“My biggest tip is to just be yourself, and not be afraid.” Wesley Hoffman, founder of Treehouse Networkshop, offers digestible bits of advice like this with a kindly, gentle demeanor, especially when it comes to teaching the lost art of professional networking. Treehouse is an event series in which local professionals of all varieties meet each other over drinks at a new St. Louis hotspot every month. Hoffman founded it when a networking happy hour he planned, aiming for 12 to 15 people, exploded to over 40. “I didn’t really have a plan when I first started. It kind of just happened, and it continues to evolve and get better, and more people seem to be interested,” says Hoffman. “As long as people are interested, I’ll keep doing it.” The blog for Treehouse, a robust collection of Hoffman’s thoughts, routinely comments on the hopefulness of the human spirit–some posts more consciously than others, with titles such as “Random Acts of Connecting” and “There’s No Such Thing As An Irrelevant Person.” In one of his latest tweets, Hoffman states: “I was so excited about this last email I put an exclamation point after my name when signing off! #PositiveEnergy.”
“I’ve always been the kind of person who–I was never afraid to walk up to people and ask them a question,” he says. Hoffman attended Greenville College in Illinois, pursuing jobs in sales and customer service, beginning with a sales internship in Texas. It was his first experience with cold calling, and led him to a job at the Arch. He worked as a call center rep, taking reservations and answering between 50 and 100 calls per day. “I’ve had to make so many cold calls in my lifetime that I’m used to–I don’t have that fear of rejection anymore. People will hang up on you, people won’t want to talk to you–whatever it may be. I guess that’s happened so many times that I kind of go into it with an attitude of, ‘What do I have to lose?’ I think a lot of that comes from my past and working in sales and customer service,” he says.
He eventually landed a steady job with Landscape Brands, a manufacturer and distributor of outdoor furnishings, where he worked from age 23 to 28. His old boss is still one of his mentors today. But after five years with the company, Hoffman quit his job with the hope of finding something more creatively satisfying. “Not having a job for a little while, and really having to put myself out there again in a way that I hadn’t in a long time was actually really exciting for me. I loved having the opportunity to just have some time to meet with people and figure out what was right for me,” he says, thinking back to the previous jobs he’d had. The more he connected with people, the more he discovered he could help with their creative and professional aspirations–or, if he couldn’t, he knew someone who could. “I realized there were ways I could help out, even though I didn’t have a job at the time,” says Hoffman.
Earlier this year he acquired a full-time gig at happyMedium, a digital advertising and design firm on Locust. He wanted to continue the networking efforts he had been making while jobless after becoming employed, “not just for my personal professional network, but to give the opportunity to other people to meet for business and professional reasons. Also for the social aspect of, ‘Hey, I want to meet new people and make new friends.’” He’s a big believer in karma, particularly within the professional sphere, and will often go beyond the call of duty if it means helping someone achieve a goal. “Why not? Why wouldn’t you want to meet new people? Why wouldn’t you want to be good? Why wouldn’t you want to help someone out?” He recently left to pursue Treehouse full-time. “It’s been kind of a long road, I guess … I was reminded of what it means to work hard.”
Hoffman grew up on a family farm in Vandalia, Illinois, a little over an hour away from the city across the wide brown Mississippi. His father cared for 1,000 acres of land upon which they raised pigs, cows, horses, goats, catfish, and a donkey, and grew corn, wheat, and soybeans for 25 years. “Farming is hard work. Very hard work. My dad was up and out the door almost every morning before I went to school, and usually didn’t come home til after the sun went down. He’d have to get up in the middle of the night sometimes to take care of livestock,” Hoffman recounts on his blog. He remembers growing up there–walking around town and knowing everyone he talked to, embracing the intimacy of a small community. “When I was younger, I was like, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here.’ But now as I look back, I appreciate that I spent a lot of my formative years there,” he says. “I’m thankful for that upbringing. It taught me a lot–small town, and also living in the big city.”
As soon as he turned 16 and got a car, Hoffman constantly drove to St. Louis. “I always felt like I was a little bit of an outsider. I didn’t really fit in with the small town.” He doesn’t know exactly what it was that made him always want to make the constant journey across the river. It started with punk rock music and art, but evolved as he grew older. “I always felt like there was more than what there was in my town. You know?” says Hoffman, as the evening light reflects off his well-groomed strawberry blonde beard. “It opened my eyes–there is so much more of life to experience. You just have to look for it.”
