I run a software developers group in Reno, NV called Northern Nevada Software Developers Group. Within the contexts of Startup Communities, our group acts as a feeder, but unfortunately we haven’t been as welcoming to entrepreneurs as we should have been. Conversely, some of our guest entrepreneurs haven’t been as good at consuming our material as they could have been. What follows are some observations and pointers to help make industry groups better feeders and entrepreneurs better users of such resources.
We get a wide range of entrepreneurs that attend our meetings. Unfortunately the vast majority of these entrepreneurs only attend one meeting. During that meeting, they make a feverish pitch for their newly minted company which typically motivates one or two developers to get more information, but many pitches often result in no interest at all.
I didn’t quite know how to put this issue into words until I read Startup Communities. The mantra of “give before you get” really applies to our situation and having entrepreneurs blow in and out after one session certainly doesn’t have any “give” to it. In the group members’ and my view, most of entrepreneurs are only showing up to get a few warm bodies on a project. They aren’t there to learn something or foster any sense of community. Meanwhile, I’m spending time, effort and money to engender a sense of community for developers and I want entrepreneurs to be a part of our ecosystem.
This pattern of “get before giving” has led me to be less accommodating to the entrepreneurs at our meetings. In most situations I’ll allow them to do a short pitch, but I’m often not very encouraging of their ventures and am generally quite standoffish. Over time this behavior stifled entrepreneurial interest and the experience has taught me that I need to be much more inclusive and welcoming to the entrepreneurs that attend our meetings, no matter their intentions.
I started inviting entrepreneurs to speak to our group in the hopes that it would help inspire more entrepreneurship both within the group and the community, but our meetings haven’t been well attended. I think this bears out Startup Communities’ point that there are entrepreneurs, and then there’s everyone else. I’ve come to understand that our role as a feeder is to encourage entrepreneurship and the commingling of professionals with entrepreneurs seeking talent.
My perception of the startup ecosystem has of course been colored by my own experiences. Having been one of the first full-time employees of a local startup I know the trials and tribulations of working at a young company. Long story short, the company failed and the experience didn’t exactly motivate me to want to join another early stage startup. Since then I’ve often dissuaded others from joining startups in the hopes of saving them from having to experience the same end result. I’d like to believe that I’m protecting the group members, but I’ve learned that I need to let everyone make their own choices. The fact is, their individual startup experiences will ultimately differ greatly from my own. So, if a group member wants to hear my stories, I’ll open up and tell them, but I’ve ceased trying to actively persuade them.
Expecting startups to fail is a failure on my part and is a perception I need to change. It’s not easy to walk away from a failure you’re a part of and for a long time I was embarrassed about my own startup failure. Young startups fail all the time, many of them for reasons that are impossible to overcome, but in my case I felt I should have and could have done something about it. Becoming comfortable with the the natural life-cycle of the startup ecosystem is something I need to work on and attending various events like startup wakes, open coffee clubs and hackathons will hopefully put me on the right track.
Industry groups are an important part of the feeder ecosystem. As a group, we can add a lot of value to our startup community, but in order to do so it’s vital that we check our preconceived notions at the door or we’ll never be the best feeders.
The book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City clearly states the need for inclusiveness as a basic tenant of a good startup community. Since the pipeline of women with STEM degrees has been bursting at the seams for years (except in engineering) one would think these women would be spilling over into our startup community events and activities.
Not so much.
I recently attended an awesome maker/tech event hosted by Zach Kaplan (Inventables) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Google) called ORD Camp in Chicago. It was an amazing example of a Startup Community in action. I noticed something different about this event that I thought was important to share – the guys tried hard to engage women in their vibrant tech entrepreneurial ecosystem. In 2009 when they launched the event they had only 6.6% women participants, but this year that number went up to 26%.
It is not unusual for me to get calls from organizers across the country who are thinking hard about what they can personally do differently to engage women in their tech community. So my advice is simple – learn from Zach and Brian’s work. Before and during the event they took what I would call extraordinary measures to make sure women not only attended, but were fully engaged in leading sessions. I would call this work heavy lifting not for the shy or uncommitted. It is important to note (I am a witness) that many times female entrepreneurs and STEM leaders are invited to events but back out at the last minute. Entrepreneurs are super busy so this isn’t unusual, except the problem here is that there are already so few of them in the STEM areas that when they don’t attend, it leaves few women and you end up having a guys event.
