I recently returned from the Startup Phenomenon conference in Boulder where I had the opportunity to reconnect with some old friends and meet some new amazing people from around the globe.
We talked about everything startup community from culture, entrepreneurs, events, finance, corporations, and governments to networking models and measuring success. Brad Feld and Jim Collins provided some incredible insight on how to take our startup communities from “Good to Great." The conversation was inspirational and ended far too soon. I would like to keep the conversation going here and encourage you to chime in with your thoughts, learnings, and suggestions from your startup community.
To kick off the conversation, let’s start with a review of Brad Feld’s four pillars for building a successful startup community and how our own experiences relate to these concepts.
The first of Feld’s four pillars is that for a startup community to be sustainable over time it must led by entrepreneurs. Many other organizations can play key roles in the startup community but they cannot be the leaders.
The challenge for many startup communities at the early stage of development is identifying and engaging with successful entrepreneurs. This was the case for our community in Kelowna, BC. Here are a few lessons we learned along the way that can help engage entrepreneurs in your community:
1. Hold events and activities that are appealing to entrepreneurs. Events should be fun, casual and provide an environment for entrepreneurs to connect with community members without having to worry about being constantly pitched or inundated with requests for their time. I would suggest that morning coffee meetups are a great way to begin the engagement process with entrepreneurs in your community.
One event that has proven to be very successful in our community is Startup Drinks, a monthly event that is hosted at various tech companies around town that regularly attract a full house of attendees representing a great cross-section of community members. The venue is free, beer is donated by a local micro brewery and the networking is off the charts!
2. Be consistent and patient. If possible, community events should happen at the same time on the same day of the week, and preferably at the same location. When entrepreneurs become comfortable attending community events and activities, they will attend on a more regular basis and invite the friends to join them—familiarity breeds comfort and this will eventually lead to more engagement.
One event that follows this pattern in our community is “Entrepreneurs Unplugged” which happens on the first Monday of every month. Entrepreneurs Unplugged provides a venue for local entrepreneurs to talk about their journey, share their successes and failures and inspire the next generation of creative, innovative, entrepreneurial thought leaders in our community.
3. Identify and engage “rock star” entrepreneurs. These are people who are recognized in the community for having significant success as an entrepreneur. Our startup community gained significant momentum when the three most successful technology entrepreneurs became more outwardly facing and accessible in the community.
Although active behind the scenes for several years, this heightened level of engagement added a new level of credibility and “cool factor” to community events and activities. These leaders are now hosting coffee meetups, community building activities and are deeply involved in supporting social entrepreneurship and social enterprise initiatives.
4. Identify and support volunteer, community driven organizations with a shared vision of supporting startups and entrepreneurship. As a partially government funded organization, Accelerate Okanagan’s first foray into delivering community events and activities were done behind our own brand. What we found over time is that it was much more effective to identify likeminded community organizations and support their event and activity efforts.
We did this by providing venues, speakers, registration services and refreshments but took a back seat and remained behind the scenes. Also, it should not have been a surprise to find out that entrepreneurs were active in many of these grassroots community organizations. I would suggest engaging with the grassroots volunteer organizations in your community; they are typically run by entrepreneur leaders and are the foundation for building and sustaining a vibrant startup ecosystem.
In his book Startup Communities Feld talks about the difference between leaders (entrepreneurs) and feeders (everyone else) including government, academia, service providers, venture capital, mentors etc. and that feeders play a key role but cannot be leaders. One very interesting anecdote raised at the conference, and supported by Feld, was that individuals from feeder organizations can take on a leadership role in the community if they act as individuals and not representatives of the feeder organizations.
The key is they must share the “give before you get” philosophy. I would support this notion and state that our community is very fortunate to have several individuals from feeder organizations who willingly volunteer their time and expertise to support entrepreneurs and are regular participants in startup community events and activities.
I would love to hear from you and learn more about how you are engaging with leaders in your community and some of the lessons you have learned along the way.