Hoffman’s wife also grew up in Illinois–Hoffman, a punk rock musician, crossed paths with her again later in life, this time through different rock shows in St. Louis. “She’d come to some of my shows,” he remembers. “We reconnected. I just ran into her at a bar and asked her out, and it just kind of evolved from there.” He still goes back to see his family–his parents and two sisters live in Vandalia. “It was crazy at times–but it was fun. We had a lot of fun together–we all get along pretty well. They both have kids now,” he says of his sisters. “I don’t spend a lot of time at my hometown. The main reason I do go back is to see my close family–I’m kind of a family man, even though I don’t have any children of my own.”
When Hoffman goes back to Vandalia, which he calls “home” in quotation marks on his blog, his father almost always inspects his car. “Most of the time, he takes it for a spin, washes it, and makes sure there’s nothing wrong with it. This is Pop’s way of showing me and my sisters he loves us,” Hoffman recounts in another blog post. “People show love and appreciation through Acts of Service. That’s my dad. Always wanting to do something for people to show them he cares.”
Hoffman rolls up the sleeve of his right arm, revealing a tattoo he got on his shoulder a few years ago–he has several art pieces tattooed all over his body. “This is for my grandfather,” he says. It’s a wooden ship’s wheel adorned with pink and yellow flowers, the word “Grandfather,” written in black cursive, and the dates of his life: 1923 to 2011. “He was a sailor in World War II in the South Pacific. So I’ve got a ships’ wheel with some tropical flowers and the dates of–the years of when he was born and when he passed away,” he explains. “I feel like it’s just a way to show people a little bit of who you are on the outside,” says Hoffman. Depending on who he’s talking to, he might wear a long sleeve shirt to cover them up. “I like the idea of breaking down those walls. I think tattoos are becoming more socially acceptable–I would love to live in a world where people would want to get to know me before they judge me based on my tattoos.”
Quickly, as can often happen while in conversation with Hoffman, big psychological life questions and speculative answers begin to surface. “I think–and I can be an example of this as well–I think sometimes we want people to perceive us as we want to be perceived, and that’s not always who we are–I have to gather my thoughts here for a minute,” he says, pausing. “We want everyone to like us, and it’s not always going to happen that way. Not everyone is going to be your best friend–it’s impossible. It’s impossible to please everyone. A lot of times, you’re just not going to.”
In the wake of the response to the first happy hour, he began thinking of traditional networking and self-promotion events, and how they could evolve into something different. “People want to be accepted. That’s why I wanted to create something like Treehouse. This is something for everyone, not just for business people or a certain kind of industry. This is a place where you can be yourself, and you can walk up to people and just say, ‘Hey, I’m Wes and this is what I’m into.’ And people will accept that.”
While Hoffman noticed an abundance of networking events for advertising and creative professionals, he wanted an open networking circle that could also encompass DJ’s, hairstylists, bloggers, entrepreneurs, small business owners, freelancers, artists–anyone pursuing an interest and honing their craft in the city. As a result of the event series, he has seen employers hire new talent, jobless professionals find work, new projects form, and much more. “When you think about networking or networking events, you think of, ‘Oh, I’m going to meet these people and I’m going to put myself out there.’ And that’s hard to do. I wanted to change the way people look at networking events, where you’re not always going in there saying, ‘I’m looking for a job, I’m going to this event where there’s going to be a hundred people and I’m gonna find someone who can hire me.’ It doesn’t always work that way.” At Treehouse, Hoffman is intentional to create an environment where participants can be relaxed. “Like, ‘Hey, I’m going to meet some new people and see what happens,’” he says.
Hoffman has spent a great deal of time teaching others to pursue their wildest dreams. With his recent departure from happyMedium, he’s taking his own advice. “The time is now to follow your passion,” Hoffman writes in his latest blog post about his decision. “Take steps towards it. Don’t. Look Back.”
For more information about Wesley Hoffman and Treehouse Networkshop, visit http://treehousenetworkshop.tumblr.com