“Oh, this is why people write books. This is actually quite addictive, this feeling that you’ve produced something and it is having an impact.”
Katie Lewis and Matthew Stafford are the co-founders of 9others, a unique community that brings together founders and entrepreneurs to find answers to the questions that are keeping them up at night. These conversations have brought some unexpected benefits too, such as the connections and friendships that have emerged from these shared dinners.
In this week’s conversation, Katie and Matthew reflect on how their collaborative approach to entrepreneurship and the synergy that has fuelled their business journey as cofounders played out when they became coauthors of their book – Find Your 9others.
9others website: https://9others.com/
Matthew on Twitter/X: https://twitter.com/mstafford
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Alison Jones: I’m here this morning with Katie Lewis and Matthew Stafford. Katie has supported thousands of companies to raise investment in the UK and abroad. She’s COO at High Growth ScaleUp. And what gets her up in the morning is the opportunity to bring people together in a supportive and trusting environment.
Matthew is a connector, investor and trusted counsel to entrepreneurs around the world. And together they are the co founders of 9Others. And they’ve personally hosted hundreds of meals with 9Others.
Following their leadership, hosts around the world have also held meals with 9Others in places as diverse as San Francisco and Yemen, Singapore and Karachi, Sydney and Santiago.
So welcome, Matthew and Katie. I should also say you are authors of the book, Find Your 9Others, which I have right here, look.
Matthew Stafford: Fantastic, morning Alison. Yes, good to see you.
Alison Jones: Good to see you both as well. And let’s just, well, obviously welcome. Congratulations on the publication of the book. Tell us a little bit about 9Others. What’s it all about?
Matthew Stafford: Yes, I’d love to. So 9Others, it’s really, really simple and Katie and I started this back in 2011 and we’d been working with a lot of entrepreneurs. We were working for investment companies and 9Others is simply a dinner for 10 people. So it’s yourself and nine others. And we come together each month and Katie and I host it in London.
And the format of 9Others really is to try and help solve some business problems. So each person shares what’s keeping them up at night, what their biggest challenge is. So that’s the question we ask, what’s keeping you up at night? And then we spent some time trying to help that person take a step forward.
Alison Jones: And I know that this started slightly accidentally. I love the story. Just tell us where it came from, because it wasn’t your original plan, was it?
Matthew Stafford: It wasn’t, so Katie and I had been working together on a project, on an investment readiness project, to help entrepreneurs get investment. And we’d run a series of dinners with investors and entrepreneurs. And they were hugely successful. It was fantastic.
The entrepreneurs would pitch for a couple of minutes. The investors would ask some questions and we’d have discussions about their businesses and then move on to the next person and go around the table like that. And they were tremendous. People loved them and all of them led to follow up meetings. And some of those led on to the investors investing in those startups that we brought together as part of this investment readiness program. But then what happened and what we noticed was that towards the end of all of those dinners, the entrepreneurs would kind of huddle together in a corner for the last 20 -30 minutes. And it used to really annoy us and Katie in particular, would really get annoyed.
It’d be like, we brought these people together to talk to the investors and they just weren’t doing it. And it was really, really frustrating, but then it happened, you know, we did a bunch of these and it happened often enough with different combinations of people, that we tried to figure out what was going on.
And we realized that these entrepreneurs were talking to their peers, to other people who weren’t in their business, but kind of understood what they were going through. And they were talking about that everyday business of business problems and that set a light bulb off above our heads.
Alison Jones: Go on, Katie, what is it that you love most about those dinners?
Katie Lewis: I love the opportunity where we can bring these people together. And through some very simple approaches, we’re able to build trust very quickly around the table. So as Matthew said, we’ve been able to recognize people when they’re at a similar stage. They’re often going through so many different challenges and decision making processes in any one day.
To have the opportunity to come together and share those with other people who’ve perhaps been through it before them or can provide that outside perspective to the challenges that they’re facing is just so incredibly valuable. I think it can be an incredibly lonely place to be a founder of a business.
