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The worst thing is we frequently don’t realize the negative impact we created.
Startup communities are made up of many different actors with many different personality styles (kinda like a family). And like families many of those connective tissues are dysfunctional. There is no judgement here, it is simply our personalities exercising their right to shine.
What are some of the more common community personalities or archetypes?
- Community Cheerleader – always happy and thing are up and to the right
- Community Curmudgeon – we are doomed
- Community Gadfly – shows up at every event; involved in every new activity
- Community “Expert” – they know everything, just ask them
- Community Frump – somewhere between the cheerleader and the curmudgeon
- Community Connoisseur – has good knowledge and pontificates about that knowledge
- and too many others to mention.
Full disclosure – I am a community cheerleader and one of those glass half full guys. It is my personality and general state of mind.
What is a community cheerleader and what role do they play in the community?
Let me share my definition of a community cheerleader through my own experiences:
- I hold weekly open office hours with founders
- I blog and share my thoughts weekly
- I network like crazy and always spend part of each day connecting people
- I am a storyteller and many stories are others (did you know that . . . did you hear about . . . )
- I talk about our community with energy and passion with anybody who wil listen
- I guest speak at local colleges, universities, high schools, key events (or anywhere they will have me)
- I tour interested leaders motivated to find out how we do things here (Raleigh/Durham NC)
- I smile a lot
- I share my energy with others
The archetype that I don’t understand is the Community Curmudgeon. Without them knowing it, they accidently poison the community well. This has a direct negative impact on the direction of the community. You see, we influence our friends’ friends without us even knowing it.
Combine the community curmudgeon with a passionate group of first-time entrepreneurs and we have a recipe for disaster. First time entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of a growing community. By definition, they are susceptible to the influence of others as they fill their brain with best practices. Fill that brain with negative thoughts – “we have no good investors”, “our mentors are stupid”, “this is no place to grow your company” – and don’t be surprised with negative outcomes.
What would you do? I would move somewhere else where the attitudes were less toxic. Big negative outcome for the community.
Is this metric a leftover from days long gone?
One integral segment of a mature startup community are the institutions in the region, which I define as colleges, universities, city/county/state/province/federal government, non-governmental organizations (Chambers) and corporations. By definition these entities have a primary goal which is not necessarily everyone else’s primary goal in a startup community.
Therein lies a serious friction point.
Every month or so I work with my local economic development players who bring with them their goal of creating net new jobs in the area. I applaud and support these efforts with my time and energy by serving as the “startup” representative during their recruiting tours.
Almost every week I work with the same archetype all over the world who again have the same goal – create net new jobs in their region. The problem is that they view a startup community (and its growth) as a vehicle for net new job growth.
The consequence of a net new jobs lens is that you are dependent on monitoring the new jobs that a startup(s) create which is the wrong metric for measuring your startup community.
As an entrepreneur, my job is singular – build the best darn company I can with the resources available to me. An outcome of my success is that I will probably hire people to execute my vision. But adding staff is an outcome not the reason why I am in business.
Let me remind you that Instagram had 13 employees when it was acquired by Facebook in 2012. Imagine if Instagram was headquartered in your town. From a pure economic development lens, it would be seen as a failure with net new jobs of +10 (after founders). Yet, Instagram was acquired for $1 Billion dollars. The ripple effect for your startup community if Instagram was in your town would be felt for quite some time.
It is time we develop a set of metrics that better reveal the activities that inspire more founders to start companies, the activities that create growth advantages for those companies to scale, and the activities that open up opportunities for those founders and companies to exit and do it all over again. Every city or metro today should have a robust startup community as a key element of their economic growth strategy. Just don’t measure success the way your father did.
There are lots of point of view but determining your formula may just unlock your community
By now, just about every decent size city in the world has a group of passionate leaders trying to grow their startup community. Some leaders have a government or non-government position of influence. Some leaders come from an academic (teaching or research) position. Some leaders are current or former entrepreneurs. And some leaders are investors.
Regardless of your current day job, your community goal should be very well aligned among these players; to grow your startup community. With that goal in mind, I would posit that the best growth tool impacts the total number of entrepreneurs. But yet, much if not all of a community leaders focus seems to be about supporting existing founders and very little activity about finding, inspiring and creating new entrepreneurs.
