Insights from the Field: Experienced ecosystem builders share their insights and experience.

Much of what we do as startup community builders requires in-person interactions through workshops, meetups, and other events. But the Covid pandemic pushed the big pause button on in-person events that are the beating heart of many startup communities.

Peter Cimino in Buffalo sent in a great question as part of the Insights from the Field campaign series of articles, asking:

“What are you doing during Covid times to keep the community engaged?”

The responses varied considerably. While some have scaled back significantly and are focusing their energies elsewhere, others have been very creative and resourceful, pivoting and standing up new programs to connect and engage the startup community.

Peter Cimino shared the challenges they and many others face. “We have truly struggled with this, many people are on Zoom (or similar platform) for work and family so going to another event/meetup on these platforms after hours/before hours/weekends isn’t easy. So we have trimmed a lot down, and have only done 3 things in 2020 as opposed to 20 events in 2019. We did enjoy doing a much needed online Happy Hour and we also did our annual award ceremony and both were well attended but less than we hoped for. Looking for some good ideas for 2021 from our group!”

Here in Sacramento, our organization, StartupSac, barely missed a beat, pivoting all of our monthly in-person events to Zoom. Despite the Zoom fatigue that Peter mentions, we’ve had great success, welcoming increased numbers to our monthly Office Hours event where we have a presentation on a relevant startup subject, as well as our Startup Happy Hour where we have an interview chat with a successful entrepreneur then open it up to Q&A. We also pivoted a planned in-person, half day showcase event to three separate virtual events, bringing over 260 people in the community together.

Jordan Walbesser, also in Buffalo, has also taken advantage of digital platforms. “We’re leaning heavily on our digital platforms to keep the community engaged. Our community Slack channels continue to grow. We make efforts to highlight what our local startups are doing as well as hold virtual events so they can continue to connect. We’re also using the downtime to spin up a new 501(c)(3) to serve as a communal bank, library, and resource for grassroots community events once it’s safe to meet in person again.”

Melanie Lenci in New Mexico has also had success pivoting events to Zoom. “Pre-Covid Kick-Ass Entrepreneurs (KAE) would draw 25 to 65 community members to its 2-hour, after-business hours Entrepreneur Story Time events held in Santa Fe, NM. Since Covid, I’ve continued to engage the community by transitioning the monthly events to Zoom. To accommodate Zoom overload, I’ve shortened the events to 1 hour. I’ve also occasionally replaced a new Story Time with a Zoom-based Happy Hour to Support Local Biz or a Schmooze Time event, as I recognized that as much as my community loves its stories, it missed having the unstructured time that was padded into our 2-hour in-person events to connect and schmooze. While I can’t wait to resume live events, so far it’s worked pretty dang well at providing us a place to come together, show some love and continue to support one another.”

While many of us have focused on pivoting our in-person convenings to a virtual format, other ecosystem builders are focusing on creating and sharing educational content through various channels.

Denisse Rodriguez in Puerto Rico has a two-pronged approach; one for entrepreneurs and one for entrepreneurial support organizations. Denisse says that for entrepreneurs, they are “creating and curating valuable educational content to help them weather this pandemic. We’re packaging and shipping it in the ever changing ways our entrepreneurs want to consume content these days – blogs, how-to guides, Instagram or Facebook Lives. We’re being invited to podcasts and to virtual classrooms to present to students. We just closed our annual survey to learn what entrepreneurs need right now and this will feed our initiatives for the next year, but not only that, we’ll be sharing this data with the entrepreneurship ecosystem to influence public policy, funding mechanisms, deployment of resources such as Cares Act and CDBG-DR funds.”

Denisse’s has a different approach for engaging the entrepreneurship support organizations community. “For the entrepreneurship support organizations, we’re continuing our quarterly meetups where we come together to learn from each other and build community and collaborate. We co-hosted Global Entrepreneurship Week and were the second state in the US with the most events. This helps build momentum in the middle of a crisis and boosts morale.”