Maybe you’ve got a co founder that you can confide in, but sometimes your challenges might be because of your co founder. So 9Others sort of provides that space where people can come together, learn from each other, and be vulnerable and be open. And I think there are a few things that we’ve set out in terms of our kind of what we call the golden rules of how we run a 9Others meal, that enable this kind of trusted environment to really kind of flourish.
And now we’re at the situation where we’ve been running 9Others meals for over 11 and a half years and around the world as you mentioned in the introduction. And now people recommend other good people to come along to the meals. So because they’ve already heard about the 9Others concept, they’ve perhaps met Matthew or myself out and about in the startup investment world, or they’ve heard about the meals from other good people who’ve been and been able to take benefit and engage with the process of contributing, to then have their own challenges addressed, then they’re automatically sort of at that kind of starting point.
So one of the things we’ve found recently is that now the community fulfills itself. So a lot of the people who come along to the 9Others meals have heard about 9Others from other people who’ve attended before. And they’re there knowing from their own connections, what kind of value that they can be gaining by participating.
And I think that’s just one other sort of quite unique thing about the 9Others approach and how we go about building trust, is that the expectation on everyone attending is that they need to contribute of their own experiences, their own learnings, their own insights and thoughts and challenges to the other group in order to receive value themselves.
Alison Jones: Yes, and that was right from the beginning, wasn’t it? It’s peer to peer, as much as anything, and about the values in that. You mentioned golden rules then, and I’m not going to ask you to reveal the secret sauce, obviously. And, give us a flavour of one or two of your golden rules, because that’s really interesting.
Katie Lewis: Yes, sure. So you touched on one just then, Alison, the peer to peer. You know, one of our golden rules is that at 9Others, there’s no hierarchy. Everyone around the table, irrespective of how long you’ve been involved in building your business or as a founder, is there as an equal. An equal contributor to provide value back to the other people at the dinner table. So that’s one we like to work with.
Another is that we do host the 9Others activities over dinner. And the dinner is always sharing food and sort of a sharing style. That way we find that people aren’t then head down looking at their plate just focused on the meal that’s in front of them.
Instead, they’ve got to be considerate of the other people around the table, sharing plates, passing things around, making sure that everyone is able to partake in the delicious foods that we have on offer. And I think those sorts of things are really important, you know, that provides, again, this links back to the environment that we’ve developed to build the trust when people walk in the room, so that they’re able to take advantage and make the most of the opportunity of being at the dinner.
Alison Jones: And Matthew, I guess… Similar question to you. What personally do you take from those dinners?
Matthew Stafford: I think Katie and I have probably learned the most, right? So we’ve been at every one and the non hierarchy thing is probably one of the most important rules and that goes for us as well. So we are always open to help, to share the challenges that we’ve got and receive all sorts of feedback.
But yes, certainly attending them, we’ve probably learnt the most. And I just love hanging out with entrepreneurs. You know, at worst, we get to go to a dinner with nine other amazing people. And, these are some of the smartest, most interesting people you can find. And I just love that about 9others.
Each dinner is obviously a unique combination of different people, even though sometimes people come back. Sometimes people come to a few in a row. Sometimes we see people and then we don’t see them for sometimes years and then they come back because they’re coming up against more challenges.
And I love that. And I just love the unique combination of the challenges that people are facing at the time and the kind of feedback and advice and thinking that they get to hear.
Alison Jones: It’s lovely, isn’t it? Because you’re kind of co creating the moment. You have no idea what’s going to come up when you get there. And it’s like that, was it Heraclitus said, ‘you can’t step in the same river twice’. It’s like that, isn’t it?
Matthew Stafford: Yes, and I think that was the thing, like at the beginning we, you know, in business you’re kind of always trying to predict what will happen and particularly I look at businesses and we want to know the strategy and the finances and everything on a spreadsheet and a plan. But I think with 9Others, it’s so impossible to predict what’s going to happen.
But we just knew instinctively from the start that if we kept doing this, if we kept inviting people that want to come along and contribute and help other people, then sometimes soon something good would come from it.
