The life of a startup founder can be exhilarating, stressful, and lonely. Learning how to scale your company, and grow as a manager, is difficult. To help navigate these challenges, some founders join networking groups where they can troubleshoot problems and commiserate with coaches, peers, and mentors. And you don’t need to join an accelerator like Y Combinator or raise a boatload of capital to do it, either.
“[A network] makes the uphill climb less treacherous because you know there’s a community of other founders who have your back,” says Laurel Orley, cofounder and CEO of Daily Crunch Snacks.
Research supports this sentiment. A 2019 study analyzing startups in the Czech Republic stressed the importance of founders building and using social networks because such groups provide resources and knowledge they otherwise wouldn’t be able to access.
A founder’s network, whether personal connections or industry leaders, should consist of two types of people, says Tyler Wry, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School:
- Contacts who can make introductions to investors and talent
- Contacts who provide specialized advice like coding for Web3
Joining a founder network can also offset the mental toll of running a startup because they include people who can “help you psychologically get through this and know that you’re not alone,” says Wharton management professor Jacqueline Kirtley.
Several founders told Fortune their professional networking groups helped them make friends in new cities and stave off the isolation of working solo, particularly during COVID lockdowns. “I’ve become part of a network that genuinely wants me to succeed. Those connections have grown into friendships that I suspect will be lifelong,” according to one reader who responded to a request for comment in Fortune’s Term Sheet newsletter.
Despite the benefits, professional networking organizations have some drawbacks. Namely, in a system in which success is so heavily dependent on personal connections, those without the right contacts (or even the right contacts to get in touch with the right contacts) risk missing out on the same opportunities to succeed. “Getting more diversity into the network is really valuable,” Wry says. “Any organization trying to do that is doing important work.”
Here are some of the most popular professional networking organizations for different types of founders and social preferences.
For Classic Tech Startups
Launched in 2011, this invite-only club is one of the best-known founder organizations in Silicon Valley. “The community prevents you from learning the hard way by connecting you with others who have already gone through what you are facing,” says member Terrence Finn, a former chief product officer at Clinical Trial Media, a software company for clinical trials. New members go through an individualized 30-day onboarding process and can access knowledge-sharing programs for industries as varied as agriculture or fashion, as well as VC and member introductions. The group also sponsors visas for qualifying members.
Requirements: Prospective members must meet certain financial thresholds and receive an invitation from a current member to qualify.
Cost: Founders Network has four membership tiers, ranging from $699 annually for startups with revenue or funding of less than $150,000 to a lifetime membership, constituting a single, one-time payment of $10,000.
For an All-Around Network
Founded in 1987, well before the tech boom, the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) is for all business owners, not just traditional startups. Upon joining, members are placed in a six to 10 person forum with other local entrepreneurs in one of its 219 chapters across 61 countries. “The best part is no one in these cohorts has a ‘dog in the hunt’ and can all give objective advice,” says EO member and Evolv Technology cofounder Mike Ellenbogen. Members can also join regional bridge chapters that meet two to four times a year and attend global conferences like its flagship Global Leadership Conference.
Requirements: Members must be the owner or founder of a business with at least $1 million in revenue. VC-backed companies must have at least $2 million of privately raised funding or $5 million of publicly raised funding.
Cost: Fees are steeper than other groups and include $2,470 in global dues, a $3,500 initiation fee for newcomers, and additional dues for local chapters.
For Young Founders
Like EO, Young Entrepreneur Council features entrepreneurs of all ilks. In addition to the standard networking opportunities and social get-togethers, YEC offers two benefits that set it apart from other networking groups. The first is an emphasis on PR outreach with an editorial team that helps members get published on partner sites like Forbes. The second is lifestyle perks like travel discounts at Rosewood luxury hotels, preferred status on United Airlines, and a concierge service for members.
Requirements: The self-described “quality-over-quantity organization” is for founders or owners of a business who are younger than 45 and have $1 million in either revenue or financing.