Dustin Shay in New York has been extremely ambitious and shared a range of programs:

  • Graduate Spotlights: We’ve launched a series of blogs designed to highlight the actions and adaptations of particular graduate entrepreneurs, driving additional attention to their businesses. They’ve generated revenue, investment, etc from these features. They’ve helped us maintain contact with other alumni that are doing cool things related to the pandemic, as they’ll now reach out to us to see if we can amplify their work. Example
  • Platform Launch: We launched the COVID-19 Coalition, a web-based initiative to match investors to entrepreneurs that are solving some problem that has been created or exacerbated by the pandemic. There are now hundreds of investor and entrepreneur participants on the platform and there have been a few investments made because of matches initially facilitated on this platform.
  • Relevant Webinars: We worked with partners like PayPal and Republic to launch webinars focused on issues like accessing PPP or alternative capital raising strategies during the pandemic. These were viewed and attended by over 500 ventures globally. Example.
  • Virtual Transformation: We led a full virtual transition for our programming, creating an approach designed to maximize entrepreneur benefit while limiting the need to be synchronously online and engaged. This new programmatic structure resulted in extremely high-value programs for participating entrepreneurs and other participants, resulting in an average Net Promoter Score of .8 and above
  • Active Solution Development: We worked (and are continuing to work) with our partners to develop new approaches to addressing COVID-19 and its repercussions, engaging our funder network to immediately learn the big questions they were grappling with and develop new programming and other solutions.

Another important aspect to keep in mind is how we go about engaging in Covid times. Jess Edwards in Virginia shared some valuable insights in this regard, saying, “Listening more than talking. There is such great need at the moment, and it drastically varies among the type of entrepreneur and industry. So, sharing as many COVID-19 response funding and support resources as possible has helped keep the community engaged. With so many businesses in survival mode, it is important to not overlook or minimize the stress and seriousness of the COVID-19 impact. Staying on the topic (however arduous and tedious it is at the moment) and not forcing conversations that go back to business as usual.’  The support needed will be long term, well beyond the “end” of the health crisis period. The economic downtown is going to be the long term symptom and illness we face next.”

While many of us have leaned heavily on Zoom and other digital platforms to keep our communities engaged, others are trying different approaches. Norris Krueger in Boise is focusing on finding others in the community who are doing great work and helping them.

Kate Jackson in Chicago is focusing on mapping their ecosystem. “We are working on building inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem maps and strengthening the connections and networks within our current ecosystem (Lake County, IL). We have the resources, but the connections are weak and the resources tightly held and protected. We have the zero-sum mentality Brad Feld speaks of in his recent book in spades. It will take time to shift to a more positive-sum mentality. But I believe making these maps open source will be a good first step forward…We have to start by building trust and offering something of value to our ecosystem. Our next step will be to host events,” said Kate.

In Tulsa, Cecilia Wessinger is reaching out to engage with those who feel disconnected. “I continue to engage in conversations. In this time when people are isolated and feel disconnected, I reach out to engage and have dialogue. Community ebbs and flows with new people and those who are seeking connections, regardless of the geographic orientations. Since the pandemic I have a weekly conversation with high school classmates. We graduated over three decades ago and I haven’t seen some of them in person since, but we share life experiences and commonality; we celebrate our fellowship every Friday. I’ve also explored and discovered a community of people I align with, these communities were built on common interests: writing, Bentoism, ecosystem building. Coming together does not need to be in person, though I try to do that when it’s convenient and safe to do so. It takes effort and intention, it’s vital, now more than ever in this pained and fragmented world,” said Cecilia.

There you have it. Some great examples of how ecosystem builders are continuing to keep their communities engaged, despite the challenges of social distancing and isolation.

I also wanted to point out another Covid-related resource that just came out recently. The team at Rise of the Rest recently released their latest Rise of the Rest Ecosystem Playbook —

A Pandemic Playbook for 2021. This free downloadable playbook looks at how cities are helping startups access funding, critical tools and services, and founder support during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more by downloading the playbook.

Do you have additional ways that you’ve been keeping your ecosystem engaged? Share it in the comment section at the bottom of the page.

Do you have insights about ecosystem building that you’d like to share and contribute with other ecosystem builders? Want to participate in a campaign to collect and publish those insights from the field? Sign up here to participate in next month’s question.




Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash