June 17th, 2020
By Chris Heivly, Techstars Senior Vice President for Ecosystem Development
Growing your startup community is exhilarating. You can easily see the impact you create in the number of people who show up at your new event (virtual or IRL). Founders sincerely thank you for taking time to grab a coffee and giving them an interested audience to hear their idea. You even got written up in the local paper for being a “change leader.”
But, at the same time, the challenges mount as the pace of change never seems to be fast enough. You listen to your peers in other cities and you become envious of their impact. You evaluate the data about your city (# of new financings, amount of venture capital raised, net new # of startup companies) and it appears that your city is actually slowing down, not accelerating.
You take on leadership when asked.
You lead activities that interest you.
You sit in on the roundtable discussions with peers.
You give of yourself when others seem to pass on the opportunity.
What else can you do?
Are you part of the problem?
Startup communities are complex systems that contain lots of actors with many different motivations. And this goes a long way to answering these questions. When I start work on ecosystem development with a new community, here are the questions I ask to kick off the process:
Are you 100% happy with the current state of the startup community? (Yes/No)
Do you think that you are responsible for the community not reaching 100%? (Yes/No)
Every time I have asked question #1, unilaterally, the answer is NO: we are not 100% happy with the current state of our community.
Every time I ask them if you are responsible, almost 100% of the leaders indicate that they are NOT RESPONSIBLE.
What is happening here is basic human nature, and a very common observation in systems thinking. When you look at your efforts, all you see is how hard you are working, and typically you pass by the part where you evaluate your efforts in the context of the entire system. It turns out that this context is the key that unlocks your community's potential.
You are both the answer and part of the problem. You are a key leader and influencer and your work is commendable. But, are you working with your entire community or putting your head down and just doing your thing? If you are doing more heads down work, these actions are creating an unintended impact on others in the community that you may not be aware of. Remember, you are part of a system that morphs and changes every day.
The answer is to spend more time with other leaders and find ways to support their efforts — not just do your own thing in a vacuum.
Chris is one of the nation’s leading experts on launching startups and has been dubbed the “Startup Whisperer.” He cofounded MapQuest, is an angel investor, ran a corporate venture fund and 2 micro venture funds (directed over $75M), and is SVP Ecosystem Development with Techstars. Chris recently published his first book about starting anything called Build The Fort and is currently writing a book on Startup Community Building.
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