Igniting Startup Ecosystems

Hold a match to a sugar cube and it will never burn. But first add a little cigarette ash and the sugar cube will burst in flames. There’s nothing like the presence of a catalyst to ignite a system.

What ignites a startup ecosystem?

sugar cube on fire

Thriving startup ecosystems are good for the economy, good for society, and good for pretty much everyone. But ecosystem building is hard. Successful startup communities often grow organically without any deliberate plans or resources. In some regions, experts try methodical planning and deliberate attention to detail. But, despite lots of time, energy and money, most of these ecosystems seem to fizzle.

All the right pieces are there: Startups, entrepreneurs, businesses, individuals, institutions, investors, mentors, and other various organizations. Some experts think “If we can just assemble the components correctly, we’ll have a well oiled economic machine.”

Startup ecosystems are more than just the sum of its parts. They are complex systems, and complex systems defy planning – often in favor of spontaneous catalysts that start wonderful chain reactions.

But they are unpredictable and often chaotic – like the proverbial butterfly who flaps its wings in Brazil and causes a tornado in Texas. Sometimes small events, act as catalysts for unexpected – but huge results.

For a growing number of entrepreneurial ecosystems this catalyst is Gregslist.


Gregslist – The Unexpected Catalyst?

After a long career as a successful entrepreneur, veteran software industry executive Greg Head started a project in Phoenix.

It was 2016. Behind the scenes Greg knew many tech entrepreneurs who were wanting to start software or SAAS companies. Back then, local tech leaders and founders thought that “Phoenix isn’t a a software tech town.” They tread lightly. They hesitated.

Software entrepreneurs assumed there wasn’t the infrastructure or ecosystem to support their entrepreneurial activities: No talent. No colleagues, no customers and no capital. Many of these entrepreneurs simply fled to Silicon Valley or other tech hubs.

Then Greg created Gregslist – a very simple, but deceptively powerful, idea. Gregslist is a curated list and map of software startups and growth businesses in the region. It’s a list and a map. That’s it; a simple list. But Gregslist had a much larger impact on the evolution of the Phoenix software startup ecosystem.

Gregslist illustrated that Phoenix was indeed a very active software community with over 600 operating software companies. It changed the way people thought about tech in Phoenix – including the founders of local software companies themselves.

When founders saw that there were other companies, collaborators, mentors, investors in the region than they ever realized – they became empowered. They interacted. They collaborated. Things started to click. Gregslist became an unexpected ecosystem catalyst, and a positive feedback loop for software startups in the region.

Gregslist then became a critical part of an even larger Phoenix ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs, startup founders, and growing tech companies. Entrepreneurs, talent and investors realized they didn’t have to flee to Silicon Valley or other tech hubs. They could thrive in Phoenix.

Gregslist maps of software companies in various cities

Gregslist maps of software companies in various cities

After Phoenix, Gregslist began tracking software companies in Salt Lake City, Dallas, Austin, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, San Diego and Toronto – adding more cities every year. It is used by thousands of founders, tech execs, investors, job seekers, and community leaders each month.

If you were in one of those cities, you could see the concentrations of software companies. And these companies, in turn attract talent, customers, investors and other support. If you were starting a new software company, where would you go?

As Gregslist exposes the critical mass of participants in the software ecosystem, it attracts more participants to the ecosystem – and the positive feedback loop begins.

  • Experienced software industry leaders use Gregslist to find companies they want to work for, especially when they move to town
  • Investors from every part of the country are using Gregslist to find investible companies and rely on Gregslist to reach out to CEOs.
  • Economic development organizations in each area use Gregslist when recruiting tech companies to come to their cities.
  • Service providers, mentors and tech leaders use Gregslist to network and find which companies and founders they can help.

Greglist becomes an unexpected, strange attractor.


The Strange Attractor

It’s easy to see how the complex set of parts behind ecosystem can coalesce around an attractor. It acts as a the “initial condition”, the catalyst for producing big results. These are the core principles of Chaos Theory: The science of butterfly effects, sensitivity to initial conditions. feedback loops and “strange attractors.”

In Chaos Theory, a strange attractor is a region in space that “attracts” all nearby points as time passes – like an invisible point in outer space that compels all nearby objects to orbit around it.

strange attractor

While it’s called a strange attractor, it does not really attract. It merely allows the system to “coalesce” around a common point. It’s an oddity. Maybe that’s why they call it strange.


Chicken? Egg? Catalyst? Attractor?

For professional ecosystem builders, academics proponents of methodical planning, Gregslist might seem trivial, but its impact is significant.

Gregslist simply:

  1. Reveals relationships. Exposes “density” and commonalities.
  2. Connects & Coalesces – starts conversations and collaborations
  3. Shows momentum, trends or Critical Mass
  4. Starts Positive Feedback Loops

The Blueprint?

We look for sure-fire plans, formulas and blueprints – that we can implement with certainty, control, and repeat. Unfortunately ecosystem building is so complex that it might not ever be subject to such predictable recipes for success.

Looking at the lessons of Gregslist, perhaps the best or most reliable way is to embrace unpredictability; set the initial conditions, look for strange attractors and critical mass; insert a few catalysts, stand back and watch the system ignite.


Strange Attractor image credit:
Public Domain

Sugar cube image credit:
Shutterstock Royalty-free stock photo ID: 1517686172, By Mary_Morgan