The extraordinary measures these guys took in planning were as follows:
- They invited way more women than they thought would show up, knowing
shrinkage would happen.
- They hired a well known “sitter service” located close to the event and
publicized this to all invitees/attendees. The previous year, women that
canceled, named “sitter problems” as a reason. One man had also
noted this problem so they realized this service may benefit a large
number of attendees.
- They posted a detailed no harassment of any kind notice on their invite. As many in the tech crowd are aware, they are not the first to take this overt action. Tim O’Reilly led this charge for his events a couple of years ago so these guys followed suit. And I mean detailed – do not do this kind of thing with examples. This provides a strong positive signal to women (especially when there are late night events with alcohol).
- They put women on the advisory board to help select and encourage other women to attend once they were invited.
- They made sure that a number of the women attendees were going to come prepared to lead discussions and demonstrations. The young women from Google who led a demonstration of physics and food science was amazing.
- They alerted local police that women and men would be leaving the building late at night.
Feedback from attendees:
This was an un-conference, so at the event, I posted the “how do we get more women into tech” on the wall and waited to see if anyone would vote on it as a topic. They did. Then to see who would show up – a lot of people showed up. Note – six years ago I did this at another well known event and three people showed up in the room all women and one guy. This time we had a large group show up and it was 50% men. I opened the conversation with an overview of all the above observations and asked for ideas about what we were still doing wrong and what we could do more or less of to get more women into the tech/maker network. The women in the session provided the following feedback:
- “I almost didn’t come here because I hadn’t been to this before, I never heard of anyone that had attended, I don’t know any of these guys running it and it looked so crazy I was worried about what I was getting into showing up by myself.”
- “I am too busy to go to something that looks like it involves late night boozing with people I don’t know. If I didn’t know other people who had attended and told me it was amazing, I never would have showed up. If you think the 1950′s are over you are wrong, the young tech guy crowd still treat women as second class citizens and I don’t want to spend a weekend having to shout to get a word in the conversation.”
- “I work at (insert well known company) as an engineer and attended last year, I learned a lot here and it has created a broader support community for my work. This year I nominated other women to attend and then followed up with them to make sure they understood the purpose of the event and what to expect. They all showed up! I hate being separated into the boys and girls clubs so I am doing my job of bringing women into what have been predominately men’s fields, but actually finding women engineers is hard.”
The session was not only productive because of the honesty of the participants, but also because they came up with great ideas about specific things happening on the ground in their city and what they could all do (both men and women) to bring more women into the pipeline and into leadership roles. Bless the men that took an hour and attended this session and are carrying out their acts of support today.
If you really want to engage women (and that is the topic of this post) in your startup community – it requires an effort.
According to Zach, ORD Camp is a meritocracy and they knew there was a large pipeline of highly qualified women in the community that weren’t being represented. They needed to get these women involved in the same way they needed to get leaders from the Ruby community AND the Python Community from companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple. This wasn’t about lowering the bar for women it was about getting women involved that earned the right to be there.
Look around at your next Startup Community event/program and see if the majority of the faces are all men. We know there is a large pipeline of highly qualified women, so if you don’t have many at your event and you want to change that – you may need to change what you are doing.
If you are organizing events focused in an area that is already devoid of women in the pipeline – you need to find a woman willing to be your co–organizer so that right up front it is obvious that this isn’t an all male event. I personally think this is vastly more important in the middle of the U.S. than on the coasts simply due to the small number of women tech entrepreneurs. CA, Boston and NY already have a lot of women leading or co–leading startup community programs/events/gatherings and they have been working hard at this for years.
Hats off to all of them.
Startups are very unique work environments with very bright, yet very blurry futures. Their appeal is clear: working at a startup is like building a house, you can see the change you make on a daily basis. One wall today, a roof tomorrow,and eventually, a home. While their appeal may be clear, the rest of it maybe isn’t so certain. In fact, the only thing that is certain is change. Your boss could say, “We just switched business models” and you need to be able to adapt,and adapt quickly. It’s no surprise that startups look for very unique traits within people they are looking to hire. Only a certain kind of individual can thrive in a
culture of change. So, how can you not only enter the startup community, but succeed in it?
