It's easy to look at something already formed and assume that it was easy to get there. But whether it's a product, a company or a supportive ecosystem, it all had to start somewhere.
Cities like San Jose, Austin and San Francisco consistently grab top spots on the Milken Institute's List of Best Performing Cities. These are places that crank out companies by the thousands, creating jobs and building a self-sustaining platform for businesses large and small.
If you don't live in one of these major metros, don't despair. There are plenty of examples of cities that are seeing an emergence of entrepreneurial ecosystems, thanks to passionate individuals who know how to rally support from unconventional sources. So if you're interested in growing or starting your own ecosystem here's how to begin.
Use frustration as your jumping off point
How many times have you been in a group of people who discover overlapping interests only to hear, "We could do so much more we didn't work in silos!" Those are magical words to an ecosystem builder that signal the group is ready to grow to its next iteration. It's time to take the logjam of inefficiency and transform it into a critical mass of interaction. The next step is identifying who can take the existing momentum and run with it...
Step 1 - Be (or find) the champion
There is always at least one person in the group who takes it upon his or herself to be the ringleader of an early entrepreneurial ecosystem. They transform the frustration mentioned above into excitement, rallying the resources and prioritizing the activity. They are often the reason whether the movement flickers out or flourishes.
Ecosystem champions are hard to describe and easy to spot. Sometimes they are topical experts who can forecast how trends like how the Internet of Things (IoT) will affect specific industries. Or they are entrepreneurs like Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos, who relocated his then-unproven company to Las Vegas be closer to a well-skilled workforce and ended up creating an entire startup sector. Or they are grassroots community enthusiasts like Jeff Reichman, founder of Sketch City, "A Community of Technology and Data Advocates" in Houston, Texas, a city best known for oil and gas.
The champion is often the untold hero who shows up when there is a lot of unglamorous work to do. If you consistently gather people online and offline, tweet about the latest news to educate the group, and host meet-ups, speaker events and civic hackathons, you're probably one of those builders. Or if you're learning about a new city or sector and you hear a person's name mentioned multiple times, it's a good chance you're about to meet an ecosystem champion.
You may find them founding or employed at startups or they could be corporate intrapreneurs. They could work for the city or county government or they could be gaining valuable traction at a local university. You never know who your champion is going to be but be assured if there is activity and motion around what "could be", they will probably be nearby.
Step 2 - Work with what you have
In a recent webinar when asked about how to form a smart city, San Diego Deputy COO David Graham wisely stated, "Don't reinvent the wheel. Whatever you have, start there... Look at what you're already doing, and see how you can do it better and smarter."
When creating an ecosystem, it's important to inventory the available assets. List the the organizations and/or the events that already exist in your community. There can be a large volume or a slow trickle - no matter. Use whatever you have going to create momentum around a specific idea. And it doesn't need to be all startup related.
For example, Phoenix is emphasizing pro-business policies at the state level to attract attention from companies like Uber while emphasizing some of its existing programs like Start Up Week and Seed Spot. These efforts have given way to Phoenix's most recent initiative, the Internet of Things Challenge led by entrepreneur ecosystem champion Dominic Papa, who serves as Executive Director for the Institute for Digital Progress (IDP). IDP is a great example of how something that starts small can grow into movement.
Does your city have a thriving industrial center? Or perhaps a critical mass of universities?Or maybe close proximity to Mexico or Canada? Jot a quick list of the positive attributes of your community. What you have going for you is the best way to keep building momentum.
Step 3 - Fill in the blanks
Once you know who and what you're working with, it's time to identify what is missing. At this point, be careful to not get caught up in big ideas. Instead start small, keep it simple and show progress incrementally. It doesn't have to be complicated. Just answer the question, "What is it that the community needs?"
A common knee jerk reaction is to point to capital. And of course that helps. In Detroit, Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans, has become a modern-day Dale Carnegie, buying entire blocks of blighted buildings to inspire the first rung of economic development. In San Antonio, Rackspace founder Graham Weston has provided the majority of the initial funding that has resulted in Geekdom, a co-working space and foundational element of the city's entrepreneurial culture.
But there are lots of ways to get started without a huge influx of funds. At two separate meetings last week in Corpus Christi and El Paso, Texas community leaders sat around a table and volunteered ways they could contribute to creating "Future Ready" cities. An individual from the city offered a vacant property rent-free for a short-term project, a representative from the university volunteered to provide a platform, a community advocate promised to amplify the message and provide marketing and branding support. This is proof that everything that you need is there to get started. You just have to ask for help and be specific about what you need.
Now Get Going
Nothing happens without a first step. By following the path laid out above, you can build momentum, creating support for your own ventures and initiatives while also helping others along the way. Entrepreneurship can often be a lonely journey but with the right ecosystem in place, anything is possible.