Experienced ecosystem builders share their insights and experience.
Facilitating connections, resilience, inclusivity, altruism, empathy — these are a few of the key values, and traits most esteemed by ecosystem builders.
Ecosystem building is still a very young professional field with no standard definition for what it is. But, if you talk to enough ecosystem builders you’ll get a sense of the values, traits, and skills that are critical to doing the work successfully. Really impactful ecosystem builders have a different approach, a mindset that sets them apart. These traits enable them to make a positive social impact.
I’ve seen many surveys and polls over the years that try to identify the key skills, traits, and values of an ecosystem builder. For a discipline focused on positive social impact, identifying these can help us cultivate them in ourselves as well as help us to identify others who have them and foster strong collaborations.
For the first question in this Insights from the Field campaign I solicited input from a group of ecosystem builders, asking their thoughts on the most critical skills, traits, or mindset for an ecosystem builder. The responses are affirming. Though expressed uniquely, the responses fall into some general themes.
Connecting and Relationship-Building
The most common trait or skill mentioned has to do with being a connector. Dustin Shay in New York City wrote, “Our primary role, as ecosystem builders, is to facilitate connection and network access for entrepreneurs. At the ‘pioneer gap,’ where we act, that means helping entrepreneurs access customers, strategic partners, and/or investors that they need to grow and scale their businesses. The ability to make those connections, though, is predicated on the establishment, active engagement, management, and continued development of a relevant and meaningful network. We exist to balance the arbitrage of the venture community and make it closer to what it claims to be: a meritocracy.”
Peter Cimino in Buffalo wrote, “You can’t build an ecosystem with no contacts to the real world. Does it mean the person has to be ultra connected (meaning knows everyone)? No, but they have to know some connections that can start the process and gather some like minded individuals to the cause and help force multiply the efforts of the ecosystem.”
Melanie Lenci from Albuquerque wrote, “A connector. Not shy. Not afraid of asking questions, asking for help or being persistent.”
Norris Krueger in Boise responded, “Connecting skills are imperative, especially connecting the connectors… but also understanding who ARE the great connectors (versus the selfish ones). Ultimately, we need to understand all of our stakeholders and what our value prop is for them.”
Jess Edwards in Danville, Virginia got more specific about the skill of making connections, putting emphasis on being ‘strategically likeable,’ saying, “Entrepreneurship is all about people! It is critical to most ecosystem building work that you are able to build, leverage, and share relational (social) capital to get things done at an accelerated rate. The end goal being [able] to quickly connect entrepreneurs to resources, support and opportunities. You have to be a conduit within the ecosystem.”
Let’s face it. Ecosystem building can be exhausting, grueling, and demoralizing. It’s often thankless. For many of us, it’s always under-funded. It’s full of failures. It takes stamina, grit, and resilience to keep doing the work. This sentiment was expressed in many of the responses I collected.
Jordan Walbesser in Buffalo put it well. “I think the most critical skill for an ecosystem builder is resilience. Building an ecosystem isn’t a sprint. It’s back-to-back-to-back marathons. An ecosystem builder needs to apply continuous, targeted, and consistent force to move the needle in their communities. It’s a long-term game and requires long-term vision.”
Kate Jackson in Chicago believes that resilience to failure and shame are critical. “I believe these mindsets are critical for keeping us motivated in work that is multi-year and still rather nebulous. The mindsets also help us imagine what COULD be instead of what is and all the obstacles standing in our way of achieving entrepreneurial inclusion.”
Elaborating on resilience to failure and having persistence, Kate said, “IF we believe failure brings opportunities for learning, we will continue to thrive in the face of adversity to overcome challenges and obstacles.
Inclusivity, Empathy, Openness, Altruism
Many of the traits valued most highly by the responding ecosystem builders are deeply rooted worldviews—fundamental, ingrained perspectives and beliefs that drive how people think, their understanding of the world, and why they adopt the values that they have.
The responses from the group show their belief that impactful ecosystem builders need worldviews that include things like altruism, empathy, openness, and inclusion.
Cecilia Wessinger in Tulsa responded, “I believe ecosystem builders need to be open, inclusive, and aware. Other traits such as systems thinking, abundance mindset, and agility are very high on the list and people can have a great deal to impact communities utilizing them. But if we are not open, inclusive or aware, the other things will not be as significant because it affects the way we approach the work. These adverbs and verbs are about the action, how we do the things that need to get done.”
