Want to map your entrepreneurship ecosystem but don’t know how to get started? Start here!
Note: I originally published this article in 2019 to share my lessons-learned from mapping a local ecosystem. In the years since, through research and conversations with others, I’ve gained some additional insights and perspectives. I’ve added some of those insights here while I work on a more comprehensive resource guide to mapping entrepreneurship ecosystems.
What is Ecosystem Mapping and Why Do It?
Ecosystem mapping can be thought of as the practice of observing, analyzing and visualizing an entrepreneurial ecosystem. But, ecosystem mapping isn’t limited to creating a map, an end product that’s posted on a wall or website. The real super power of ecosystem mapping is how the mapping process and the actual map are used by the community as a catalyst to collaboratively strengthen the ecosystem.
There are many benefits to ecosystem mapping. Most obviously, ecosystem maps can serve as a resource guide for entrepreneurs in the community. A map can also be an effective guide for all of the actors in the ecosystem. It can be used as a storytelling tool to enable ecosystem organizations to see the different onramps and paths that different founders take, and identify what’s working as well as gaps that need to be addressed. Finally, ecosystem mapping can be a catalyst for collaborations. Thriving, healthy ecosystems are defined more by the health of their interactions and connections between the elements than the individual elements. Effective mapping initiatives can reveal opportunities to leverage new connections, partnerships, and collaborations.
“Strong ecosystems allow entrepreneurs to quickly find knowledge and resources they need to succeed.”
That quote, from The Kauffman Foundation’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building Playbook, highlights one of the key elements of a strong ecosystem. Why is the ability to find knowledge and resources so key? Entrepreneurs face challenges everyday and nobody is born with the inherent knowledge needed to make their startup successful. For an ecosystem to thrive, entrepreneurs need barriers reduced. They need to know what resources exists and where to find them.
There is great value in assessing and mapping your startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem. I believe that mapping out your ecosystem is essential for getting the community more engaged and connected. Assessing who the players are in your ecosystem and what they’re doing not only helps you point out those resources to others but it helps you to identify gaps.
All ecosystem builders I talk to agree that mapping their ecosystem is valuable. But many don’t know how to get started. How do you assess and find what resources are available, then organize it all, document it, and publish it to make it available? Here are some ideas from my experience.
Planning for the Project
Before you even get started collecting data, it’s a good idea to take some time to plan out the project and your approach. In my ecosystem mapping experience, I made the mistake of jumping in on my own and collecting data. I now realize a better approach is to take the time to set the scope as well as some parameters and definitions. Doing so will make the subsequent steps easier and more successful. Define the scope and target of the project – who is the map for? Define what the ecosystem is and isn’t – geographically, industry, etc. Identify the categories of organizations and entities that will be included. Define criteria by which any given asset will be included in a given resource category.
Make it Collaborative
Also, in this phase reach out to others in the community to include them in the mapping project. While it might be quicker and easier to do a mapping project on your own, a collective and collaborative community approach will be much more impactful. Eric Weissmann led an initiative in Cincinnati to map their ecosystem and summed up this idea. “A multi-stakeholder, systems perspective yields more complete and accurate results,” said Weissmann.
Defining Categories of Information
In my initial effort I collected all of the resource information that I could find. It wasn’t until after that data collection that I took a step back to see what kind of categories the resources fell into.
A better approach is to outline some categories ahead of time and define what you mean by each and what really qualifies an organization or service provider to fit into a category. What kind of information should you look for? Accelerators, incubators, entrepreneurship training programs and workshops, co-working spaces, maker spaces, universities, pitch events and competitions, networking events and meetups, venture capital firms, angel investors, government and other civic programs, and mentors. That’s just a starting point. You basically want to unearth any resource, program, organization, or person that supports and helps entrepreneurs, whether that’s their sole mission or ancillary.
In Cincinnati, before going out and collecting the data, Weissman and his team defined types of resources and industry focus areas and used that to create a spreadsheet tool that they could use as they collected the data from their community.
It may be tempting to skip the planning phase, but don’t. Taking the time to plan a mapping project as a collaborative community will be more impactful and garner more community buy-in. There’s a lot to this step in the process.
For a more comprehensive dive into the planning process check out Anika Horn’s ecosystem mapping podcast episode where she outlines four reasons to map ecosystems, the need to engage collaborators, how defining the ecosystem, target audience, scope, and the question you’re answering shape the map you’re making, and more. It’s a gold mine of useful information for anyone looking to map their ecosystem.
Finding and Collecting the Information
A good starting point for finding and collecting data is online search. In Puerto Rico, Denisse Rodríguez Colón is the executive director at Colmena66. In mapping Puerto Rico’s entrepreneurial ecosystem she hosted a “write-a-thon.” During this day-long event volunteers searched the internet to set up initial profiles of entrepreneurial support organizations.
While the internet can be a good starting point, the best source of information is the people in your community—entrepreneurs and other ecosystem builders. A good next step in collecting your ecosystem information is to find the most connected ecosystem builders and entrepreneurs in your community. Reach out to them and meet with them to extract their knowledge about the resources in the community.
Also, reach out and meet with the entrepreneurial support organizations in your community. Weissman and his Cincinnati team took the spreadsheet they had developed and showed it to the organizations asking them where they saw themselves in the spreadsheet. “We went out and each one of us had five or six. We told them ‘Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna map out the ecosystem and we’re not going to put you in a spot. You’re gonna tell us what you do. So put a dot in whatever,” said Weissmann.
As you’re finding and collecting the information about your community use a tool that you’re comfortable with. It can be as simple as a spreadsheet, but stick with what you’re comfortable with even if that’s just using a pen and a notebook.
