The story of Think Grand, and the importance of building community.

Ten years ago today, I launched something that changed my life, and I’m proud and humbled that it also made a positive impact on others.

It was called Think Grand.

Today’s anniversary seemed like the perfect time to tell the story of Think Grand because, at its heart, it was about building community. And after a year like 2020, we desperately need more community right now.

My hidden hometown is a pretty nice place.

I was born and raised in Escondido, California, a city of about 150,000 people located 30 minutes north of San Diego.

Overall, Escondido has a lot of great qualities:

  • It’s situated in a valley, surrounded by picturesque hills (thus the name Escondido — Spanish for “hidden”).
  • It offers fantastic opportunities for outdoor activity, including Daley Ranch, a 3,150-acre city park and nature preserve with over 25 miles of hiking trails.
  • It’s home to the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, a great visual and performing arts venue and community gathering spot.
  • It’s also home to Stone Brewing, arguably one of the pioneers of the craft brewing movement.

However, I think the best thing about Escondido is its history. Some of that history is now just a memory, like the once-famous Grape Day Festival. Other history is still very real, like the Old Escondido Historic District, which is full of classic Craftsman and Victorian homes, and a nearby historic downtown (more on this in a moment).

But no city is perfect, and Escondido is no exception.

Out of respect for your time, I’m not going to list a bunch of problems here. Let’s just say that there has always been a very unique set of challenges facing Escondido, and collectively, they’ve led many people to feel pessimistic about the city.

Over the years, I’ve heard many outsiders make fun of it. Worse, I’ve heard many residents — myself included — express cynicism and doubt of the “yeah right, we’re just lowly little Escondido and we’re stuck in the past, that will never happen here” variety.

Case in point: I enjoyed growing up in Escondido, but I never thought I would live there as an adult — and I’m not the only one. Many of my peers wanted nothing to do with Escondido after high school or college.

Of course, most of us wanted to stay local — it’s San Diego, after all! — but Escondido itself simply wasn’t an option in many of our minds.

I call this the “Escondido youth exodus,” and I see it as one of the top problems facing the city to this very day. There are many reasons for the exodus, but the biggest factor is a practical one: 

I’m a “Xennial” — not quite Millennial, not quite Gen X — and the modern jobs that I and many of my Xennial-and-younger peers are trained for simply don’t exist here.

Why? Because in the decades after World War II, Escondido grew rapidly without much of a plan. Vineyards and citrus groves were bulldozed to build suburb after suburb, but barely any land was set aside for offices or industry. As a result, according to a 2010 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, only 3.4% of Escondido is industrial land, compared to 10.3% in neighboring San Marcos, and 22.9% in nearby Carlsbad.

But less office and industrial land doesn’t just mean fewer jobs. It also means less social opportunity and nightlife because there simply isn’t the critical mass of people and disposable income needed to sustain a vibrant core of restaurants, bars, and community gathering spots.

For example, in its heyday, Downtown Escondido was the center of everything. But as is the case in many cities, malls and new freeways pulled people towards other areas, leaving downtown in need of revitalization. As a result, for most of my life, Downtown Escondido was pretty busy during the day, but a ghost town at night.

Add it all up, and it’s obvious why so many of us (me included) moved to other San Diego-area cities and neighborhoods to live closer to our employers and avoid wasted hours stuck in freeway traffic every day. And it’s no surprise we fell in love with our new homes because they offered the complete live-work-play lifestyle that Escondido couldn’t.

But for me, something unthinkable eventually happened…

An unexpected homecoming.

In early 2008, I got a new job at Cal State San Marcos, the university in the city right next door to Escondido.

Rather than live in purely-suburban San Marcos, I chose to rent an apartment a couple blocks from Downtown Escondido. I love small-to-midsize downtowns with history and character, especially after attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for college and experiencing their amazing downtown. As a result, Downtown Escondido was a no brainer (even without an ideal level of social activity and nightlife).

But then, the 2008 economic crisis happened.

Downtown suffered even more (there were so many empty storefronts). Cynicism grew stronger amongst residents. And honestly, I was lonely because it was incredibly difficult to meet people my own age (the youth exodus was an even bigger problem than I realized).

As a natural problem solver with a multidisciplinary marketing and design background, I constantly found myself thinking “there must be something I can do about this.” And sure enough, an idea eventually came to me:

What if I created a community movement where we celebrate the best of Escondido, and work to solve the problems rather than complaining about them? And what if this new movement was a mix of online and physical-world experiences to allow people to get to know each other?

I decided to give it a shot — and I named it Think Grand. Why? Because the beloved street at the heart of Downtown Escondido is Grand Avenue. It was the perfect play on words because it challenged people to see beyond the pessimism and think big and bold about the city they loved.

An unexpected success.