Alison Jones: It’s a great attitude, isn’t it?
Why the book then? Because 9Others, you know, we’ve talked about the experiential nature of that, the fact that you’re in the moment with these really specific people at this specific time and place doing this specific activity. And a book is sort of the opposite of all that, isn’t it?
It’s something that’s fixed and it goes out and you haven’t got that one to one, face to face connection with the reader.
Matthew Stafford: I think there was a couple of things. I mean, so once we’d hit 10 years of doing 9Others, we thought, come on, you know, we’ve enjoyed it. We’ve had some amazing conversations. Each dinner is, you know, it’s Chatham House Rules, so it’s confidential around the table.
But there are some incredible stories and some incredible insights that we wanted to get out. So we wanted to tell our story and why we’d done it and the useful things that we’d learned, plus some of the stories from the dinner table. And I think after 10 years, it was just a great milestone, a great chance to kind of check in and say this is what we’ve done so far. This is where we’ve got to. These are the things we’ve learned from some of these amazing people around the table.
And some of them, you know, we tell stories in the book in a section called From the Dinner Table. So in each chapter, there is a few anecdotes from people who’ve been to 9Others over the years.
And some people, readers might have heard of but most of them, probably not, but they are the important people to share those stories because they’re kind of right in amongst it right now, so it’s not a reflective thing looking back through rose tinted glasses. So I think all those kind of things were important, and, we have run dinners around the world, and thousands of people have been to them, but we wanted, through the book, to bring some of those insights and stories to people who maybe haven’t had the chance to attend, or maybe it’s not in their city right now, but we kind of wanted to bring some of the stories and try and be helpful to a wider audience.
Alison Jones: Yes, so the reach and scale of the book, isn’t it? And I guess I’m going to ask you this, Katie: did the process of writing the book surprise you at all? What did you notice?
Katie Lewis: So I think the thing that surprised me most was the amount of time it took to write it.
Alison Jones: I’m less surprised probably.
Katie Lewis: I don’t know, you’re really surprised. I think Matthew and I sat down in January last year, so January 22. And we were like, right, okay, let’s spend the next six months, working our way through this, brainstorming and that together on what we were wanting to share. And, then we can have something for self publish.
And I think it was perhaps a real compliment that when we first started then sharing thoughts and the sort of draft with the good people from the 9Others Network that we were then encouraged to actually take it a step further and reach out to yourself, Alison, and the team to see about how we could actually move that from a sort of a self published concept, where Matthew and I would have been happy enough with it, to actually something that is, as you see, the finished product today. A lot more polished with a very, structured sort of review process having taken place.
And I think actually I’m so incredibly pleased that we did take that step forward because perhaps we might have been a wee bit disappointed or wanting to revisit and it might have even taken longer had we gone through the first stage and then taken a bit of a break.
So that was the thing that surprised me, that surprised me most was the amount of time it took.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s really interesting. And of course, with the self publishing thing, you wouldn’t have that joy. I was just looking at the video that you’d posted on, was it LinkedIn the other day, Matthew, of just trotting up the stairs at Foyles and there’s your book on the bookshelf. And that’s something nice, isn’t it?
Matthew Stafford: It was great. It was really, really good to see. Yes, I’ve seen it in two bookshops now and it’s just such a delight. I think I was nearly more excited or more… I don’t know, it’s difficult because they were both amazing highlights. But, you know, when we first got the box of books… And Katie and I opened them and started signing some copies because we did a launch party.
I mean, that was an amazing moment, but actually walking into Foyles and there’s dozens of other people around and I can walk up to the shelf and there’s dozens of strangers wandering around and they’re wandering in front of my book and it’s on a real bookshelf in a real bookstore. It was quite a moment.
Katie Lewis: Yes.
Alison Jones: I love that you did that author thing of turning it face out.
Matthew Stafford: Of course.
