This is a question I’ve thought a lot about almost since the very beginning of Startup Poker 2.0 more than eight years ago.  I have heard it from many, many women.

To be clear, the essence of the question is not “why should I come play a game with other founders?”  The essence of the question I hear is “why should I come play a game like that with a bunch of guys?”

Here’s a tweet recently directed my way by a woman familiar with the dynamics of the startup ecosystem:

@bcrimmins as a female tech startup founder, what are the benefits of joining startup haven which is predom male? cc:DanielleMorrill

poker-sd-sept-2013-28cIn the earliest days of Startup Poker 2.0, the average attendance by women was not zero… but it was approaching zero.  This was not by design but rather a blurry reflection of the composition of the tech startup ecosystem at the time.

According to a recent report by the Kaufman Foundation, somewhere less than 5% of growth startups are lead by women founders — 3% is often quoted by informed writers on the topic.  So it’s not a huge surprise that I hadn’t met many women founders yet way back in 2006 when when the Seattle tech community was less connected and I was only just beginning to become active in the community.

Over the past six years or so I’ve met many women founders and many of them are now fans of Poker 2.0.  We’ve also had many women place in the money and several in the top spot.  I’m delighted by this but also disappointed because there is still a dearth of women regulars.  But for the record, most Poker 2.0 events these days have at least some women in attendance… and they win!  In fact, per capita, they win more often than the men do!  See pics below for proof.

2014-03-06 22.37.20Since this is not a post about the reasons I want more women to come to Poker 2.0 events (and I do), I’ll stick to why I think they should want to come.  It starts with math.

If it’s true that only 3% – 5% of growth startups are lead by women founders, then somewhere between 95% and 97% of growth startup founders are men.  If you have different data you like better (or you’re reading this in the future), just plug those numbers in.  

In my experience working with many dozens of startups as a mentor, advisor and friend, I’ve learned many of the very best things that will happen for your early stage startup will come from people you know.  And the very best sources of help are current and former founders.  Ergo, all founders ought to want to get to know more founders.

Experienced founders understand the difficulties of building a startup better than just about anyone (experienced investors are a great resource as well.)  As such, they are in a position to offer help that others just aren’t.  Not only do they understand the problems better, many have also developed powerful networks of their own that they can bring to 2014-04-24 22.28.39bear on your behalf.

Experienced founders are also willing to offer that help in a way that others are not.  They struggled themselves and they got help; the good ones want to give back by helping others.

Startup Poker 2.0 is all about connecting startup founders, execs and investors.  As such, it’s a pretty damn good place to meet founders who could help you… and whom you should be trying to help if you can.  Because of Startup Haven’s strict membership requirements, virtually everyone in the room (and at the tables) is a serious founder, exec or investor. Frankly, compared to other opportunities to expand a founders network, Startup Poker 2.0 is about as good as it gets.

As a woman, why would you want to isolate yourself from up to 97% of the people that can help you?  

What looks like a luck (e.g., meeting just the right person at just the right time) often plays a role in the success of startups.  One of my favorite entrepreneurial aphorisms is “it’s an important job of a founder to expand the luck surface area of her startup.”  Is there a better, more efficient way to do that than getting together and building relationships with a few dozen other founders and investors every month?  If there is, please tell me — I want a piece of that.

Then there’s the question of the game — it’s poker after all. The first objection I hear most often is, “Isn’t that a guy thing?” Tell that to Vanessa Selbst, Jennifer Harman, Kathy Liebert, Annie Duke, Annette Obrestad, Vanessa Rousso and the rest of the dozens of top women poker pros.  Just the top 10 women players have earned more than $30M playing this ‘boys game’… and that’s just their official tournament winnings.  There’s no telling how much more they took off of men who underestimated their talent in cash games.

In the end, there is nothing about the game of poker that gives men a natural advantage over women. And there’s nothing inherent in the game itself that is disrespectful or offensive to women. It’s just a card game. If Bridge, Go Fish or Canasta could do what poker does to foster relationship building, I’d be happy to start up Startup Canasta 2.0. But they don’t. Poker is wildly unique in this regard.

“But it’s gambling… isn’t that illegal or immoral?”  No and no.  Yeah, there’s a small amount of cash on the line.  But Poker 2.0 events are extremely low stakes on purpose.  In fact, since Poker 2.0 events are free to attend and you get a free dinner and free drinks, the $10 buy-in is pretty much the best networking bargain you’re likely to find. In the cities we play in, poker is only illegal if the host of the game takes any money out of the pot as a “rake”, i.e., a little sumpin’, sumpin’ for their trouble. We don’t ever do that — 100% of the money committed to the pot get distributed back to the winning players.

“Yeah, but isn’t poker is a drinking game, with beer bongs and slobbering, obnoxious drunks at every table?” You can certainly invite a group of your least-well behaved, ne’er-do-well, frat bros friends to a poker kegger in your basement. Nothing even remotely resembling that scene has ever happened at a Startup Poker 2.0 event.

Yes, there’s beer and wine… and water and some soda. Whatever you like. Alcohol isn’t for everyone and that’s totally cool. When consumed by responsible, professional startup entrepreneurs and investors, modest alcohol consumption is a proven lubricant to conversation. For some over-stressed entrepreneurs, it also serves as a reliable relaxant that gives them a brief respite from the startup roller coaster.

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So yes, it’s poker.  But it’s just a frickin’ card game. As I said, Starutp Go Fish 2.0 won’t work. Nor will any other game I can think of (and I have thought about this a lot.) The dynamics and flow of the game of poker happens to make it the greatest game to connect with people. Here’s why….

mel-gordon.jpgThe action is simple and doesn’t require a great deal of concentration (except when you’re in a big pot with a big hand, which is rare).   There’s plenty of quiet time between hands and between betting rounds to converse — if you’re playing good poker you should be folding most of your hands anyway so playing well actually makes you a better conversationalist.  There’s also the occasional crescendo of action that fills the room with cheers and gets everyone at the table to their feet; a shared experience that breaks any ice that might not have fully thawed.

Learning the basics of poker is also SUPER easy.  It takes much less time, effort and expense to learn poker than most other networking activities. Twenty minutes playing for free online and you’ll know everything you need to know to come play at a Poker 2.0 event.  Because Startup Poker 2.0 is a friendly game by design, it’s actually the best way to learn to play the game and a great way to improve your game.

Compare this to that other stalwart paradigm of business networking activities, golf. It takes months (usually years) of practice and thousands of dollars of equipment, greens fees and lessons to get good enough at golf to keep up with the rest of your foursome.  And even then, you only get to spend quality time with three other people at a time.

Final TableWhat other activities are there that can regularly bring 40 startup folks together around a common activity and build meaningful relationships?  As I said before, if there is then I want a piece of that.

In the mean time, my women startup comrades, please consider yourselves welcome at the Poker 2.0 tables.  You can apply for membership and the invitee list here: http://startuphaven.com/apply

By the way, for those who are not quite ready to commit to playing poker, every Startup Poker 2.0 event is preceded by a Founders Dinner event. You may have been to some founder dinner events in the past but you likely haven’t seen anything like our dinner event. There’s no card play involved but the same high-quality folks are there and the structure is specifically designed to increase a founders’ luck surface area.  Who knows, once you see how friendly and supportive the players are, maybe you’ll decide to give it a try some time.

Hope to see you soon!

Bob