“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 that they identify as being part 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 to be able to quickly find the knowledge and resources that they need in order to be successful. They need to know where that exists and what resources are available to them.
When I first got involved in the Sacramento startup ecosystem, I believed strongly that there needed to be an online resource that documented resources available in our community. At the time, the resources didn’t exist online. There was no online resource where entrepreneurs and other ecosystem players could go to find a listing of events or what coworking spaces, accelerator, and incubators were available in the region. There was no listing of the funding sources like VCs and angel investor funds in the area and no directory of local startups. The knowledge was out there, but it resided in individuals.
If your innovation ecosystem doesn’t already have its collective knowledge and resources documented and easily accessible, you may be in the same situation I faced in 2015. How do you find what resources are available, then organize it, document it, and publish it to make it available. Here are some ideas from my experience.
Finding the Information
For me, it all started with an infographic. As part of my own effort to get involved with the Sacramento startup community, I had done some research online and identified a key asset and influencer in the startup community (my StartupSac cofounder Laura Good). If you’re not one of the people in the community who has the knowledge and connections about the ecosystem, you need to find who those people are, connect with them, and extract that knowledge.
What kind of information do you need to get? That may differ based on the maturity of the startup ecosystem in your community and there are several frameworks you can use to start. When I first started working on an infographic overview of our ecosystem, I broke it down into a few key categories of resources:
- Ideas & talent (this led to identifying the universities and higher education options in the community)
- Coworking spaces
- Accelerator, incubators, & training programs
- Funding sources
Through a combination of one-on-one interviews with key influencers in the community and online research, I identified resources in each of the above categories and documented it in a spreadsheet, listing the organization name, website address, key contacts, description.
Through the research I also stumbled upon other frameworks for documenting ecosystems, primarily, the Startup Ecosystem Canvas from Founder Institute. This framework breaks things down a bit differently than I had been doing, breaking thing down by stages (Idea Stage, Launch Stage, Growth Stage) . I started working on filling the canvas and quickly realized that there were significant gaps in our ecosystem. I found it a great tool for identifying those gaps but I wasn’t satisfied with using that framework and categorization for publishing on the web. But it did help me flesh out my initial set of categories and identify more assets and resources in our community.
My schema for documenting our ecosystem now consists of identifying and tracking the following:
- Events & Activities
- Coworking Spaces
- Maker Spaces & CoLaboratories
- Accelerator, Incubators, & Training programs
- Colleges and Universities
- Civic Programs
I’ve considered additional categories from the Startup Ecosystem Canvas, such as law firms, banks, accounting and HR firms, mentors, and will likely include those at some point as well.
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 pen and a notebook.
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 coworking 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.
As an example, the image below is a screenshot from one of the earlier spreadsheets I used while capturing and organizing the startup community resources in our region.
Documenting and Sharing the Information
My premise from the beginning was that there needs to be an online resource where people can go to access the available resources in the community. Sure, you can print brochures or documents but they don’t have the same reach, distribution is a challenge, and updating them is expensive. So, in my opinion, startup communities need to publish their available resources on a dedicated website.
There are plenty of online tools and resource navigators out there that can be used, but for starting out, I personally like the idea of a simple website. I recommend starting out with purchasing a domain name for your online resource and setting up a website built with WordPress. Why WordPress? It’s the most-used content management platform on the planet, it’s used by thousands of designers and developers so it’s easy to find help with it if you need it, and it has the ability to have its functionality extended very easily with app-like extensions called plugins.
For my project of establishing Sacramento’s startup community platform, I purchased a domain name, StartupSac.com, and created a basic WordPress website over a weekend. Now admittedly, your mileage may vary on how long it takes you to get set up. I’ve got many years of experience working with WordPress so it was quick and easy for me to get our community website up very quickly.
Initially, I just created separate pages for each of the categories I was documenting. For example, a page for the Accelerator, Incubators, & Training programs, a page listing the coworking spaces, etc. Each of these listed the name, a brief description and a link to the resource’s website. That’s it. Nothing fancy. But the information was finally there and accessible to anyone on the Internet.
Now, this was just a starting point. Over time I’ve expanded beyond just static pages to include directories, interactive maps & diagrams, and calendars. The effort to constantly update and improve both the information and the way it is presented has paid off. In August of last year, Rick Rasmussen, from UC Berkeley’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology program recognized all of those online resources on StartupSac as the best place he’d found for documentation for an ecosystem.
“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
So, it would seem that all of that effort to uncover hidden information and bring it to one place has been worthwhile. It’s a lot of work and there are a lot of options to document it and improve it. I’ll cover more of what’s been involved and some of those options in subsequent articles.