Not long ago, the European Startup Initiative had the opportunity to take part in the inaugural Startup Ecosystem Summit in Cologne. Hosted by Pirate Global, directly preceding their flagship Pirate Summit, the Ecosystem Summit brought together startup community organizers, movers and shakers from over 30 different startup ecosystems across the world. Here, participants discussed the challenges facing their startup communities and troubleshooted solutions.
The great diversity in the room illustrated the special quality of startup communities and the people who work to build them. Great startup communities are ones that help build up all members of the community and provide a climate fertile to entrepreneurship—for reasons beyond individual self-interest. Ecosystem builders, whether they be the hosts of co-working spaces, accelerators/incubators, meetup/Slack groups, or simply keen networkers and event attendees – have integral roles to play in helping to foster and build local startup communities. Their jobs are not easy, and often, unheralded (if you have benefited from efforts of your local community builders, let them know—and thank them).
During the course of the Summit, many best practices were shared and challenges addressed. Here, I share some of my key takeaways:
1. The startup ecosystem is truly global, and is comprised of many local “habitats”.
The entrepreneurs within our community are by definition, international. While often we are connected with only our direct regional startup climate, it is important to recognize the ecosystem of startup entrepreneurs and community is a global one. Just as companies are born global—ecosystems will be unsuccessful if they are too insular and not part of a larger network. Work to build connections across geographies by connecting to other startup communities in your region and globally. These networks help increase diversity and build connections that can be leveraged later on. Participants from the U.S. noted how entrepreneurs there rarely travel between their local areas. Europe, with more affordable travel options and proximity, should work to take advantage of the great wealth of startup ecosystems that may be reached in less than a few hours. Startup community builders can work to create these connections—by developing relationships with nearby ecosystems and promoting their events. Try to work with neighboring ecosystems to promote shared activities, and develop clusters along similar industries. Take the initiative to share your events and activities with those in nearby cities—and don’t let entrepreneurs get stuck at home. By building connections between ecosystems—you can leverage greater connection and opportunity. This has been done with great effect, as Bard Feld built Techstars in Boulder, CO, he helped build off of the strength of Denver, CO tech ecosystem, just less than an hour away. In Europe, the Startup Wise Guys accelerator operates both in Tallinn and Riga—to leverage the benefits of both ecosystems. Look to see what connections might make sense for your ecosystem.
2. Diversity and inclusiveness propels startup ecosystems forward.
While one way to connect your ecosystem globally is through travel, another is to make your ecosystem more open to the world. A comprehensive and clear communication strategy is one way to share your startup ecosystem with the world. Help to make your community open to outsiders and visitors by aligning community resources across common platforms (Startup Berlin Slack is just one example) or build your own (Labs of Latvia). Some startup ecosystems have successfully united their activities under common hashtags, making them making them easy to find across existing platforms. Startup community builder Tyler Crowley calls this technique a “flag” and this has been used successfully in places like Copenhagen (#CPHFTW), Krakow (#OMGKRK) and Stockholm (#SthlmTech). When ecosystem activities are public, and easy to find, no more #FOMO (and greater inclusion for all).
Inclusive ecosystems are not just those where all events are public and activities are recognizable. They are ecosystems where everyone is allowed to participate, and where people who want to get involved actively feel they can join in. One way to do this is to utilize Code of Conducts to be clear about your message of inclusivity. One great example is the Berlin Code of Conduct, but feel free to build your own to define your community. The Pirate Summit has a great one namely, “there are no VIPS”. Importantly—adhere to it!
Everyone has a place in the startup community—even those who you may perceive as “bad apples”. Brad Feld writes elegantly in his Boulder thesis about the importance of inclusion within the startup community, and everyone benefits from a welcoming environment. This can be difficult, as some community builders shared their experience with predatory so called “accelerator” programs and corporates who prey on startups. These groups can be endemic to startup ecosystems, and in less mature places, they may represent the main game in town. Exclusion of these “bad apples” is impossible from a community standpoint. The startup community can work to help entrepreneurs recognize the difficulties of selling out to these organizations, and use them as a cautionary tale.
3. Consider your communication strategy and work to use English effectively.
Related to 2, utilizing English for community events and activities can open doors and make your events more inclusive to a global community but be aware of who might be excluded. While it was recognized that the language of the global startup community is English, and entrepreneurs who wish for greater success globally should become comfortable with using English, the adherence to English in some places can be alienating to some who do not feel comfortable with their competence. Complete adherence to English (when English is not the native tongue of the country) can also create a barrier towards working with local government. In these cases, it is important to be clear about what activities and events are in the local/regional language and what events/activities are in English.
