by Christopher Heivly, managing director of The Startup Factory and author of “Build the Fort – The Startup Community Builder’s Field Guide“
Are you motivated to build a more robust startup community in your area? Do you have the right mindset and a clear sense of where your community currently is and what matters to you? Then it’s time to focus on the action steps you need to take to make your goals happen.
There are seven basic cornerstone drivers of activity with respect to startup communities and entrepreneurial ecosystems. You’ll need to set the right attitudes among current and new local leaders, inspire and support founders, increase the current level of mentorship for founders at all stages, activate more local and regional investors, plug regional corporations into the ecosystem, connect to regional universities, and secure support with local, regional, state, and federal government.
Below, I’ll break each of these drivers down and give you a clear roadmap for creating a thriving community.
1. Develop Leaders.
The first and most foundational of the seven drivers of startup community and entrepreneurial ecosystem building is community leadership and the culture they create.
Your community’s culture is the collective bucket of the current community norms. You can develop tools, tricks, and programs around setting a new community culture. If that sounds like an impossible task, you’re not alone in thinking so. But what if we only needed to change eight or ten people and then had the patience for that invisible influence to diffuse throughout the community?
If you can prioritize building meaningful connections with members of your ecosystem – including those “leaders”, your future work will ultimately invite a new set of community norms.
How? It turns out that we influence our friends and our friends’ friends and even our friends’ friends’ friends without even being intentional about our influence. What if we were actually intentional about sharing those new principles? Like every hour of every day of every week? Imagine the influence we could create. What if we found a handful of peers to do the same thing?
That is ecosystem leadership.
2. Develop Founders.
Community builders should rally around the idea that 0.5 percent to 1 percent of the people in their regions are likely high-growth entrepreneurs.
Your first task is to find the active and unknown entrepreneurs and bring them into the community, as they are operational and in need of your help, network, and experiences. They also instantly add their experience to your community as mentors.
Some of them think there’s no reason to leave their basement. Some of them aren’t aware that there are others like them. Some have chosen to not engage, mostly because engagement activities aren’t created in their best interest (rather, in the interest of the ESOs). It’s imperative that you create activities with and for entrepreneurs and not for organizational vanity purposes.
3. Develop Mentors.
Mentorship is both a concept and an activity. The concept has its roots in the idea of community. The activity is something that two or more people do together.
If you think about the idea of community and tribe, you should think about the camaraderie and connection that members have as they have similar interests. With that similar interest comes a willingness, or dare I say, a responsibility to support one another. Mentorship as a concept is the idea that sharing your thoughts, feedback, experiences, and advice is a natural occurrence in startup communities. The breakdown occurs when new members aren’t aware of that implied community support contract.
So, your task and the task of all members of the community is to be available and to create situations where new and veteran members can frictionlessly support each other. It’s not just the give, but also the ask. For some reason, nascent and developing communities are full of founders who think it’s weak to ask for help.
4. Develop Investors.
Your community can’t just set up a new fund without having a healthy number of entrepreneurs. What every developing or emerging community requires is an active angel community. Local angels serve as the first real investors for a company (outside of friends and family).
Professional investors will rarely be the first investors in a company, local or not. Angel investors typically get involved at what’s called the seed round, and this label should tell you everything about investing.
The good news is that every town and city has a population of high-net-worth individuals who have the means to do seed investments. Your challenge is to unlock this group. Start by inviting them to your coffee meetups or any other networking activity.
5. Engage Corporations.
Local corporations are one of the largest assets in your community. The challenge for community builders is to encourage a meaningful interaction between your startup community and corporate staff.
Today’s corporations are nervous. Very nervous. In nascent communities, corporations might imagine community startup efforts as competition for employees or ideas.
They would be wrong. A strong high-tech, high-growth entrepreneurial ecosystem creates innovation energy that waterfalls to everyone in the region. Corporations will have access to hundreds of startups acting as free R&D departments, a larger pool of talent in technology and growth marketing, and an exciting community to engage their employees, spouses, and children. That is your lead-in.
There are obvious and compelling activities a corporation can choose to deepen their engagement. The impact that cascades to all involved parties is immeasurable. Your task is to connect these disparate community actors for the betterment of both, a classic need that simply needs a passionate broker.
6. Engage Universities.
Almost every town has a college or university within its greater region. The core mission of every one of these institutions is to prepare students for their careers. These higher-learning institutions have within their walls an eager group of students searching for knowledge, purpose, and direction. By definition this student-state is ripe for creating awareness of entrepreneurship.
As I see it, there are a handful of knowledge systems within colleges and universities that are able to drive local innovation and potentially result in playing a key role in entrepreneurship:
- Educating and training students
- Developing potential products from science, research, and experimentation
- Encouraging and even facilitating a problem-solving mindset across department and class boundaries
- Actual company formation
Finding ways to connect students, staff, and faculty to the community is task one. Finding opportunities to support researchers, inventors, and staff at the intersection of their interests and entrepreneurs is task two.
7. Engage Government.
One of the most discussed aspects of startup community development is the role government should play. In Startup Communities, Brad Feld explains: “Government can and do play a critical role when their interactions are generally in a supportive role of the overall ecosystem rather than an attempt to lead the ecosystem.”
A problem often arises in cities, states, or countries where the population tends to rely on the government for on-the-ground leadership. Though there can be some quick short-term impact, this government-led set of activities unfortunately quickly runs out of steam. I have seen this firsthand where those early wins translate into “let’s put more money or staff behind the purveyor of those successes.”
As time goes by, everyone begins to count on those entities for progress. The entity gradually begins to spend as much time running itself (fundraising, political lobbying, management oversight, etc.) as it does supporting its original mission. Staff changes further exacerbate this lost mission.
Engaging the government matters, but ultimately, in order for your startup community to accelerate, the effort must be more citizen-based than government-based.
Do Your Thing
The underlying goal is for you and your peers to embrace the ecosystem principles and proactively share and support them throughout your community.
If this sounds daunting, you may be overthinking the goal. Just do your thing. I hereby deputize you as an agent of change. Show up at events. Guest speak at college classes, judge competitions, and sit on panels. Every interaction you have creates an opportunity to strengthen your ecosystem and drive more activity at all levels of your community.
*adapted from “Build the Fort – The Startup Community Builder’s Field Guide“
Christopher Heivly is a life-long entrepreneur and multifaceted investor who spent forty years working as, for, and with entrepreneurs. Chris currently serves as a managing director of The Startup Factory and is a highly sought-after public speaker. His first book, “Build the Fort: Why 5 Simple Lessons You Learned As a 10 Year-Old Can Set You Up for Startup Success“, was inspired by his widely acclaimed TEDx talk in 2014.