Who’s In Your Club For Your Mutual Improvement?

A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.

One of my former students, Sieva Kozinsky, Co-Founder & CEO of StudySoup recently shared his startup insights with my UC Santa Barbara students.

He offered my students a litany of compelling suggestions. However, the one that stood out to me was the importance of curating their peer groups in advance of graduating and starting an entrepreneurial career. By way of example, he described the Junto Club, a Bay Area group he co-founded, whose goal is the professional and personal advancement of its members. Sieva’s club is based on a similar group created by Benjamin Franklin.

“You’re The Average Of The Five People You Spend The Most Time With” Jim Rohn, Motivational Speaker

Like Sieva, Ben Franklin knew the importance of curating his friendships. He describes his Junto Club in his biography, as follows: “…I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory…”

Sieva’s updated version of the Junto Club is not as formal Mr. Franklin’s, though his goal of mutual enlightenment is identical. Like Franklin, Sieva has cultivated a group of startup founders and tech executives with diverse interests and areas of expertise, ranging from the founder of one of the largest African utility companies, to CEO’s who have sold businesses for over $100M (to learn more about the Bay Area Junto Club tweet Sieva @SievaKozinsky).

Franklin initially formed his mutual advancement club with four of his business friends when he was just 21. It eventually expanded to twelve individuals, including a cobbler, cabinetmaker, clerk and wealthy, retired “gentleman.” The group met in a tavern every Friday, and alcohol liberally lubricated their discussions.

So What? Why Should Entrepreneurs Care?

Stephen Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, has noted the importance of coffee shops during the Age of Enlightenment as hubs of idea germination. His research has shown that most breakthroughs result from the collision of small ideas combining to form big ideas, through a series of conversations among curious, intelligent people. This is in contrast to the myth of the lone inventor who experiences epiphanies while locked away in a lab.

Johnson also points out that innovators who successfully connect the dots between disparate disciplines typically have multiple hobbies, varied interests and a diverse personal network. These factors increase the odds of combining disparate hunches into significant opportunities.

Junto Clubs Are For The Young At Heart

Former President of Santa Barbara City College, and friend, Peter MacDougall is a member of a Junto-like club, comprised of members whose ages range from the late 50’s to the early 80’s. Although most of the members are retired, their former and current occupations include educators, attorneys, a writer and an architect.

They meet monthly, and like Franklin’s group, one of the members is tasked with selecting a topic, performing research, identifying discussion questions and distributing the materials to the group in advance of the meeting. This individual then leads the discussion. Recent topics have included Brexit, North Korea and the Trump presidency.

According to Peter, “The group also serves as a ‘reality testing ground’ for the aging process. The deaths of two of our members, including the group’s founder, have caused us to consider ‘end of life issues’ as part of our overall discussions.”

The combination of personal and professional issues is a key consideration when curating your Junto Club. Serious, formal issues make a solid basis for discussions, but to maximize the degree of mutual improvement, such groups should have an affinity that encourages vulnerability and the discussion of personal, intimate issues as well.

Per Peter, “I also meet weekly with a group of six individuals, a realtor, three psychologists/psychiatrists and two educators. This group tracks the social, emotional dynamics taking place in our lives. I have been involved (with this group) for about 15 years. The group is younger than the folks in my ‘Junto’ monthly gathering and it has provided exceptional support for members adjusting to retirement, changes in family relationships and the challenges produced from everyday life. A terrific group that is valued and a nice compliment to my monthly, issues-oriented gathering.”

My Junto Groups

I am fortunate to have two groups of friends that challenge, entertain and keep me mentally stimulated. I’ve written about my biking mentors several times in the past. This group of two retired elementary school Principals and a senior engineering executive constantly inspires and enlightens me with their life lessons and wisdom, despite their sometimes errant political views (Yes Bob, I’m talking about you…).

I am also honored to be part of a monthly lunch group that includes two retired Fortune 500 CEOs, an entrepreneur who sold one business for nearly $200M and led another to a successful IPO, a multi-platinum record producer, a screenwriter and a former music industry senior executive. Our informal discussions include local and national politics, events of the day, sports, entertainment news and a dose of downright gossip.

Although neither of my groups have a formal agenda like Peter or Mr. Franklin’s gatherings, they do provide me with the good humor, wisdom and camaraderie that is vital to a fulfilling life.

DIY – Create Your Own Club

Make a list of five friends whom you think would fit the bill for a lively Junto Club. Optimize on people who are:

  • Entertaining
  • Congenial
  • Diverse in their experiences
  • Gregarious and confident enough to share their thoughts with conviction
  • Humble enough to know when to be quiet

Get together with no agenda, other than to have fun, trade some provocative ideas and maybe drink a couple adult beverages. Depending on the group’s goals, the agenda might become more formal, driven by pre-determined topics or it may remain a free-flowing exchange of random thoughts. Either way, with a bit of curation, the group will become a collegial network of supportive friends, much in the fashion of Mr. Franklin’s club, with the purpose of pursuing, “mutual improvement.

You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse

 Photo Credit: The Author


John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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