For the first interview of the Ecosystem Builder Hub I reached out to ecosystem builder Ryan Lilly after watching a TEDX talk he gave to a group of economic developers at IEDC’s Annual Conference in Atlanta last October. His talk resonated with me on many levels and I found myself fist-pumping the air at many of the quotable quotes from his talk.

“I believe that when economic developers realize their highest new role is to be connectors for the entrepreneurs in their community, that’s where the real magic happens.”

Ryan also believes strongly in the power of storytelling in ecosystem building so I reached out to interview him for an article and podcast. In the interview we chatted about how he became intrigued with ecosystem, challenges ecosystem builders face, his biggest impact programs, his five step method for hacking ecosystem building and more.

Ryan first became intrigued with ecosystem building in college when he visited a business incubator went over to check it out.

“I heard about a place on campus called a business incubator. I had no idea what that was. I was looking to do kind of an internship. I went over there one day and explored and the moment that I walked in the door and saw all these startups and all these entrepreneurial minds I was just enveloped in that environment. So I decided I wanted to do whatever I had to to do that as a career – be around entrepreneurs and help them on a daily basis.”

Ryan followed that newfound passion and took his first job a thousand miles away working at an incubator in the midwest in a rural manufacturing town south of Chicago where they had taken an old manufacturing building and turned it into an incubator with the idea to work with startups and grow business in the community.

After working there for three years with some success, he was growing tired of midwest winters and looking for some place warmer along new opportunities when a position came up in Florida in Ocala where he now works as Vice President of Business Creation at Ocala/Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership. He runs an incubator called the Power Plant Business Incubator, overseeing 18 mostly tech and healthcare related companies.

Ryan plays many roles in his local startup ecosystem, including making connections, as 1 Million Cups organizer, organizing a local Youth Business Plan Competition, Startup Weekends, and more.

“I really see my role as an ecosystem builder as a connector. I try to spend 80% of my time doing that. Whether that’s making a one-on-one connection or making connections in a group setting at an event like 1 Million Cups, a the end of the day I want to make sure that that’s what I’m spending most of my time on.”

There are a lot of definitions for what an entrepreneurial ecosystem and what an ecosystem builder is. Most people’s definition includes making connections or being a connector and Ryan’s definition echoes that. But he’s also got an interesting metaphor for entrepreneurial ecosystems that riffs off of Victor Hwang’s Rainforest concept, that of a coral reef.

“My definition is really a community of entrepreneurs and the people and resources that are there to support their growth… this analogy one of a coral reef. The startups are the tropical fish and we’re the coral, as ecosystem builders, as service providers, as mentors, and investors. All these people are around these startups, really to feed their growth.”

Ecosystem builders everywhere face challenges like people not understanding what we do, push back from traditional economic development methods like attraction and retention. I asked Ryan what the biggest challenges he faces in ecosystem building.

“For me, it really becomes how do we communicate to our community what this work (ecosystem building) is about – working with startups.”

Ryan’s answer to how to address that communication is one that resonates with the goals of Ecosystem Builder Hub.

“For me it’s about storytelling. How do we get those little stories out that collectively add up to make a big difference.”

Another challenge of ecosystem building that Ryan brought up was that of systemization – the challenge of feeling like your constantly having to reinvent the wheel. Anytime he wanted to create a new program, feeling like he had to make it from scratch. So, he has worked to get better at looking at other communities and taking pieces of programs from other places and putting them together to create a program in his community rather than creating it from scratch.

As ecosystem builders, I’m sure we all try to organize and produce programs that have a high impact. I asked Ryan what programs have had the most impact for him. Without hesitation, he replied, 1 Million Cups! His community launched their 1 Million Cups program about a year and half ago and regularly sees 50 – 60 people attending each week. Asked what was the key to such a successful 1 Million Cups program and getting so many people engaged each Wednesday, Ryan responded that it’s due to the purposeful cultivation of a diverse set of passionate organizers who go out into their diverse communities and invited people.

The conversation shifted from the most impactful and successful ecosystem building he’s experienced to the biggest failures and challenges he has experienced in ecosystem building?

“Early on I made the mistake that I think a lot of people make in thinking that I had to do everything myself and that I also had to have all the answers…. So the challenge biggest challenge really has been delegating, building a team, resisting the urge to want to do it all myself. At the end of the day, if this effort is going to be sustainable I’ve got to get other people involved and I’ve got to make them the leaders, not me.”

Ryan has spoken at several TEDx talks (see The Death of the Job Metric) about ecosystem building and has just published a book – Ecosystem Hacking. The book is available now on Amazon for cost but Ryan will be setting up a website soon, where the book will be available for free plus the cost of shipping. In both the TED talks and in his book Ryan outlines his five step framework for ecosystem hacking:

Ryan’s 5 Step Model to Build Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

  1. Seek – find the entrepreneurs
  2. Synergize – help them connect, bring them together
  3. Support – listen to them, then connect them to the resources they need
  4. Streamline – constantly eliminate barriers
  5. Share – help entrepreneurs in your community tell their stories

To hear more about this framework check out Ryan’s TEDx talk, Innovation: Five Steps to Get Your Local Economy Back to the Future.

After discussing principles of Lean and Build, Measure, Learn and why some ecosystem builders don’t embrace the concept in their own work the discussion moved on to what are the important things that need to happen to advance the field of ecosystem building.

In response, Ryan echoed three things that are near and dear to me:

  • ESHIP goals
  • Systemization
  • Storytelling


“I think that those seven ESHIP goals are right on target. I think all those things are definitely what we should be working on.”


“Finding ways to make this process of ecosystem building easier to implement and easier to understand for communities.”


“Getting those stories out there – helping ecosystem builders get their stories out there.”

We wrapped up the interview, asking the question, What is your hope for ecosystem building? To which Ryan responded:

“My hope for ecosystem building is that every community out there realize that they have an ecosystem. Maybe it’s not a very developed ecosytem but they have one. They have small businesses. They have startups in their community. Whether or not it’s connected may be up in the air. But the community realize that they have an ecosystem and that they decide to consciously grow it. And undertake this ecosystem building effort to connect those startups and encourage more of them.”


Related: Want to read more stories about entrepreneurial ecosystem builders? Check out more profiles of ecosystem builders.