Startup Communities – Where to Find Them and How to Get Involved

An entrepreneur needs a network of supportive people and resources to maximize his or her chances of success, because there will always be fires to put out. While entrepreneurs can be found everywhere, some startup ecosystems are thriving more than others. Building a startup community, or startup ecosystem, is no easy task and requires a lot of intentional work.

An interconnected startup community is one that shares common values and whose interests support the entrepreneurs, their ventures, and the startup community as a whole. The GIST Network assembled a panel of experts to discuss best practices in helping your ecosystem become more interconnected, supportive, and prosperous:

  • Michelle Messina, co-author of the best-selling book Decoding Silicon Valley: The Insider’s Guide.
  • Grant Warner, director of innovation for Howard University’s Graduate School.
  • Chantalle Dumonceaux, co-founder of and adviser to Womena, an angel investment platform focused on women in the Middle East.
  • Moderator Jeff Engell, founder of Blue Oceans Group.

What is a startup community?

Chantalle describes a startup community as “a network of people and institutions that add value to each other and help each other succeed just like any network.” Entrepreneurs are not the only players in the ecosystem.

Grant adds that when he thinks of startup communities he thinks of ecosystems as Chantalle mentioned. He sees an ecosystem as a community that has multiple players but “each one has to be nurtured and you have to develop a plan to nurture them.”

Michelle defines a startup community on the basis of a group of different types of service providers, universities, investors, large corporations that function as customers, but they are all aligned and unified around the goal of serving and supporting the needs of the entrepreneurs. Michelle says, “It’s a supportive ecosystem, but the entrepreneurs and startups are at the center of that and the most important part of it.”

Why create a startup community?

The job of being an entrepreneur and building a startup is really hard. It takes a community to raise a startup. Michelle strongly believes a startup community commitment to serving and supporting the needs of the entrepreneur is what makes it so valuable.

Who are some of the key participants in a startup community?

As discussed by the panelists, the essential components of a startup ecosystem include:

  • Entrepreneurs with ideas, inventions and researches or startups at various stages.
  • A community culture that reinforces the idea that you can fail fast, often, and still advance your ideas.
  • Networks
    • Investor networks
    • Mentors
    • Advisers
  • Incubators / Accelerators
    • Coworking spaces
    • Universities
  • Service providers (consulting, accounting, legal, etc.)
  • Funding providers (loans, grants, etc.)

What role can universities play in a startup community? How do you influence the culture of the university to be more supportive of a startup community?

Universities have the potential to be some of the best places to build and support a startup community.

“The campus itself is a bed of talent and the university itself has resources to create spaces that can benefit the community,” says Grant. There is also this idea that you have to reach markets to test your product, and universities tend to have very strong partnerships with large corporations so they have a pathway that can help entrepreneurs grow their startups. The training provided to student entrepreneurs affiliated with a university can have other benefits as well — such as creating opportunities for students to gain practical experience and start their careers before they have even graduated.

Why is it so hard for developing countries to support young startups despite the fact that this would grow their tax base?

Chantalle advises entrepreneurs in emerging markets not to depend on people from the United States or Europe to realize their value, but to build it themselves. She encourages entrepreneurs to “find their unique, local competitive advantage and exploit it.”

Find your competitive advantage, your unique market, and figure out how the developed markets are not able to service your market. That’s what you need to focus on as an entrepreneur, then later as an investor, and generally as a community leader.

Grant adds that when talking about the elements of a strong startup community, the government is a part of it. But there are so many other elements. He says, “If I was an entrepreneur in a developing economy, I would look to see what other assets are available in the community and how could those assets be assembled to help grow the impact of the startup community.”

Being based in Silicon Valley, Michelle travels to different countries around the world. She doesn’t believe in trying to copy Silicon Valley. She explains, “I believe in trying to assess what’s there and leverage that in a way that the ecosystem locally — whether it be the industries, the partners, [or] the historical and cultural aspects of that local community — can be successful based on what their existing strengths are.”

Jeff also notes that while some countries’ economies are advanced, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the startup ecosystem is, and that’s important to consider when building a startup community.

Measuring whether a startup community is performing well can be tricky but important for the success of a startup ecosystem. Michelle believes that any startup community is unique because of where they are, the culture, the industries that have been established there over time, and the daily rhythms of business in that particular place. Every community is going to be nuanced and different in its own way.

Also important is being able to measure the community’s activities over the course of years. Michelle recommends looking at the number of new companies in the system, how many events are happening, and if those activities are only general or if there is a range that reflects the diversity of growth stages for startups.

How can different entrepreneurship ecosystems connect with one another?

It’s difficult coming from a developing country to connect with the right people that you need for your startup.

Michelle suggests starting with being clear about what your own objectives are before going into a particular ecosystem. Ask yourself “what you hope to accomplish and whom you want to connect with.” She advises to start with events and meetups. Look at large technology conferences like Startup Grind, TechCrunch and IOT World. Reach out to online editors and journalists to ask about who is active in the community, who the key players are in the industry, and what are the meetups you should be going to.

The most important thing for entrepreneurs is to get involved. Learn what you can and share your own knowledge and expertise. After all, you may know something or someone that could be helpful to another entrepreneur, even if you are just getting started.

Building and supporting a startup community is no small task. Every entrepreneur is going to need something different to be successful, and they may not all find success immediately. The community you build, that they build, can create multiple opportunities to build important relationships and empower entrepreneurs with the knowledge, skills, experience, and relationships for them to build ideas into reality.