While recognizing the limitations of English exclusivity, it is important to recognize that events in English can be useful for making the startup ecosystem more diverse, open to newcomers, immigrants and the international community. Similarly, English-language events and activities that are uploaded to Youtube and Facebook share your community’s activities with an international audience. Here, these activities can help shine a light on what is happening in your local community and may generate media attention and visitors. Small ecosystems can punch above their weight by making their activities particularly open, visible and accessible. Countries like Latvia and Estonia and their local ecosystems of Tallinn, Tartu, and Riga have done this very well, by making nearly all their events in English, and sharing their activities online in English as well. Despite being small ecosystems, it makes it very easy for outsiders to come into and feel included without a language barrier, as well as for outsiders to get a good sense about what is happening there.
4. Learn to work with government.
Local and national governments can get in the way but it’s important to learn to work with them better. One of the main takeaways shared by the participants was how government interference has created conflict and competition in local startup ecosystems. While there was some discussion about how best to ignore, and rebuff government interference, a better strategy devised was to learn how to work better with one another. Much of the conflict between government and startup ecosystems is due to miscommunication and misunderstanding. There is a perception (and in some places, a reality) that government entities seek to take credit for the achievements of startup community builders without putting in the effort. Similarly, there is a feeling from community builders that government entities do not take the time to understand the startup community well enough and do not take them seriously.
In our work with local and national governments, we have seen how government entities are similarly confused by the startup scene, and are stymied when their established incentives and packages for business development go unused and ignored by startups. The low interest in their offers for startups is discouraging for them—and disincentives them from further engagement with the community. We have found that the reason for many of these sub-optimal outcomes is due to a misunderstanding between the startup ecosystem and their municipalities. Ultimately, both startup communities and government want the same thing: a thriving, inclusive and prosperous climate for entrepreneurship. It is this common ground that ecosystem builders can work to promote themselves.
To bridge this gap, startup communities can better communicate their value (and values) to government. In conversations with municipalities and community leaders, try to speak in terms that are familiar to them, particularly in terms of numbers (business creation, event size, membership). While the group expressed that developing accurate metrics on startup communities is difficult—it is important to develop some figures about the relative size, number of events, individuals, and venues that make up your community. Figures on investment and exits can also be helpful. Share with them the connections your startup community has with others in the region or beyond, to help them realize how today’s startup ecosystems are part of a larger global community.
Similarly, startup communities can do better at informing their local communities about who makes up their startup ecosystems, and the unique values that help to sustain it. A common misconception of startup ecosystems tends to bring to mind the American wunderkinds, young, single men like Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel who started their companies out of college. However, this understanding is blind to the fact that the entrepreneurs who inhabit today’s startup ecosystems are incredibly diverse. Help inform your communities of who is involved in the startup ecosystem, and what problems they are aiming to solve. Help them better understand the individuals that make it special and what their needs are.
5. Everyone needs to help each other.
From listening to participants who represented startup ecosystems outside of Europe, it is evident that in many countries, there exists considerable inequality across startup ecosystems. Participants from Palestine, Bangladesh and Iran shared their experiences in less mature startup ecosystems, and the difficulties they faced there. Some of the challenges stemmed from a lack of diversity, international experience and age of the startup community there. They additionally struggle with difficult government regulations, corruption and incredibly challenging funding environments. Individuals from more mature ecosystems can help those elsewhere in a number of ways, from small gestures to share knowledge (putting events and lessons on Youtube, for example), to inviting members from smaller communities to events and sponsoring their visas for participation.
Furthermore, sharing your time and experience by visiting these places can have a considerable impact, in terms of helping to build connections and networks for those who may not have the opportunity to travel easily. Event and conference organizers can work hard to ensure a more diverse set of speakers and voices on their stages (some conferences are great at this, like re:publica). Harness the great possibilities afforded by Facebook and LinkedIn to create and maintain connections in your industry across borders and geographies. Consider the ways that you can help others in emerging ecosystems, by possibly writing recommendations for participants for conferences or making introductions. Consider Silicon Valley’s original spirit of sharing and paying things forward. You never know when you might need a connection to a new market in Iran—not to mention, there is so much we can learn from one another.
From the experiences of some participants, it is clear that in some ecosystems, the national and local government actively aims to squash or prevent the startup ecosystem from maturing. In this case, it is extra important to build bridges across borders to other ecosystems. If you are facing a government that is resistant or predatory to your community, reach out to other communities in your region. Encourage your entrepreneurs to travel and build connections outside the local area.
The inaugural startup ecosystem summit covered a great amount of ground, and these are only one participant’s observations. Not everything may be applicable to every community—as all places are unique. I hope that Pirate Global holds the Ecosystem Summit again next year, as building greater connections between startup ecosystem builders is certainly an activity worth repeating.
― Written by Natalie Novick.