So tell me…how exactly do you build startup communities amidst a global pandemic? Also, why should I care about communities when everything has gone virtual? After all, I cannot meet, engage and connect the good ole fashioned way — over some coffee, beer or a meal.
No one has all the answers yet, and we are still in the middle of this storm.
But let us start with the obvious — building communities has never been more important. Be it around the themes of startups, racial inclusion, economic stability or healthcare.
When we have such a massive reset at every level of our work, school and play — we can react in two ways — afraid, fragile and helplessness. Or we can step up to volunteer, support and give. In the former mode, our primal self kicks in. We worry about our own little world — we worry about survival, adapting to change, and the fear of the unknown. There are days when I want to curl up in a fetal position, pull a blanket over my head and cry. Or drown those fluttery blue birds of my heart in a bottle of whiskey.
But to stay that way for too long would be self-absorbed. After a bit of moping, we get out of bed, roll up our sleeves, take a deep breath and ask: How do you restructure your mental models, develop new behaviors and carve new trends and activities? In their latest book The Startup Community Way: Evolving an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem, authors Brad Feld and Ian Hathaway do not offer any pre-packaged solutions or easy steps to nirvana. But the best part about this book is that it helps you build a foundational mental model on building communities — you could really apply this to any community model. Social challenges, Startups, Racial Inclusion and Diversity…the rules are pretty well defined by Feld and Hathaway.
To start with, what assumptions, values and belief systems do we as individuals follow? How do these beliefs play out in our community as our behaviors? One of the principles suggested by the authors is to build an ethos of #givefirst. When we get out of our own microcosm and look at the world, it is not difficult to find ways to contribute. Be it time, money — resources of any kind can be shared. The first step is to get out of the helpless mode and get into “I can help” mode.
Another point made by Ian and Brad is that of inclusion — entrepreneurs rarely follow the mainstream and are perpetually standing at a tangent to the universe. They perceive opportunities where others see problems. They are willing to risk everything when the vast majority seek a comfy 9-to-5 paycheck. Entrepreneurs need help, just like anyone else who may have the odds stacked against themselves. Often our defacto social stance might be to ignore, avoid or pooh pooh founders. Oh, so you want to build rocketships? Go live on Mars? ..but once the founder achieves success, the followers arrive in droves. A community welcomes the crazy ones does and withholds judgment, offers support. It does not treat its members like outcasts, but rather has a highly empathetic view. It tires to offer a blend of the seven capitals — money, ideas, people, and connections. Of these, the physical capital, network capital and cultural capital may be strained with COVID.
One of the biggest challenge for any startup founder is the loneliness of the long distance runner. In part, WeWork became popular not just for the flexi-shared space, but it physical capital — a second home for the tribe. As COVID brings about a big change, we need to take the frameworks developed by Brad and Ian and restart this process by asking:
1) What does the digital community look like? For one, it has no barriers. At a recent virtual founder event hosted by Spero Ventures, speakers like Fred Wilson (Union Square Ventures) and Meg Whitman (former CEO of eBay) joined by Zoom. Anyone from any part of the world could join in and ask questions. No travel expenses, visa challenges, or financial restrictions came into play. The Startup Boards session I participated in had a few hundred attendees from Boston, Bangalore and Brazil. A wide range of questions on building startups were fielded by panelists such as Matt Cooper (CEO of Skillshare) and Shripriya Mahesh (Founding Partner at Spero Ventures). This was a fine example of inclusion and #givefirst — Spero had decided to open up their annual event to everyone. The world could join, not just a select few. It was inclusive, full stack, meaningful engagement.
2) Can you build a sustainable digital community? A digital community might be a few clicks away. But therein lies the problem as well as the opportunity. It can be one-off without a cadence and commitment. Most of our days are filled with a series of Zoom calls. Screen-exhaustion has become a thing. The luxury of an in-person event, the opportunity to make new connections, build new bonds and learn new stuff was a welcome break from our mundane workflows. A virtual community may come together, easily but it could be harder to stay engaged for the long haul? Maybe new models will evolve…better experiences might emerge, which help us form deeper bonds and meaningful engagements. But the fundamental precept that Feld and Hathaway suggest is simple — such communities are led by founders, for the founders. In my view, Brad and Foundry Group may have had the largest impact in Boulder — where a thriving world of startups, founders and the full stack startup community has emerged. It took almost two decades ago. Every principle (and there are 14) in this book has been tried and tested, proven in Boulder. Now we need the digital equivalent of such communities to emerge. There are no good formulas to build communities and the authors warn us as such.
3) How can we help founders succeed? As we evolve post-COVID, and adapt, can we help founders succeed? For some founders, their business models may no longer be relevant. Raising capital may have become harder. Hiring and building remote teams is no longer the same. The formulaic passages have been struck down. Author and CEO coach, Jerry Colonna shared a Joyce Rupp poem in one of his recent virtual sessions, “Old maps do not work”. Here is an excerpt…
….no map, no specific directions,
no “this way ahead” or “take a left”
how will l know where to go?
how will I find my way?
no map !
but then my midlife soul whispers
“there was a time before maps
when pilgrims travelled by the stars..”
None of our old maps may work. Nothing is linear, and we are surrounded by complex yet adaptive forces. But Ian and Brad have offered us some established frameworks to build new maps.
COVID can destroy a lot. But it cannot destroy the founder’s indomitable spirit. Let us build a community, surround this little entrepreneurial spark and help it become a bonfire.
About the author — Mahendra Ramsinghani co-authored Startup Boards (Wiley) with Brad Feld, and author of “The Business of Venture Capital” (Wiley Finance). When he is not writing, he invests in cloud infrastructure and security companies via Secure Octane.