Why a Christmas experiment in gratitude became a startup

And what happens when we see where generosity leads

Christmas messages, despite all the best intentions, have never been distinguished by their depth. And with each year, as our connections grow and our attention withers, the temptation increases to quickly dash off notes that are ever more about us, ever less about the amazing people we want to reconnect with, check in on, and thank.

Such was my shabby excuse for avoiding end of year messages, resorting instead to an inadequate sprinkling of hellos and thank yous across the seasons.

Until, that is, a surprising Christmas Eve experiment last year.

In an end-of-year catchup with Alex Lovell-Troy, my friend and technical co-founder, I shared my frustration about so unreliably saying thank you for generous acts that matter so much.

Over the year, the kind introductions made for me — better than any gift — had solved my biggest problems, sparked the best ideas and created numerous rich professional and social relationships.

Of course, I follow up initially on an introduction with whoever made it. But by the time the connection has blossomed, often months or years later, I usually forget to mention what happened to the very person who made it possible.

I like to think I pay it forward. But I realised, then, I definitely did not share it back.

Exploring how important introductions had been for me, I also wondered if any of the introductions I’d made had been similarly helpful. And, if not, how I could do better.

Both fascinated by the challenge of how to create more meaningful, impactful connections, we devised an experiment to look more deeply into what happens because of our introductions.

The Experiment

We put together two simple Google docs. A spreadsheet showing who had introduced me to whom — and what had happened. And a form, asking if introductions I had made had been helpful, and how I could do better.

Next, setting aside the afternoon of Christmas Eve — we had become pretty intrigued — I dived into three email accounts. Searching about 7,000 emails for “Intro”, “Introduction”, “<>” etc, I plotted the outcomes of connections in the spreadsheet.

Threads began to emerge. Many wonderful.

A to B, who had introduced me to Archbishop Tutu, who had been delighted by and very supportive of the work of prisoners in South Africa I am writing about.

C to D, who had invited me to spend an unforgettable day with the Dalai Lama, discussing secular ethics.

E to F, who had put me in touch with the Unreasonable Institute, where I later became a fellow, met some of the best social entrepreneurs I know, and made some of my dearest and most inspiring friends.

Other introductions had led to investment, collaborations and much invaluable advice. Sometimes the intros themselves, outcomes aside, were just cool. One friend had introduced me to Biz Stone. Though Biz never replied, I was so touched by the introduction, I included this in the intro map.

After three hours, I had logged about 60 of the most important or interesting intros made for me over the last couple of years, focusing on those for which I could share great stories. There were many more good intros which were harder to measure. These I left out, along with those made by extremely private people, as I was using real names.

It was exhausting. But I felt pretty lucky, and profoundly grateful.

Everything I had been able to achieve in recent years had been built on others’ openness generosity with their connections.

What you don’t know does hold you back

Then came the second surprising treat.

I composed an email, including a link to the magical Google spreadsheet, to about 150 people. Each person I had either received a great intro from, or made an intro for. I explained that I simply wanted to thank them for what they’d done for me, and find out how I could do more for them through intros or otherwise.

I sent this email, with the subject “How you’ve helped me”, mid afternoon on Christmas Eve. I expected to hear little, if anything, until the New Year.

By dinnertime, I had more than 30 replies. By Boxing Day more than 70. Over the next few weeks nearly everyone I’d shared it with wrote back.

Had I announced I had won the lottery and was splitting it amongst my friends, I don’t think I would have more received more — or more enthusiastic — replies.

Everyone loved reading the map of consequences. Many friends said, had they known how their intros helped and flourished, they would have made more intros for me, and — most intriguingly — more intros for others. Almost everyone said they wished they could see what happened to all their introductions.

Many of those I’d introduced also shared wonderful stories about what had come of my intros. (And, indeed, I found myself wanting to make more helpful intros for them.) They also said they enjoyed telling me; they’d just needed a prompt.

A couple of people even said they were going to start logging details on intros they’d made and received in a similar Google doc.

Mining generosity

So Alex and I built Intros, which allows connectors to simply track their intros and easily ask what happens. We want to help them make better intros, and, in turn, to help more good people receive great introductions.

I asked a brilliant friend Molly Crockett — a neuroscientist who studies altruism — to help design the feedback system. We want to make it fun to say thank you for introductions.

Since we built our alpha, we’ve learned a great deal from our fantastic super-connector users. But introductions are delicate creatures. We’ve got a lot more to learn.

We think it’s a great problem to solve.

Connectors hold the keys, through their introductions, to incredible value, locked up in networks. They are like the computers whirring away at cracking codes to release bitcoins into the world.

The difference with intros is the value unlocked helps not only the connector, but so many others too — and often those working on the most important problems.

Post Script

If you doubt why this matters, I can’t recommend highly enough Adam Grant’s wonderful Give and Take, a manifesto for generosity in the professional world.