Anytime you launch something new, you never quite know what to expect. You can have the greatest strategy in the world, but some factors are simply beyond your control.

In the case of Think Grand, success came faster than I had ever dreamed.

The launch was pretty simple: just a Facebook page and an interim-yet-impressive website. I casually told a friend about it in a text message on December 19, 2010 (it was literally an “oh, by the way” kind of thing).

Well, she told a friend. Who told a friend. Who told someone else I know who controls a large email list for a longtime community group. Once that group heard about it, Think Grand exploded.

In less than two months, Think Grand had been featured in a prominent story in a local newspaper, and attracted around 250 Facebook followers.

As a result of the exposure, community members of all ages and backgrounds expressed an interest in volunteering. Working together, we hosted a booth at the Escondido Street Fair:

Dave Woods & his parents stand in front of a booth below a banner that reads thinkgrand.org.

And hosted networking events and cash mobs at small businesses:

16 people gather & talk in small groups during a networking event inside an art gallery.

And organized hikes and brainstorming sessions:

16 people take part in a brainstorming session at a picnic table in a grassy field under large oak trees.

And my most active volunteer organized a really cool bike tour of central Escondido, which included stops at landmarks and small businesses:

A mix of 16 adults & children stop during a bike ride to learn about a nearby creek.
A mix of 15 adults & children stop during a bike ride to shop at a corner market.

Meanwhile, I also launched a full-fledged Think Grand website with a blog (which is currently offline — an archived version is coming). I wrote most of the articles, but many others were contributed by community members. Collectively, our topics ranged from restaurant reviews, to brainstorming sessions, to analyzing tough topics like the youth exodus, to revealing interesting facts about Escondido’s history.

Plus, I actively managed the Think Grand Facebook page and ultimately grew it to over 1,500 followers, all organically without spending a single dime on ads.

I also ran a Think Grand email newsletter with about 200 subscribers.

And, as a nice bonus, the movement was featured in a second prominent newspaper article — this time, in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

What happened to Think Grand?

The glory days of Think Grand were 2011 through 2013. After that, life happened, as is the case with many all-volunteer movements. Most of my volunteers understandably became busy with other commitments, and it became difficult to find replacements. Even I became quite busy with my business as it grew.

Think Grand continued on as a Facebook page into 2017, but by that point, I felt comfortable quietly shutting it down because I knew it had done a lot of good for everyone involved. 

Participants told me what a difference it had made in their lives. In fact, a few even wrote testimonials. Here are two of them (names removed for privacy reasons):

“Think Grand filled a critical space in community discussion. It was a catalyst for a frank yet positive look at our city’s issues. By civilly bringing together a variety of viewpoints both online and through networking events, Think Grand promoted more creativity and productivity in coming up with solutions to the concerns in our city. It changed the trajectory of the conversation. As a result of my involvement, I grew both in my appreciation of Escondido, and my hope for its future.”

“I moved to Escondido, knowing no one. Shortly after arriving, I found Think Grand: the movement, website, and people. I knew I wanted to be involved because its premise created a positive space to discuss the betterment of Escondido. Dave is innovative and strives to create an environment where all opinions are respected and people are valued, asking thought-provoking questions about the community we live in.”

And honestly, I gained as well, in ways I never expected. I made a number of quality friends and connections.

But the biggest twist of all: Think Grand unexpectedly turned out to be a major catalyst in the growth of my business. At least four of my clients — including two major projects from large organizations — can be traced directly to their being impressed by the quality of work they saw in Think Grand. In fact, without Think Grand, there would be no Deedub Inc. today.

Bottom line: Community building is a win-win for everyone involved — and we desperately need that right now.

Prior to COVID-19, millions of Americans (and probably billions of people worldwide) were already suffering through an epidemic of loneliness that has been building for years. And now, COVID has poured fuel on the fire.

People are literally crying out for community and connection.

They’re looking to connect in deep and meaningful ways based on shared experiences or a common purpose. They simply need help finding it — but the best part is, anyone can be that helping hand. The story of Think Grand proves it.

As a result, my question to you is this:

What’s your Think Grand?

In other words, what communities are you going to build or join in 2021?

What are you going to do to help people connect, move beyond the pandemic, and thrive in the coming post-COVID world?

For me, Friction Fixer and Accessibility Love are my new community movements, and I really hope you’ll participate.

But there are also local issues affecting your friends, family, city, state, school, church, government, or business. What kind of community are you going to build locally to help solve these problems?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a businessperson, non-profit leader, government official, or a citizen looking to make a difference.

And your efforts don’t have to be as ambitious as Think Grand.

Community comes in all shapes and sizes, and you can empower others to find and build theirs in a variety of ways. When you do, you’ll become a part of each other’s community, and everyone will win.

I say, let the winning begin.