The one most common underrepresentation in every community is the number of founders or entrepreneurs in the community.
There are a number of well-documented thought pieces that attempt to determine the optimal number of entrepreneurs in a specific geographic area. I have seen researchers suggest as many as 20% and as few as 2%. Like many complex systems, there are also definitional issues.
For the sake of this post, I am defining entrepreneur as a high-growth entrepreneur and not a main street entrepreneur. If you want to take an even tighter stance, we can choose to just include adults (though I would add that there are many budding entrepreneurs in middle & high school as well as college).
My non-scientific working hypothesis is this: every geography (city, metro, town) has 5-10% of their total adult population as potential future or current founders. For even the smallest of cities/towns (let’s say 150,000 people and 95,00 adults or 60+%) this would yield a total addressable market of 3,250 to 7,500 entrepreneurs. In the interest of taking an even more conservative view (maybe we filter by education or awareness), we can cut that in ½ again and target 1,620 to 3,500 total entrepreneurs in a city of 150,000.
I would imagine that not one city or community has optimized to that number. In most developing or even emerging communities that I work in, I typically see 50-200 engaged entrepreneurs.
Want a meta community goal to shoot for that everyone can get behind? Shoot for identifying and engaging 2% of your adult population to consider entrepreneurship. That is how many entrepreneurs should be in your community.
There are many aspects of life where more is better and as such there are many times we employ strategies to maximize the more. A few examples that many of us live by are:
- Priceless Art
- Time with loved ones
- Goals in ice hockey (ok maybe just me).
In terms of startup community building, there are a plethora of activities that local leaders utilize to create lift. (For clarity, I am using the word “activities” in a very broad sense.) These may include:
- Coffee meetups ~ 1 Million Cups
- Grant Programs
- Pitch Competitions
- Learn to Code Academies
- Networking Socials
- Startup Weekends
- Recruitment Events
- Venture Funds
- Community Blogs
The list literally goes on and on. Developing communities are first challenged to convene the various actors across the ecosystem. This has an immediate positive impact as the tribe begins to organize. Participate in this over a few months and some momentum begins to build.
As a community matures, activities naturally increase as newly motivated leaders step up and attempt to fill various voids. In many mature communities, there may be as many as 2-3 events every week.
I find the number, the diversity and the cadence of these activities to be one of the critical signals as to the maturity of a community.
But beware. There is a trap that evolves in some minds that if the first handful of activities start to build some very visible momentum, then more activities would have an even larger effect. Unfortunately there I a ceiling to the # of activities and the subsequent impact.
In terms of startup community building, the more is better strategy has a very visible limit to its effectiveness. Once a critical mass of organizing activities are achieved (different trigger points for different communities), then the strategy should shift to building more meaningful activities.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Great football players make great coaches or great coaches make great football players. I call these circular arguments but they are actually causality dilemma’s and they drive people crazy.
In startup communities I believe the same argument or dilemma exists but with another anchor to the circle. Great companies.
My circular argument goes like this: Great leaders build great companies which build great Communities which build great leaders which build great companies.
For some of you this makes a lot of sense. You are probably the more vision & abstract type of thinker. For those of you who skew to a more precise and factual point-of-view, your head probably just blew up.
“You want answers! I want the truth! You can’t handle the truth.” (Insert Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men or Rudy Giuliani, “truth is not truth”).
Well I have a little surprise for you. While laying out this framework I have tricked you by getting you to eliminate the things that are not necessarily catalysts for a great startup community (space, capital, government programs or even Startup Weekends – all of which can help tremendously).
The one catalyst for a startup community are the entrepreneurs themselves.
I have a pet phrase I use every day, “no entrepreneurs – no entrepreneur community”. They are the center pivot for everything. Without them the rest is just noise. Without them the rest of us are useless. I think it’s funny and sad when I hear community leaders working hard to help spawn, grow and accelerate their startup community and never once spent more than 15 minutes with a local entrepreneur.
Let me repeat – everything starts with the entrepreneur. Serve them. Build your community around them. And when you are conflicted with multiple choices of what to do next, ask yourself this one question – “what action of mine would help the entrepreneur the best”.
