A grassroots effort is under way to connect business people and economic development officials in the Tri-Counties through a new social network called 805Connect.
The push is a result of several forces coming together around the Tri-Counties as a cohesive economic region. The idea of a network was planted in the mind of Mark Sylvester when he was listening to Brad Feld, a serial investor who helped the Boulder, Colo. startup scene take off, at Santa Barbara City College.
Sylvester, whose company, introNetworks, has provided custom interaction networks for the invitation-only TED conference, Harvard and NASA, among others, saw that there was incredible economic development structure in the Tri-Counties, but that it was limited by jurisdictional silos.
“You have all these various entities that have their hearts in the right place,” Sylvester said. “This is awesome, but there’s no way to have connective tissue.”
Around the same time, State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, had been promoting a jobs and economic development initiative to connect the region’s business leaders. And economic development leaders such as Mike Manchak of the Economic Vitality Corp. of San Luis Obispo had been looking for a technology solution to connect the region.
“Many years ago, we looked at a better way to inventory the companies, jobs, business-to-business commerce and potential collaborations with online resources,” Manchak said. “Nothing was quite good enough. One thing led to another, and I talked to Mark Sylvester.”
What Sylvester proposed was a network that would be open to the public, with agreements with some of the region’s top economic development groups — the EVC in San Luis Obispo, the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Cooperative of Ventura County — to promote the new network.
The result is 805Connect. The goal of the network, Sylvester said, is to help business and community leaders become more aware of the resources that are available in their own county and in their own region before looking elsewhere.
“In San Luis Obispo, there was a person who was spending $2.5 million outside the county that he could spend locally if he could just find the right people,” Sylvester said.
Of course, there are plenty of social networks that businesses already belong to, and some of them have apps or widgets for creating a custom group. But that leaves open the question of data ownership. “People say, let’s just do a LinkedIn group. Who owns the data? LinkedIn,” Sylvester said. “We own the data. Can we use the data to drive local initiatives? If I’m not doing that, then fire me.”
What introNetworks specializes in is what Sylvester calls “the deep profile. What are you really interested in? I’m not talking about chai lattes and walks on the beach.”
Instead, users are asked to answer four main questions about their experience, what they can help with, what they need help with, and their areas of focus. Based on those tags, users are grouped visually with pins nearest the people who might make a good match for an introduction. Unlike Facebook or LinkedIn, which make more money when users spend huge amounts of time on the network generating data for the owners, the point of the site is to get people introduced so they can start helping each other. Sylvester said 805Connect is centered around “relationship economics” and building social capital by offering to help. “People are always asking for stuff — ‘I want to make a withdrawal from my social capital.’ How often are you making a deposit?” Sylvester said.
While Facebook or LinkedIn want their users logged in online constantly, Sylvester said the entire purpose of 805Connect is to get business people in the region interacting in-person as much as possible. Like a lot of businesses in the Tri-Counties, most of Sylvester’s paying clients are outside the region. But he said there’s still huge value in interacting face-to-face, which often leads to pleasant discoveries.
“I love doing business with friends. Most of our business is out of the county. But I love doing business in the county,” Sylvester said. “I didn’t know that Cal Lutheran’s School of Management was so awesome. I’m going to call up three or four people and carpool down.”
After a soft launch, 805Connect has about 80 users and is growing. There are challenges ahead. As MySpace and Friendster found out the hard way, a social network is only as valuable as its members. “The trick is having people invest five minutes so they can discover and be discovered,” Sylvester said.
Manchak said he is hoping that 805Connect will help solve the region’s most persistent problem — recruiting middle-class workers to a region with sky-high housing prices. The job landscape in any one particular city could scare off candidates, but if the new site can show the that the region as a whole has plenty of well-paid positions, it could help overcome the challenge.
“It’s a work in progress. But I think two or three years from today, it’s going to be highly populated and people are going to find jobs more easily,” Manchak said. “The more companies on there, the more it helps attract talent: ‘Look at all these tech companies or biotech companies. Yes, I’ll now move there because there are jobs there.’ That’s the pinnacle for us.”
• For more information, visit 805connect.intronetworks.com.