Melanie Lenci agreed on the importance of inclusivity, saying “Someone who’s inclusive and makes a point of stepping outside of their own bubble to engage and draw others into the ecosystem.”
Peter Cimino echoed a key principle from Brad Feld’s Boulder Thesis in his book Startup Communities, that the ecosystem must be open to all. “The community should always be open to all. To allow good ideas to be cultivated, everyone should be allowed to participate.”
Peter also identified a trait that I’ve heard over and over again from others—that it must be approached selflessly and altruistically. He believes that altruism is key to building an ecosystem. “If you have an ulterior motive, it truly clouds the judgement of the ecosystem builder. The goal is to help everyone and expect nothing in return, because there is nothing more gratifying than helping the community grow.”
Denisse Rodríguez in Puerto Rico had a similar response, saying, “It’s not about you, it’s about others and what you can do for them.”
In talking about facilitating connections, Dustin Shay emphasized the need for empathy while weaving connections through the network, saying the “Key to the above [facilitating connections] is empathy. Not just being able to understand what/how an entrepreneur or investor feels, but the professional empathy of maximizing their time, effort, and engagement to drive strong results.”
In addition to the common themes above, the group identified several other skills and traits that they deem critical to the work.
Due to the complexity of ecosystem building, there is increasing awareness of the need for systems thinking. This has now reached the mainstream thanks in large part to Brad Feld and Ian Hathaway’s book, The Startup Community Way.
Jess Edwards shared her belief that being a systems thinker is crucial to the work. “(The) ability to see the ecosystem as a whole, while also, simultaneously working within the ecosystem to connect the disconnected dots; from grassroots to government. Additionally, being able to maintain an underlying goal of identifying and streamlining all of the people and resources that are directly or indirectly impacting the entrepreneurial community; in efforts to continue its growth and increase interconnectedness.”
Jess also identified the need to be a hybrid of an idealist and a pragmatic implementor, saying, “Having the ability to balance embracing innovative concepts or new frontiers, yet insisting on developing real processes or procedures to ensure tangible results. Oftentimes, developing ecosystems is like working within an amoeba — it is important to have enough intuition to know when the ebb and flow of things is helping or hurting the development of the ecosystem (and truly moving the needle forward). Oftentimes, ecosystem builders and stakeholders can get caught up in the conceptual phase and lose momentum over time. So it is really important for ecosystem builders to have the ability to create or clear a path towards implementing the vision and mission in a sustainable and real way.”
Growth Mindset, Curiosity, Listening Skills
People that have a growth mindset believe that they can continuously learn, grow, and develop new skills and abilities. Kate Jackson called out this mindset as critical to the work. “IF we believe we can affect change and find solutions to system problems given time and effort, then we will.”
Denisse expressed a similar notion. “An ecosystem builder needs to be actively curious, ask good questions to understand what the journey of an entrepreneur is like. It is critical to build trust. For this, you need to be a good listener, you need to do what you say you’re going to do and you need to always speak truthfully and honestly.”
Engaging the Entire Entrepreneurial Stack
One of the key four pillars of Brad Feld’s Boulder Thesis is that successful ecosystems have events and programs that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack. Peter Cimini riffed on this concept, saying “Programming — no not coding! But that could be part of it! What I mean is that they have to have stuff that outsiders of the ecosystem would be drawn in by. One month it could be coding, next month it could be legal, then a founders meetup, then a happy hour and an educational event sprinkled in to fill the year with events. Or just one type of event every week, month or quarterly, but either way, the community needs advanced notice so they can decide to participate, as well as sponsors and speakers!”
Forget the noun. Do the verb.
To conclude, I think a great parting shot of advice comes from a quote referenced by Cecilia. Austin Kleon’s book, Keep Going, is a treasure trove of great insights and advice. Cecilia included one of my favorite passages from the book.
“Forget the noun. Do the verb. Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work. Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun) and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb). Doing the verb will take you someplace further and far more interesting.”
Do you have additional thoughts on the key skills, traits, or mindsets of an ecosystem builder? 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.