Simple but effective ways to have a positive impact on the startups and entrepreneurs in your community.

Ecosystem building is a growing field that’s part economic development, part community building, part business development. It grows dynamic local economies by building systems of support and resources for entrepreneurs in the communities. It’s emerging as an essential strategy to build, and now re-build, vital and dynamic economies built around entrepreneurship.

A fundamental element of ecosystem building is its grassroots nature. Growing and cultivating a thriving entrepreneurial community is not a top-down, centralized type of economic development. It’s a distributed, networked approach that is perfectly suited for the complexities of today’s society.
But it can be daunting for individual community builders with limited funding and limited traditional power to make an impact amid the established hierarchies of old power movers and shakers. So how do people and organizations working bottom-up, at the grassroots level make an impact on their communities? Here are a few ideas.

Be a Startup Champion

Perhaps the easiest and cheapest way to support your startup community is to simply be a cheerleader and champion of the startups in your community. The Kauffman Foundation’s Ecosystem Playbook cites champions and conveners as a key element needed for a thriving startup community.

“Champions and conveners promote entrepreneurs, organize the ecosystem, and build awareness. They advocate for local entrepreneurs and their companies, bring them together, challenge them to grow, and push everyone forward.”

How do they do this? They attend startup-focused meetups and events like 1 Million Cups, Startup Grind events or even launch local chapters if they don’t already exist. With many of these events now held online due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s even easier to attend and show your support.

Champions also help to organize events like Startup Weekends. They support Kickstarter campaigns, volunteer as 1 Million Cups organizers, and contribute to their community’s Startup Digest.

Startup champions also support their local startups and entrepreneurs by buying their products. Even simple acts such as following and supporting startups on social media to help get the word out can have an impact.

Be a Connector

I talk with a lot of startup founders. When asked what they need, the second most common thing I hear is connections and introductions to people (the most common thing is capital of course). Talking with entrepreneurs, finding out where their needs are and leveraging your network to connect them with helpful resources can make a positive impact on startups and small businesses.

Keep in mind, it’s not just about connecting startup founders to resources. There’s also a need to connect other players in the community like mentors, coaches, investors, service providers and business owners in the community to each other.

When I asked my friend Norris Krueger, a long-time ecosystem builder in Boise, Idaho, for his ideas on how people can have an impact, he replied, “Celebrate the bottom-up! Instead of celebrating those who control access to resources, celebrate the great connectors!” He suggested publishing profiles of “hidden gem” mentors as a way that had been successful for him.

Be a Collaborator

A very big part of what I do in the Sacramento startup community is relationship-building — meeting with others in the community, discussing ways to collaborate and working together to have a bigger impact on the community.

A thriving startup scene is one that is open and inclusive. In his book Startup Communities, one of Brad Feld’s key tenets of successful startup communities is a philosophy of inclusion. Existing players in the ecosystem need to find ways to invite new players into the community and find ways to get them connected and collaborating with the others. For example, they can collaborate within the community to create regular activities that engage both new and experienced entrepreneurs, as well as investors, mentors, and more.

You can also collaborate directly with individual startups. Ask entrepreneurs and small business owners how you can help them beyond buying their product or service. This can inspire out of the box thinking and generate new and innovative ideas and insights.

Be a Storyteller

“The collective story that people tell themselves — and the rest of the world — powerfully shapes an ecosystem’s future.” ~ Kauffman Foundation’s Ecosystem Playbook

Citing again from the Ecosystem Playbook, an ecosystem builder’s job is to “uncover the community’s strengths, publicize them, and leverage them to write a fresh positive narrative.”

How do you go about that? Get to know the entrepreneurs in your community as well as the mentors, the connectors, and the collaborators. This requires going out into the community, attending events, listening to what the community is talking about to each other. If you do this for long enough, themes and stories begin to emerge. Before too long, you’ll start to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the community, as well as its soul and its stories.

As the soul and stories of the community emerge, celebrate and share the success stories. How? Don’t wait for the local news media to tell the story. Leverage the power of the internet and social media through newsletters, blogs, podcasts, and social media stories. Establish an online entrepreneurial hub.

In 2015, I saw a need in the Sacramento startup community for an online hub of available local resources. I launched a website and started listing events and other resources. I also started blogging, focusing on our community’s strengths and celebrating them, as well as interviewing entrepreneurs and sharing their stories in blog articles, videos, and podcast episodes.

The impact has been tremendous and in 2017 our little non-profit was recognized for our outstanding regional contribution to the community, just by doing the simple things I’ve outlined here.

Make no mistake, it is hard work to make an impact in your startup community. But, by leveraging our own strengths, talents, and networks along with the democratizing power of the internet and technology we can start to change the narrative and have a positive impact on our startup communities.