“Entrepreneurial ecosystems thrive when people and resources are connected and working together to develop new approaches and solutions for serving entrepreneurs.”

That quote, from the Kauffman Foundation’s eShip Summit website, represents one of many core elements needed for startup ecosystems to thrive. But what is also important is that the players in an entrepreneurial ecosystem, whether that’s the entrepreneurs or those who support them, are able to find the knowledge and resources that are available. As a cofounder of an entrepreneurial support organization, StartupSac, I’ve learned firsthand how valuable it is for the ecosystem to map out the resources in a visual representation that provides everyone with an overview or the lay of the land, so to speak.

In October 2015 I launched the StartupSac website, which included lists of available resources in the Sacramento startup community like funders, coworking spaces, accelerators, etc. I tried various lists and spreadsheets to document it all but still struggled with getting a good mental picture of our ecosystem. So, I started doodling and sketching 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.

Over the course of a several weeks, I built the first version of it in Adobe Illustrator and incorporated interactivity with some basic Javascript, and released the first version of the map.The most recent published version of the diagram can be seen here: Sacramento Startup and Innovation Ecosystem Diagram.

Initially, I created the map as a resource for myself and I had no idea that it and its subsequent versions would get the response they have. But over the years, I have been told countless times how valuable this map has been for people to understand our local startup community. It’s also received praise from people outside of our community.

“I was blown away… this is the best single place where I’ve found documentation for an ecosystem.” ~ Rick Rasmussen, Director of Startup Programs for the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology

As a result of these experiences, I’ve come to believe that mapping out a community’s startup ecosystem is essential for getting the community more engaged and connected.

The Benefits of Mapping Your Startup & Innovation Ecosystem

Here’s why I think diagramming or mapping a community’s startup and innovation ecosystem is beneficial.

  • Having some kind of diagram or map points out the resources available in the community and provides the lay of the land or high level overview for the community. Often, individual players in the community may be so focused on their own initiatives that they don’t see the proverbial forest for the trees.
  • Mapping out a city’s startup ecosystem can make it more transparent, accessible, and inviting to newcomers. It can also broaden the perspective of existing players in the community thereby expanding the general knowledge of the ecosystem, helping it become more inclusive, cohesive, and collaborative.
  • It shows that the ecosystem is bigger than any one player in the community. It also shows the connections and relationships between various resources and by doing so, highlights the hubs of activity in the ecosystem.
  • In their book, The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley, authors Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt argue that social barriers in ecosystems create transaction costs that can make the difference between an entrepreneur easily finding the resource she needs to get a deal done versus one who expends valuable time and energy getting a deal done. Mapping out an ecosystem can help break down or at least identify the social barriers that prevent valuable collaborations from happening.
  • I also have a theory that mapping your ecosystem may even provide incentives for players to work together or connect to other players more — or at least it should. If a diagram becomes accepted by the community and a resource is shown as isolated and disconnected, the smart move would be for that resource to start making connections with other players in the community.

Some Insights and Lessons-learned

It’s approaching three years since I first published the Sacramento Startup Ecosystem Diagram and there are a few insights worth sharing for other communities that might be interested in mapping out their ecosystem.

  1. It doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact it can’t be perfect because it will be subjective. But that’s fine. It serves as a starting point and conversation starter. People will disagree with how it’s represented, what’s on there, what’s missing. That’s ok. In fact, I think it’s actually a good thing if people disagree with it. People often seem more likely to share their opinion about why something is wrong and that will draw out more knowledge from the community.
  2. Related to that, getting people involved with contributing data to the diagram will help not only to make it better but will also help get community buy-in to the diagram. People tend to support what they help to create.
  3. The diagram or map will, or should, grow, evolve, and change to reflect not only the dynamic nature of the community but also the dynamic nature of understanding it. Because of that, be ready to support updating it. It can’t be a one time thing that’s published and abandoned. It needs to be maintained to be accurate.
  4. Finally, you don’t have to represent your ecosystem as a subway map. There are a lot of other ways to represent your ecosystem. I recommend checking out Chad Renando’s article on LinkedIn, Mapping Innovation Ecosystems, where he discusses the concept and shares several examples, some of which are quite simple but still do the trick.

For me, creating and publishing Sacramento’s startup ecosystem map has been one of the most valuable things our organization has done for the community. But there’s also been a side benefit. Creating the diagram, put our humble little non-profit on the m