Analyzing and Validating the Information
After you’ve collected your initial round of information take some time to analyze and validate what you’ve found. An important lesson-learned by many who have mapped their ecosystems is that organizations tend to over-represent what they do. In Cincinnati, when Weissman and his team asked organizations to self-select where their services fit in the spreadsheet tool they found that many over-selected. “What we got back was all dots!” said Weissmann.
Revisiting and further defining your basic criteria after analyzing the information can help you as you revisit the ecosystem actors and validate the information. “Just because you accelerate businesses, that doesn’t make you an accelerator in our definition,” said Weissmann. “In version two we clarified some concepts, for example: ‘Is that a co-working space or is it just an organization that rents out a spare desk?’,” said Weissmann.
Before moving to the next step of creating and sharing a map, meet with the other partners and stakeholders in the community to share your analysis and findings with them. This can be tricky and delicate so diplomacy and tact are critical. It may be best not to have the mindset that you’re presenting a draft as a courtesy, but rather, that this is an integral part of assessing the assets and gaps in the community. People support what they help create so think of the stakeholders as co-creators and co-owners. The true power of ecosystem mapping isn’t in an end map, but rather in the collaborative process of activating conversations in the ecosystem. You’ll have greater community impact if you don’t rush to create a map, but focus instead on cultivating community collaborations.
Creating and Sharing Your Ecosystem Map
I believe there needs to be an online resource where people can find the available resources in the community—an ecosystem map. People are always going to want a printable version of your ecosystem map but for maximum reach and availability, you need to make sure that a digital version is available as well.
A common concern is how to visually represent your ecosystem. I began by doodling and sketching ideas on paper to come up with a way to represent it visually. It was while doodling out ideas one day that I remembered a diagram I’d seen years earlier, where somebody had mapped out the Internet using the Tokyo metro subway map as a guide. That was the moment when the idea for the Sacramento Startup Ecosystem Subway Map was born.
A subway map visual metaphor isn’t necessarily the best way to represent your ecosystem. There are a lot of other ways. I highly recommend checking out Chad Renando’s article on LinkedIn, Mapping Innovation Ecosystems, where he discusses the concept and shares many examples. Some are quite simple but still do the trick. Consider the resources that you need to depict as well as the graphic design capabilities that you have. Don’t try to get too fancy and cute with it. Above all else it should be functional and useable.
Another consideration; make it easy to update. As your ecosystem changes and evolves over the years you’ll need to add and delete things. If your ecosystem map is laborious to update, you’ll likely have difficulty finding the time to keep it current. I’ve learned this the hard way. Our map is laborious to update and as a result I only update it once or twice per year.
I realize that many ecosystem builders may not be familiar with Illustrator or other graphic design software. If you have someone on your team who is savvy with design and graphic design software, include them in your project and get their input when deciding on a visual representation of your ecosystem. If you have the budget, hire a graphic designer to help you create the map and include them in the early stages of selecting the style of your map.
There are some online tools that can help to create an ecosystem map, but these may have a bit of a learning curve to get familiar with how to use them.
Kumu is a free online tool that makes it easy to organize complex data into relationship maps. Their Stakeholder mapping tool works well to depict entrepreneurial ecosystems. I’ve experimented with it to map the Sacramento startup ecosystem.
Mapping as a Catalyst for Action
It may be tempting to see ecosystem mapping as the generation of an artifact like a diagram, a directory, or database. But that is a limiting view and misses out on a much bigger opportunity for greater impact. The more impactful practice emerges when the community leverages the map and views it as a step in the process and as a catalyst to activate cross community conversations and inform inclusive initiatives to improve the ecosystem.
Ecosystem Mapping Recommendations
- Take the time to thoughtfully design your approach (definition, target group, scope & method). Start by understanding and defining why you are doing the mapping and who you are doing it for. A thoughtfully designed approach to mapping is half the battle.
- Ensure you have a diverse group of partners at the table who co-own the initiative. Include other stakeholders in your ecosystem prior to starting your mapping process. Understanding shared pain points and validating the need for an ecosystem map helps to inform your approach and increases potential buy-in from resource partners. Don’t go it alone. A multi-stakeholder, systems perspective yields more complete and accurate results. If possible, recruit an advisory board or steering committee to enhance accountability and support project management.
- Ecosystem mapping is the start of a journey, not a final destination — ecosystem mapping is never “done”. Emphasizing an ongoing, process-centric approach that informs community action yields more impactful results than focusing on the output of a map or directory. Iterating according to stakeholder feedback is key.
- Adopt a mindset of ecosystem mapping as a catalyst for activating more informed, impactful, and inclusive initiatives. Mapping leads to action. Ecosystem mapping reveals gaps in a community’s resources and opportunities for collaborative, inclusive, and impactful interactions
- Cultivate a collaborative mindset. Adopting a collaborative mindset and approach of continuous iteration influences a community’s culture where mapping becomes a key tool to continuously improve
- The mapping process can be a valuable opportunity for ecosystem builders and entrepreneurial support organizations to build trusting relationships as a foundation for collaboration in the future.
- While mapping, look for opportunities to weave inclusivity into the fabric of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Actively and intentionally incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion into the process yields opportunities to address systemic barriers
- Don’t overcomplicate it. Start with the resources you have and iterate from there.
- Don’t let it get too watered down. Keep it focused on the primary ecosystem resources as opposed to tertiary resources like service providers (lawyers, accountants, etc.)
- Approach it primarily through the eyes of the founder — where and how they go through the ecosystem.
- Choose a data collection method that best suits your needs, budget & timeline.
- Use recurring meetings as checkpoints to ensure you’re still focused on your initial research question.
- Resist the temptation to rank or compare your ecosystem against others. The purpose of mapping is to make resources, relationships, gaps, barriers and opportunities visible.
- Be thoughtful about how you present preliminary data to all stakeholders involved.