Cost: Membership fees aren’t released publicly but range from $1,800-$3,000 a year, according to cofounder Scott Gerber.
For Global Connections
Startup Grind has 600 chapters in over 125 countries and claims to be the largest startup community in the world. Individuals can attend any local chapter’s events ranging from panel discussions to pitch battles in locations like Guayaquil, Ecuador, or Bali, Indonesia.
Startup Grind’s flagship event is its Global Conference in Silicon Valley. The 120 startups selected to attend are able to pitch to investors and network with top-performing startup founders. This year’s speakers include 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki and Substack cofounder Hamish McKenzie.
Founders can also apply to join Startup Grind’s mentorship program. If accepted, they’ll receive fundraising opportunities with VC firms like Sequoia Capital and Andreessen Horowitz and discounts from Startup Grind’s partner network, including up to $100,000 in complementary Google Cloud services and six months of Zendesk’s CRM system for free.
Requirements: Applicants must submit an application and disclose revenue, number of employees, and funding. Once accepted, there is an expectation of “somewhat regular activity [and] engagement with the other members,” according to a Startup Grind spokesperson.
Cost: Membership is free. However, there is a $399 fee to attend the Global Conference and a $1,499 fee to participate in the Startup Exhibition showcase.
For Free Networking
Recent Stripe acquisition, Indie Hacker has 38,000 members on its website. Users can join discussion groups based on geography or a given topic—SEO, growth, SaaS deals—and access podcasts about the tech industry and networking in general. Users also have visibility into products others are working on; the most notable is the CRM platform Nextiva, which self-reported $10 million a month in revenue. Indie Hackers also offers live meetups worldwide.
Requirements: There are no requirements to join. Users simply create a profile for the website.
Cost: None. Indie Hacker is free to join.
For the Fintech Crowd
Rex Salisbury, a former a16z partner, founded Cambrian in 2016. Salisbury recently started a $20 million venture fund at Cambrian for pre-seed and seed investments in early-stage fintech startups. Cambrian’s more than 5,000 members have access to a job board for fintech roles and a talent collective connecting startups to talent from companies like Uber and Meta. Its specialty, however, is connecting cofounders. Every six months, Cambrian organizes a formal cofounder-matching process that includes a personality questionnaire, business overview, and in-person networking. Despite the formal matching process, one Fortune reader praised Cambrian’s ability to create “totally random, serendipitous connections.”
Requirements: Members should be employed (or at least interested) in the fintech industry.
Cost: There is no cost to become a Cambrian member.
For a Virtual Option
GrowthMentor is a platform that hosts video calls between members and growth marketing experts for advice on topics like content writing and machine learning. Members can select from a menu of mentors based on expertise, language, or availability. Mentors hail from tech companies like Meta, IBM, and Atlassian. Membership also includes access to virtual workshops, podcasts, and GrowthMentor’s community Slack channel, and ad hoc in-person events hosted in 14 cities globally. Should a member decide to host an event, they’ll receive a $100 stipend from GrowthMentor to do so.
Requirements: Users only need to create an account to join GrowthMentor.
Cost: Membership fees range from $60 to $120 a month, depending on the subscription plan. Some mentors charge an additional fee of up to $200 an hour. However, membership includes unlimited calls with mentors who offer their services for free.
For Non-Technical Founders
No Code Founders (NCF) is an online community for non-technical founders started by serial entrepreneur Joshua Tiernan, who has sold four no-code startups. The platform boasts over 15,200 members and includes access to the more than 500 different no-code tools they’ve developed, such as podcast production programs and accounting software. NCF has free and paid membership tiers. Paying members receive invites to exclusive events, discounts to digital services like Airtable, WordPress, and GrowthMentor, access to interviews with other founders, and an invitation to NCF’s private Slack channel. Non-paying members can still add their products to the platform but can’t access discounts or paywalled content.
Requirements: For the paid tier, users must submit an application and discuss why they want to join NFC.
Costs: Membership is $19 a month.