Meet the Team
No, not virtually. Go to networking events, ask your friends for intros, join a weekly meet-up, get out there and stop hiding behind the computer.The best way to find out if a startup is hiring, is to meet the team and make a connection. Resumés get lost, so make them understand why they need your specific skill-set on their team. Then, find something you can do for them- create a sales pipeline, write a one-page marketing plan, build an app that will help them capture leads- and send it over. The proof is in the pudding.
Have a Passion
Sounds cliché. It is. But startups are built on passion. And it doesn’t mean you have to be passionate about building Twitter for Iguanas, or whatever the startup you’re interested in joining actually does, but rather how do your passions align with their business. It could mean being passionate about enterprise sales, or designing amazing user experiences, or engaging with customers. Where do you see yourself fitting in?
Failure is OK
Once you land the interview, don’t be afraid to share your stories of failure. Entrepreneurs aren’t afraid of failure, they stare it in the face everyday and defy the odds. So if you have failed, then it means that you have learned. Perpetual learning is crucial in a constantly changing environment and a key tenant of startup philosophy.
Find the Bar
If, after having nailed the interview, you find yourself working at a startup, then you quickly need to identify the bar and then you need to understand actions must be taken in order to surpass it. Productivity beginning day one is a must on a small team. Successful startup employees are growth-minded. They are able to identify problems that haven’t even occurred yet,understand the next steps that need to be taken, and push forward to drive action. Pushing yourself to learn everyday, to do something better, and to understand a problem completely will not only allow you to find the bar, but forget that it even existed.
Do you feel overwhelmed yet? Good, you should. The truth is that it’s extremely difficult to align all of these different components and merge them into one meaningful career road map and path forward. The skills, network, passion, drive; all of them combined are difficult to attain, especially when pursuing the startup path alone. A program like Boston StartupSchool is one way to find a path into the startup world that focuses on connecting you with the surrounding community. Even if you have all of the other pieces in the puzzle, it is often the team and the community behind you that lifts you to the next level. So, above all else, when on the startup path, find a community of people that inspires you. A community filled with people as crazy as you are. A community of startup nerds.
- Aaron O’Hearn
Business Across Borders (BAB) is a non-profit that is trying to spur economic growth in Iraq and the broader Middle East by helping educated youth start their own companies. I recently traveled to Northern Iraq to kick off our third venture competition at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani (AUIS). Prior to my trip, I asked Brad to donate copies of Startup Communities and he was down to contribute. Below are thoughts on my trip in the context of Startup Communities.
As I listened to business people in the area, students, and members of the American University of Iraq, I was struck by the overwhelming need for entrepreneurs in Startup Communities in all arenas of life. An entrepreneur is a problem solver, an innovator, a person who gets off the couch to fix something that is really annoying them. Though it is nice to have lots of entrepreneurs that start companies in the traditional sense, rebuilding a society requires entrepreneurship in every facet of life in every community, city, country– in government, health, law, environment, technology, education, business. This point is obvious to the people of Iraq, and I was amazed at the level of responsibility people were taking around me to do their part in the larger Startup Community to create the world they want to live in. Related to this point, here are some of the most interesting trends I’m seeing in Iraq:
Iraq is Growing Rapidly with an 8%+ annual GDP growth, and so is the broader Middle East. Mobile data traffic and speed are two of the most powerful trends. The MENA region will have one of the strongest mobile data traffic growth trends, increasing 36 fold through 2016. This region will also have one of the largest projected compounded annual growth rates of 97% in projected average mobile network connection speeds from 2011-2016. (Cisco Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecasts 2011-2016).
There is hustle among motivated and educated University students. Mesopotamia Marketing Research, the winner of our competition this year, is an example of one such group of students. This group (pictured below) is looking to provide market research for Iraq’s growing service sector. Other winning teams included an online platform for buying and selling used cars, a translation service using Youtube, and a tourist company. I have no illusions about the obstacles to growth in the region given it’s context in the world today, but the will to do more, reach higher, and advance among young people is palpable. No one has to tell this generation to get off the couch and start fixing problems. Meet some of them here: www.businessacrossborders.org