The Foundations Of A Startup Community

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Editor’s Note: Brenden Mulligan is an entrepreneur who created Onesheet, ArtistData, MorningPics, and PhotoPile. He’s an mentor for 500 Startups, Advise.me and several startups. You can find him on Twitter at @bmull and blogging at Starting Up.

For the past few months, my wife and I have been traveling and meeting startups around the world. We’ve met entrepreneurs in Tokyo, Thailand, India, Israel, and Istanbul. In the next week we’ll be meeting with a community leader in South Africa. It’s been fascinating.

In addition to meeting with the teams, we have been leading Q&A sessions with larger groups. The discussion always includes the group asking “how do we make our startup community as strong as Silicon Valley?”

It’s an important question, as a lot of the startups’ success in Silicon Valley can be attributed to the strong community. However, that community has been growing and maturing for over 40 years. So when people ask about how to replicate it, I try to direct the conversation back to the foundation of the community.

These are the elements I think are important to seed a startup community:

Support

There are a lot of places where starting a company isn’t seen as an exciting and inspiring pursuit. In fact, in places like Japan, we learned that becoming an entrepreneur is seen as an unwise and ill-informed decision. This kind of environment makes launching a startup, which is already an incredibly difficult task, near impossible. The founders needs to find a way to feel supported. If they don’t feel support, they won’t make it through endless 18 hour days. In places where support isn’t the norm, founders need to find ways to support each other until the rest of the community comes around.

Collaboration

One of the best things about having co-founders is it gives an entrepreneur other people to bounce ideas off of and work through problems with. But in good startup communities, this kind of collaboration isn’t limited to internal conversations. Founders of different companies should constantly get together to share their experiences and help each other. Especially in newer entrepreneurial communities, it’s incredibly important to pool knowledge, instead of everyone figuring out everything on their own. This can happen in any form, whether it’s late night hack sessions or weekly breakfasts. Figure out what works for your community and then get together and talk.

Transparency

When collaborating, transparency is a must. In many places, people are afraid to talk freely about their ideas, figuring that someone might steal what they’re working on. In more mature startup environments, we’ve learned that this shouldn’t be a concern. The risk of someone stealing your idea (which I’ve never seen happen) is almost always offset by the huge amount of value you get from sharing what you’re working on and asking for feedback. So when you get together to talk, really talk.

Embrace Failure

It’s human nature to talk about your successes and hide your failures. After all, why tell people what you’re not good at? Why admit you didn’t do something well? In startup communities, it’s one of the most valuable things you can do. Most entrepreneurs (and people in general) will tell you they’ve learned more from their failures than their successes. By keeping these failures to yourself, no one else can learn from them. In startups, people don’t see failure as a reflection of your talent, they see it as an opportunity to learn and improve. Most startups fail. So if you’re going to get into startups, embrace failure, and learn from it. Then share what you learned.

Form Startup Hubs

Getting a group of entrepreneurs talking is a great step, but finding some common places to do that makes it a lot more powerful. This be a permanent location (co-working space, incubators, technology organizations, cafes) or a scheduled event (meetups, happy hours), but it’s important to establish places where entrepreneurs can co-exist. There are probably a lot more entrepreneurs around you than you think, and getting everyone together is one way to understand the size of your community. This is one of the reasons that Startup Weekend is such a powerful organization. It brings the community together.

Invite Outsiders In

People from more established entrepreneurial cities love helping smaller communities grow. Use this to your advantage. Invite people who have been successful in established hubs to come speak at a local conference, come speak at the local hub, or just come and meet teams when they’re in town. Pay attention to people’s travel schedules (which people always post to Twitter) and if they’re in your area, invite them. Entrepreneurs love sharing knowledge with someone else, and it’s rewarding to do this with a new community. Dave McClure has formed a whole organization around this concept with Geeks On A Plane, which takes entrepreneurs to all corners of the world to teach and learn from the local startup community. Jeff Slobotski has done it for years with the enormously successful Big Omaha conference.

Send Insiders Out

You community can’t expect everyone to come to you or to figure it all out on its own. It’s important to see how people are doing it elsewhere, and there’s no better way to do that than to get knee deep in it. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with an entrepreneur who took a trip to the bay area who left without learning something new or meeting at least one valuable connection. So use whatever connections you have and visit places with mature communities like San Francisco, New York, etc. If you can’t make it, send ambassadors for you to go learn and then come share back with the community.

Be Patient

A lot of people worry that since top tier investors aren’t interested in their community right away, their efforts aren’t paying off. But they need to be patient. Building a startup community takes a long time. Brad Feld of the Foundry Group spoke about this at last year’s Tahoe Tech Talk, saying it’s taken 15 years to build the community in Boulder, Colorado, even though many people think it’s happened just over the past few years.

Overall, just understand that the most amazing thing about Silicon Valley isn’t the huge amount of venture capital, or number potential acquirers. It’s not all the incubators or co-working spaces. Instead, it’s the collaborative, helpful, and inspiring community that’s developed around it all. It’s the 10 other entrepreneurs sitting next to you at the coffee shop willing to help you through a problem or make an introduction to someone who might be helpful. It’s the support that the entire community consistently gives each other.

A strong community won’t appear overnight, but if you start with the right foundation, the rest will come in time.

Please add anything I missed in the comments.

[Update: A video of Brad's talk]