Careful which game you chose to play as you tell stories about your community.
When selling anything, the first tool you utilize is the tool that showcases the benefits of your offering. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Resumes attempt to do this for you. Brochures or sell sheets emphasize the benefits of your product or service. As you begin to tell your community story, the first task at hand is to identify your unique community strengths. Playing to your strengths is a vital and obvious tool to use for many community building goals.
But, I see community leaders get this wrong all of the time. I find this exacerbated in smaller communities. Let’s call this the community asset theorem.
The basis of the theorem is that the biggest company in your small community is by default your biggest asset and as such one believes that this is a unique asset of your community as compared to other communities. (We will discuss the compare community theorem at another time.)
The first trait of the theorem I find myopic. Myopic in that you assume your asset is unique as compared to everywhere else because it is so vital to your community. The local healthcare system is a perfect example. Decent size cities (1M population) have a dominant healthcare facility with some decent research component attached. They are typically the largest employer in town. And they are staffed with super smart people. Community leaders then develop an asset list based on the fact that they have a sizable and leading healthcare ecosystem in their community and as such this should be the basis for a unique startup community.
As compared to who?
Do you know that every city with a population of 500,000 has one of these if not more? Do you know that there are 34 cities in the US with this population or larger? What is unique about that? I think it is a fundamental flaw to think your healthcare system could be the basis for a robust startup community.
The implication in this line of thinking is that you can build your community by recruiting entrepreneurs, capital and generate general attention to your area because of this unique asset.
When I hear community leaders highlight their local dominant company and then leap to assumption that they can build a unique startup community around this a number of red flares go up.
Instead of taking this naïve and myopic view, why don’t you go find your local coworking space or the expensive but hipster coffee shop and talk to a bunch of entrepreneurs. Find out what they are all working on and build your unique community value proposition around them.
A few years ago, Brad Feld outlined in a blog post the notion of density as a primary factor in the maturity of a startup community. His observation was that when visiting Boston, he ended up never leaving Cambridge and that in turn meant that Cambridge was a great place to do everything startup. Though a specific ratio was never outlined, the idea is that there is a flywheel effect that comes from having a robust amount of the startup tribe (as compared with the general professional population) in a specific geographic area (building or neighborhood).
Think of this as the watercooler effect for a city.
A few weeks after that post, I was meeting with Adam Klein (one of my Raleigh/Durham community leader friends) and I brought up Brad’s post and the implications for our work in trying to build our startup community. From that meeting, Adam and I set a goal of 200+ net new entrepreneurs in our downtown location.
Underlying Brad’s notion of density is the idea of what I call the Aspirational Founder Stack. I believe that every founder at whatever part of the journey they are on, derives comfort and knowledge from the founder/company that is operating at the next higher level.
So, if you are just starting something and you are a one-man band, you look at the group with 3-5 people and aspirationally long for a future when you are that big. When you are the 3-5 person company, you imagine a day that you have raised more than $1M and have 10-15 employees. You get the idea.
Great community density comes when all of the actors in the stack are easily visible and accessible to the others actors in the stack.
We all agree that this is more of a team game than a solo sport and to that end, we gain a level of psychological comfort and even inspiration from seeing someone just like you achieve what you are trying to achieve.
As community leaders, it is really important to create/facilitate as much founder density as possible. Yes, bring in as many first-time or seed-stage founders, but also recruit as many of the more mature companies to the same building or neighborhood.
That aspirational founder stack around the same daily watercooler will create an energy that will in time organically recruit others founders, investors, and community supporters.
Building and maintaining your network is important but is that everything?
A community is made up of all of the actors in the region and us community geeks call this a network. The first step in community building is to make sure you get all of the nodes (people not organizations) mapped out. The second step is to try and see who is already connected and to connect those not yet connected to each other. This can take months if not years.
To do this effectively you need a number of leaders/influencers to actually work at this daily. Some may call this a form of networking and for now let’s refer to this as community networking.
As you begin to build out your community network, it is essential that you don’t stop at mapping and connecting the recognizable actors. Which means you have to work at finding and connecting with Net New players.
