“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.

Finding the Information

The best source of information is the people in your community—entrepreneurs and other ecosystem builders. The first step in assessing your ecosystem should be 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. Meet with them somewhere you won’t be distracted, preferably with a large whiteboard or flip charts to capture the resources and connections. Don’t worry about the form or format of capturing it at this point. Just focus on capturing the information.

What kind of information should you ask about? 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.

As you’re identifying and capturing the information about your community I think it’s good to just use a tool that you’re comfortable with. For me that was mostly Google spreadsheets and documents. Spreadsheets and documents, whether it’s a cloud-based platform like Google Docs, or Microsoft Word and Excel, or Open Office are ubiquitous and familiar to most people. Stick with what you’re comfortable with even if that’s just using a pen and a notebook.

Categorizing and Organizing the Information

Once you have the information documented to the point where you’re having a difficult time finding any additional resources to document, take a step back and see what kind of categories your resources fall into. Maybe you don’t have any co-working spaces or funders in your community yet, or even a university. Maybe it’s just a few events and training programs. Whatever it is that you have identified, figure out how those resources are best organized by categories.

Through a combination of one-on-one interviews with key influencers in the community and online research, I identified a big set of resources. I then started working on categorizing the resources, documenting them in a spreadsheet, listing the organization name, category, etc.

resources spreadsheet

A portion of my spreadsheet listing categorized resources

For organizing my information, I started with a canvas that Founder Institute has created, the Startup Ecosystem Canvas. It wasn’t a perfect fit for what I wanted so I adapted it and used the following to categorize our community’s resources:

  • Accelerators, incubators, & training programs
  • Co-working spaces
  • Events & Activities
  • Maker spaces
  • Ideas & talent (this led to identifying the universities and higher education options in the community)
  • Funding sources
  • Civic Programs

There are several available frameworks you can use to start. Chapman and Company uses four top level categories in its Chapco Method:

  • Structure
  • Knowledgeable Community
  • Financial Capital
  • Connecting Activities

It then has sub-categories for each of these. You can see an example of this in the Sioux Falls Ecosystem infographic (scroll down the page about 3/4 of the way).

Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, is behind the nationwide platform celebrating and investing in emerging startup ecosystems—the Rise of the Rest movement. In the Rise of the Rest 2018 Ecosystem Playbook, he refers to The Seven Spokes of a Startup “Hub” seven entities that help to fuel the rise of startup ecosystems:

  • Local government
  • Universities
  • Investors
  • Startup support organizations
  • Corporations
  • Local media
  • Startups themselves

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.

The burning question in many ecosystem builder’s minds is how to create a graphic. That’s going to depend on your graphic design skills. I’m pretty familiar with Adobe Illustrator so I knew from the start that I would create mine there. Over the course of a several weeks, I built the first version of it using Illustrator and then incorporated interactivity with some basic Javascript.

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.

Kumu diagram of Sacramento startup ecosystem

Another option is to use RAWGraphs, an open source data visualization framework built with the goal of making the visual representation of complex data easy for everyone. They tout it as the missing link between spreadsheets and data visualization. If you have your ecosystem information in a spreadsheet, you can use that data with RAWGraphs to depict your ecosystem.

One of the options in particular, the circular dendrogram, can be used to depict your ecosystem—assuming you have the resources and categories in a hierarchy in your spreadsheet. The Chapco Method of categorizing your resources would be particularly amenable to depict as a dendrogram. For example, the image below is a dendrogram using a sub-set of categories and resources from that method. An actual ecosystem map would include additional tiers for the specific resources, i.e. the specific accelerator programs, demo nights, universities, VCs, etc. would branch out in an additional outer ring of nodes connected to inner nodes.

Hopefully this gives you some ideas on how to get started mapping your entrepreneurial ecosystem. Yes, it can be a daunting, labor-intensive task. But, I believe mapping out a community’s startup ecosystem is essential for getting the community more engaged and connected. If you know of other resources available to help ecosystem builders map their ecosystems, please comment below.