Katie Lewis: I think also if I could just add one other, I suppose surprising and delightful moment is Matthew and I were talking as we built up to the launch of the book and as then we started sharing it with some of the pre-read people. The feedback has just been amazing and I think, obviously that’s lovely from our community and I think hopefully the next phase of that feedback will come from people that we don’t know and for them to be able to take benefit from what they’ve read about our insights.
But I think that feeling of having spent the time producing something, and then seeing other people take their own insights and knowledge from that, is just quite incredible and the messages of the support that we’ve received have just been so heartwarming. I said to Matthew, I was like, oh, this is why people write books.
This is kind of quite, actually quite addictive, this feeling of the fact that you’ve produced something and it is having an impact and people are reading and reviewing and taking something positive away and actionable, I think it was really important to us.
Alison Jones: Yes, it is super practical, isn’t it? How does working together as authors differ from working together as co hosts and co founders?
Katie Lewis: Not sure that it does, does it?
Matthew Stafford: No, I was going to think it’s quite the same. I mean, I’ve been so delighted, obviously, it’s great to have a co founder doing the business, doing 9Others, I couldn’t have done it alone. And similarly with the book, you know, I think you were saying about one of the most surprising things about writing it, I don’t know if it’s a surprising thing, but it was just so great to write it with Katie because we, you know, we did sit on calls for most weekends, most of last year. And I think if I’d been left to do that on my own, it would have taken a lot longer and it wouldn’t have been as good.
But when you’ve got a call scheduled for 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning for a couple of hours to talk about the book and to get some sentences and paragraphs out there and get some stories out your head and on the page, I knew that Katie would be there at five to eight, so I’d better be there as well.
And I think that’s the same as doing the dinners, the same as hosting the dinners. You know, we’ve been doing this for nearly 12 years and it’s wonderful and we love it. But like any business, there are ups and downs. But it always makes me want to show up because I’ve got a co founder to show up for.
And it’s the same with writing.
Katie Lewis: I think a lot easier than perhaps some people might face with doing it by themselves. Because likewise, obviously the feeling is very mutual from myself to Matthew, as well as a co founder and I think, that time together was just actually also so much fun. We were able to relive these moments and revisit some of the different stories and the people and the journeys.
Just, you know, there was a lot of moments where we were like, Oh, wow, yes, that’s right, that’s awesome, that came from that dinner. And this happened as a result of this introduction and, you know, it was fantastic.
Fantastic use of time.
Alison Jones: Every time I talk to co authors who’ve had a really great time together, and most of the ones I talk to have, or at least they say they have, I always get envious. One day I will find someone to write a book with, but I haven’t done it yet. I’m too much of a control freak.
I always ask my guests for their best tip.
So maybe your best tip is find your Katie, find your Matthew. But what, I’m going to ask you both in turn, Matthew, I’ll start with you, if somebody’s just about to start on this journey, what one tip would you give them?
Matthew Stafford: I think take a long term view over it. You know, I think, like Katie was saying earlier on, it does take longer than you think. But I think if you, at the beginning, if you do extend that timeline… to say, okay, I’m not going to knock this out in two months. Actually, it might take all of a year. Then you can achieve a heck of a lot. And just keep chipping away. You just do a little bit every weekend, or a little bit every day, or a little bit, you know, whenever you can have that kind of regularity to it.
And I think that’s what served us really well was we had these calls at the weekend, and it was a couple of hours on a Saturday morning, typically, or Sunday morning. And it was good because I didn’t have to stress out or feel guilty that I wasn’t doing things on the book during the week. Because I knew, okay, this call is coming on a Saturday, and I’ll be up, and we’ll spend a couple of hours, and we’ll get it out of our heads and onto the paper.
So yes, take a longer term view, it is going to take a while but if you have that regularity to it, you can achieve such an awful lot.
Alison Jones: Reminds me of that phrase about how we always overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in a year.
Matthew Stafford: 100%, yes.
Alison Jones: Katie, what about you?
Katie Lewis: Yes, no, I think I would echo what Matthew’s mentioned about setting blocks of time and then really holding yourself accountable to turning up, whether that’s because you’ve got a co founder turning up with you, or maybe you can work with your friends and family to log on and make sure you’re there and then leave you to it at your desk.
