Engaging Experienced Entrepreneurs is Key to Creating a Startup Ecosystem

One of the side benefits to my building TriNet with a tight focus on startup customers was spending time where there are lots of startups. Beyond Silicon Valley, I look at places like Southern California, Boston, New York City, DC Metro, Austin and Boulder as places where rookie entrepreneurs can drop in, be welcomed and find ways to get connected to the right people who can help them.

The stats would show these same areas also generate lots of companies taking on venture capital investment – the key metric of where tomorrow’s jobs will be located.

While there’s a longer list of attributes separating true startup hubs from the many wannabes, this post will focus on what I believe is the most critical element top startup hubs have in common: Active involvement of seasoned entrepreneurs in leading startup community activities.

Absence of Startup Entrepreneur Leaders = Low Startup Activity

Active startup hubs feature a wide and ongoing menu of activities where the entrepreneurial class (including rookies) can “bump into” each other to begin the process of forming new relationships that support a startup’s growth. Whether its a startup weekend, hackathon, tech meetup, open coffee house, startup entrepreneur development session or other activity or event, the highest impact programs are lead by seasoned entrepreneurs.

In third tier markets such as Upstate NY, you can find institutions like government, colleges and non profits spending lots of resources trying to spur more startup activity. While the intent is laudable, the experience of those coming from an institutional viewpoint is, well, institutional.

Programs can lack relevance, or worse, feature public officials and institutional leaders seeking to score political points. The value add from weak programs leave seasoned entrepreneurs seeing no benefit in participating and they instead remain invisible on the sidelines. Institutional led events may still fill a room with aspirational entrepreneurs, but attendees all too often miss out in the real value of such events – connecting with the right people who can help them.

Seasoned Entrepreneurs as Startup Community Leaders

While institutions can host, sponsor and support activities, the benefits of them getting seasoned entrepreneurs out front as leaders in these efforts include:

  • Keeping the program “real world.” Who’s better suited to make sure the content and outcomes are relevant?
  • Bringing a network of supporters. Typically including other entrepreneurs adding more credibility to the event or activity
  • Knowing how to market. Building enough mass is a challenge and risk in any first time event or new group formation, entrepreneurs are well suited to address.
  • Getting things done. Once they take on the mantle of leadership, a true entrepreneur will figure out what things need to get done and who can be engaged to do it. Entrepreneurs are resourceful and results oriented.
  • Visibility of role models. It is high impact to have aspiring and first time entrepreneurs interact with their seasoned and successful brethren.

Engaging Entrepreneurs to Lead

After banging my head on this issue for too long, I’ve got my own conclusions now about what it takes to get successful entrepreneurs off the sidelines and into the fray.

First, someone has to ask the entrepreneur to lead. This means finding the right person with a community orientation and pitching with a specific request. (The go to resource for ideas here would be Brad Feld’s book Startup Communities). The best person to do the ask is of course another entrepreneur who is already active. No one is more credible, can speak to objections or is harder to turn down.

Put a spotlight on those entrepreneurs who are leading. Not only because it is good for the community to see, but the more other seasoned entrepreneurs see of their brethren in this light the easier it is for them to latch on and join the movement. Momentum matters.

Support them. If you’re pitching an entrepreneur to lead, find ways to bring support to whatever the activity or initiative might be. Can you link them up to others who could join the effort? Can you assist in the marketing or offer up a facility? Anything you bring forward that eases some of the burden or risk may get you closer for your target entrepreneur leader to say yes.

So while there lots of initiatives UVC has in play as we work towards building Upstate’s startup ecosystem, this is where I spend the largest single chunk of time – identifying, then recruiting seasoned entrepreneurs to step up and take a leading role.

And when they do, it is a win for the community: both for the rookie entrepreneurs who need real world content and contact, as well as a high impact, satisfying endeavor for the seasoned entrepreneur. Truly a win-win-win.

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