkabout with a group of friends on a Friday night and then more and more people kept showing up.  As it grew, Michael knew it needed dedicated event managers. At the time, the guys that would become the 3beards had started running something called Digital Sizzle, which was a tech barbecue. They then ultimately absorbed Silicon Drinkabout.

In 2013, I was unexpectedly made redundant from Central Working and Joe from the 3beards approached me and said they were hiring. He told me the salary and it was a step down from a salary that was already a pinch. I was on a starting salary in London and budgeting myself five pounds a day after groceries and rent, and that doesn't get you very far in London. I initially said no despite loving their approach to everything; the business, the community, and really wanting to work for them. It didn’t feel like the right career move but I really wanted to work for them.  Ultimately though, I took the job because the community drew me in and everything they did was so in line with my intrinsic value. Their welcoming approach to everybody, the fun they applied; just because it was networking, it didn't mean it had to be boring or stale, it was always fun.  For example, they’d try and get a big brand to pay for drinks or burgers to cover costs but there was a very Robin Hood approach to it - they would go after big sponsors but they weren't taking big salaries. They were using that money and putting it back into the community. Everything they were given, whether financial or a non-monetary opportunity, they were constantly trying to give it back, and I was in love with that idea. 

There was a type of Venn diagram of communal overlap; between the community they had built, the Google Campus community, and the Old Street community.  That’s the centre of my love letter. 

After four years in London I moved to the Old Street roundabout in Shoreditch to where this was all happening. It was massively intense - never move to a work bubble as there is no separation - but at the time I loved it. I would walk down the street any day of the week, whether a workday or weekend and bump into people.  It was a real village atmosphere and I really loved that feeling.

Silicon Drinkabout was in about six cities when I joined the 3beards. It got to over forty during my time there, and the events were always free and people would buy their own drinks unless we had a sponsor.  Other things were happening under the 3beards umbrella - events which were paid for but these often broke even or we'd run them at a slight loss. There was a constant battle between people and profit, and I’m very honoured to have worked with people that always chose people over profit. I once heard somebody say that every good community has to start a job board ultimately and that's what we did. Unicorn Hunt made enough money for the three of us to work full-time and get paid.

In terms of our core ritual, for Silicon Drinkabout it was the Friday night catch up. That was one thing that we explained to other cities who, for example, wanted to run a Drinkabout on a Tuesday once a month. We would respond and say - that's just a meetup, not a Drinkabout. What makes Drinkabout a Drinkabout is that it's every Friday at the end of the working week. People feel like they can stay for one drink or two or stay longer, but it's every week, so if you miss a couple you aren't suddenly out of the community. You could just drop in because it was always on. It was especially important in a capital city like London where so many people were arriving every day. You could depend on it happening and that made it easy to spread the word. 

In terms of other rituals, we did have a fun newsletter called Stache (taken from moustache because of the 3beards).  We'd have a competition with a hidden link that subscribers loved because you'd have to read the whole thing to find a dodgy link that would take you to the competition page. We’d have caption competitions that were silly but really well engaged.

There was also quite a lot of tech sports going on around this community. There was the drinking and burger-focused element that was Drinkabout, but there was also the tech bikers, which was born out of Google Campus.  Tech bikers involved people cycling from Paris to London over a weekend and I was involved in the welcoming committee of that for three years.  I loved the moment when everyone I knew, from the senior people at Google to a hacker entrepreneur, arriving back in London having cycled from Paris.

Over time though I wanted something new. There was no progression because we were so small, and I felt I was done with London. The London tech scene was changing and I was ready to move on. The 3beards felt that whilst they were not involved with the day-to-day, it was still demanding quite a lot of their emotional attention and energies. So the decision was made to close the 3beards in 2016. 

At the time, Silicon Drinkabout was run by hundreds of volunteer organisers around the world doing it for the love of their local communities.  I continued to look after the organisers’ community.  I wasn't running the London events; we transitioned to having a local team of volunteers so I could be a global Community Manager, providing support for questions and the opening of new chapters. I left London and went travelling with my now-husband to embark on a digital nomad path and continued to play into my love for the Silicon Drinkabout community, staying connected to hosts everywhere via a laptop. We went to Lima and stayed with the Mum of one of the organisers over there.  It was a genuine and welcoming community.

When I think back to Silicon Drinkabout in London and the other chapters - we weren't a membership, you didn't have to pay, you didn't have to sign up, you could literally just turn up and be curious.  There was no barrier to entry other than the confidence to walk through the door. Some people would come to an event or two that wouldn't feel like they were Silicon Drink-abouters, they wouldn't name it as part of their identity but there were a lot of people who felt like they would identify as being a part of Silicon Drinkabout. They wouldn't necessarily know their equivalents on the other side of the world but with just a tweet or an email to the right person, that person often being me, they could connect the dots to another city and meet other entrepreneurs there.  It wasn’t a large community of global members because people identified with their own city.  We tried a Slack group but it wasn’t successful because there wasn’t a lot of shared content across cities.  The real magic with these communities was the locality - actually going into a physical city and space. Attendees didn't need to be connecting online because they knew they would see people regularly on Fridays. There was a limited desire for a London entrepreneur to connect with a Manchester entrepreneur or with a Sao Paolo entrepreneur.  There only became that desire if they were going to travel or suddenly had business interests in that city. So whilst it was a global network, the reality was that people purely wanted to connect locally.

I think that's what makes a difference between a networking event versus a community. In order for something to be a community people need to be meeting the same people repeatedly.

Looking back, the one thing I would say is that I've recognised in myself is that I am a community person, and that wasn't a job 10 years ago, but it was my job. Now it's more recognised. I feel fortunate at the moment, during my maternity leave, to be taking this time to explore community without an agenda.  I'm able to explore community purely out of pure passion and interest. I'm able to ask; what is community today? I don't know if I ended up working in community because I always had that natural inclination to see community in both work and life, or if it's because I ended up in community that I'm now so passionate about it. I don't know which came first.  From my experience, I’ve realised that certain people will always get more from a community because the more you put in the more you get out.

With love, 

Vicky Hunter

Vicky is a community enthusiast who loves connecting people, building communities and creating meaningful experiences, both on and offline. She is part of the team at Tech Nation supporting tech entrepreneurs across the UK and is currently on maternity leave bringing up her baby boy and carving out a few hours each week to explore what community looks like in 2021.