But I think that worked really well for us having that kind of committed block of time to just think about the book, not trying to do it amongst other activities, but really be focused in the mindset. And then it’s amazing how once you’ve spent those couple of hours of doing that sort of deep work and thinking that then throughout the day or throughout the weekend other things sort of sparked for us and then we’d be constantly pinging each other saying, Oh, actually what we could include is this person. Oh, we could include that person.
But the sort of the work of getting sort of through the different concepts that we wanted to cover was done really in those blocks of time.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s like having an open tab in your browser in your mind, isn’t it?
Matthew Stafford: It is and I think the other thing is with business as well, you can’t wait until you really feel like it, right? You can’t wait until you are struck by inspiration or you’re in a wonderful mood, right? You’ve got to get up and you’ve got to do it.
So it’s got to be important enough to kind of push through that. And having that regularity to it was great. But also, we maybe didn’t always feel like we were in the right frame of mind, or really wanted to do it, or whatever. And I think writing it alone, I might have skipped over that and said, oh well, I’ll just leave it for this weekend. But I think having that discipline is important too.
Alison Jones: And accountability. Yes. Great tips. Thank you.
And as you know, I also always ask guests to recommend a book. You’re not allowed to recommend Find Your 9Others, sorry. But what book, I know, I’m so mean.
What book would you recommend that listeners should have a look at if they haven’t read it already?
Katie Lewis: I have one. It’s a nice short book, but very impactful and has stayed with me. It is called The Richer Way by Julian Richer, the founder of Richer Sounds.
Alison Jones: Richer Sounds, of course,
Katie Lewis: And it was the very first book I read that demonstrated a very strong customer centric approach to running a business. And I just think there are so many, again, practical tips and stories as to how he set that business up to be very engaging.
I think, you know, as an example, you’re not allowed to, as a customer representative within the stores, you’re not allowed to ask anyone sort of closed questions, like can I help you? Yes or no. You’ve got to be able to ask, you know, a more open question to help engage the customer and really understand what it is they’re looking for in the store.
And yes, it’s just a book that’s always kind of stayed with me because I think it was the first time I’ve really kind of done that deep dive into seeing business and the success of business by putting the customer first.
Alison Jones: And it’s very fitting, of course, that it’s an entrepreneur’s story as well. I love that. Yes. What about you, Matthew?
Matthew Stafford: Okay, so I’ll recommend a longer one that I’m currently reading, so I’m about two thirds of the way through it. It’s called The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene, and I’m just fascinated by just observing people. And it’s one of the things I love at 9Others, you get to see people, you get to observe how people conduct themselves, what they do first, what they do last, what they do in the middle. And I’m fascinated by that.
And this book, The Laws of Human Nature, kind of goes into the study of humans and why they do what they do, and why some things are irrational, but people do them. And to kind of understand the real, kind of depth behind why humans do what they do, and the motivations and incentives.
I love it.
Alison Jones: It’s fascinating. I know the book. It is really, really interesting and you find yourself people watching when you’re reading it, don’t you?
Matthew Stafford: Yes, definitely. And some of the things that people do just come from such simple motivations that have been around since the dawn of time you know, it’s great.
Alison Jones: Our brains aren’t quite keeping up with our technology.
Matthew Stafford: Yes, there is that too.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you both so much. Now, if people want to find out more about 9Others and more about the book, where should they go?
Matthew Stafford: They can go to 9others.com, the number nine, digit nine, and then others. com. You can find me on twitter at mstafford, Katie?
Katie Lewis: And I’m katielewis66 on Twitter.
Alison Jones: Amazing. I will put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com along with the transcript of the conversation.
So, thank you both so much for your time and reading this book, I loved it as an entrepreneur myself and it really, you know, your kind of challenge about finding my own 9Others has really stayed with me.
So thank you on a personal note for that as well.
Matthew Stafford: Brilliant. Thank you.
Katie Lewis: Thank you, Alison.