If your idea of managing your network is simply reaching out to old professional friends to get an update on what they are doing over a coffee or beer, then I would argue that you are operating at a “B” level. Congrats on actually reaching out to connect – it is still critical and obviously better than not reaching out at all.
There is another gear for optimizing your networking time. I would argue that you need to add NET NEW people to your network for you to be operating at a level “A”. Of course, this is more difficult and does not necessarily feel as good as connecting with old friends.
NET NEW contacts expand your network power in so many ways.
First, you get to tell your story to a person who does not know your story. They are now enabled with you, your story and your mojo. If they are local, you get to reinforce your position in the community. If they are not local you just created a new seed in a weaker networked area. The real value is then reached when they then tell your story within their network. (This is why you always ask what you can do for them and then do it.)
The second benefit is that you have just added a resource to later utilize for you and/or your community. Every NET NEW person expands an industry niche, a functional skill, or a seasoned experience that you can lean on later.
Found some time to network this week? Think about how you can meet 5 NET NEW people to connect with and share stories. Your network thanks you in advance.
Just about every city has one, what options do you have?
It turns out that startup communities are no different than any other community; there are good actors and bad actors. One of the bad actors I label as the community bully. In this day of #metoo it should not surprise anyone that startup communities have the same type of bad actor.
There is no room for the community bully in the same way there is no room for the gender, racial, sexual preference bully.
The one definition of a bully that I prefer is a person who, “uses superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.” In startup communities, it is the influence that bully’s use to intimidate.
Some examples of startup community bullies include:
- Investors who use their monetary power to extract outrageous terms and unproductive behaviors from founders,
- Entrepreneurial leaders (and their organizations) who force entrepreneurs to secure real estate (office space) to get access to their organization,
- Advisors or mentors who only share their experience and network through a “pay to play” arrangement,
- The grizzled business or government leader who hoards information, convenes secret meetings and generally exhibits “old-boys club” behaviors,
- Corporate executives who bring their old-school corporate aggressiveness (compete, shouting, take-no-prisoners) to their interactions with new founders.
Community building is more art than science. It is more support than burn bridges. Great communities recycle people every day. Bully new founders and they will find a new place to start their company. The best entrepreneurs quickly recognize bully behavior and vote with their feet. No entrepreneurs – – no entrepreneurial community.
So, what to do with your community bully?
Cut off their access to the community. Investors need deal flow, stop making introductions. Create alternative co-working arrangements with companies that have some extra space. Stop inviting them to meetings. Don’t put them on a panel or invite them to speak to your program. Establish a code of conduct amongst the good actors and share that across the community through social media.
Good actor leaders also hold responsibility to privately address the bully one-on-one. Though this feels confrontational, the spirit of the conversation should be more like, “we need you as an integral part of our community but not the way you are doing it today”.
Giving is sometimes easier than asking.
#givefirst is the aspect of community building where you as an individual help someone else without any expectation of getting something in return. No quid pro quo transaction approach here.
For many of you, you provide elements of #givefirst every day. You take a coffee meeting with a friend of a friend. You make an introduction on someone’s behalf. Or you simply listen to someone pitch their idea and give them some much needed feedback.
For others, the notion of hoarding all of your gold (time, energy, experience) just for your own benefit makes total sense. (I would like a chance to convince you that a little #givefirst will pay major dividends in ways you cannot even imagine – email me and let’s talk.)
But this post is not about #givefirst. It is about asking for help. I sometimes refer to this as the other (darker?) side of #givefirst, and in many communities, people are simply afraid to ask for help.
Asking for help has its roots in self-awareness and radical self-inquiry. The best entrepreneurs give time to understand what factors and emotions are driving the hundreds of decisions required in a startup. A significant outcome is the ability to ask for help.
Immature communities may frown upon a more public presentation of needing help with the belief that is shows weakness. Startup founders are supposed to know everything, be in command of their ship and can weather any issue that confronts them. Hogwash.
I see this as a signal of community maturity and firmly believe that leaders have to show 1st timers that asking for help is as much part of the success journey as fundraising, hiring or developing a great product.
Leaders lead by showing others that certain behaviors or mindsets are acceptable. Every panel discussion, every blog post, every tweet are opportunities to nudge your community’s beliefs.