We’ve all heard the legends of entrepreneurial success. If the stories are to be believed, cities around the country would be building garages for entrepreneurs to start the next Apple, Amazon, etc.
Isolated garages may organically create new businesses, but will not build a sustainable growth system for entrepreneurs. That comes from an entrepreneurial infrastructure (like the roads that connect the garages) built upon grounded, connected systems that provide building blocks for business startup and growth.
What is an entrepreneurial ecosystem?
In today’s dialogue, the entrepreneurial ecosystem often gets the most visibility, as it combines the organic passion of a community and its entrepreneurs with the ideas that spring from that passion. According to the Kauffman Foundation. “Entrepreneurial ecosystems drive local economic vibrancy and national economic growth by building fertile environments for new and growing companies to thrive.”
Entrepreneurial ecosystems comprise many players: innovators, investors, policy makers, and more. They grow out of organic passion, often led by entrepreneurs themselves. No one organization or person “creates” an ecosystem. In fact, you can’t actually create an entrepreneurial ecosystem. So that’s the bad news.
Don’t despair. Because there is really good news: you can create conditions in which entrepreneurs choose to innovate.
What is an entrepreneurial infrastructure?
Economic developers play a critical role in entrepreneurship. You can build the connective tissue to create an actual entrepreneurial infrastructure that supports, encourages and sustains the elements that make up a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Let me put that a different way: You can’t create a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, but you can create infrastructure that makes it easier for entrepreneurs to start and grow companies and you can create an infrastructure that makes it easier for the entrepreneurial ecosystem to emerge and flourish.
For example, economic developers can make it easier for entrepreneurs to make connections. Resource organizations can engage with entrepreneurs and contribute where it makes sense. Case in point: behind most 1 Million Cups, a program started by the Kauffman Foundation where entrepreneurs present their ideas and receive community feedback, is an organization that provides the space and buys the coffee. We can do other things that work in the background for entrepreneurs: make it easier for people starting businesses to find the right resources; simplify the process of getting permits or licenses; provide a continuum of programs to help entrepreneurs vet their ideas and grow their businesses; and help bring new pools of capital to the community.
To sharpen the point: We can’t make entrepreneurship any less risky, but we can make the process of starting and growing a business easier.
So where do you start?
Many communities have some kind of entrepreneurial community in place, even if they don’t know it. Small business groups, chambers of commerce, universities, library meeting groups, Meetup groups – all can be part of a larger, more vibrant ecosystem. With the addition of an infrastructure, these groups can be connected not just in some directory but in a real, mutually beneficial way.
So the first step is to identify the resources for entrepreneurs that already exist—and then connect them to each other and to entrepreneurs.
Think of those programs—libraries, coworking spaces, business groups, entrepreneurial programs—as a bunch of Lego® blocks, without an assembly guide. If you start by attaching one Lego block to another, connecting one program to another in a deliberate continuum of services, you start to build something.
Connect several Lego blocks together and you’ve got a base. Little by little, brick by brick, you connect the dots and that support network for entrepreneurs and business owners gets stronger. Before you know it, you have a house and then an entire village, with the roads and bridges that allow entrepreneurs to travel from one place to another.
That’s what it means to build an infrastructure for entrepreneurship. Take what you have, connect those pieces together, so that, when taken as a whole, you’ve got a system of interconnected parts that does make it easier for entrepreneurs to start businesses, find resources, recruit talent, attract customer and connect to capital.
Once you’ve identified resources and connected them into an infrastructure for entrepreneurs, then you can start to build up by empowering collaborations to fill gaps in services. And along the way, with a system of entrepreneurship in place, you can benchmark your efforts and measure your outcomes.
Why do you need an entrepreneurial infrastructure?
In the words of Rodney Sampson, “If you are an ecosystem builder and you are not demonstrating through data that you are directly growing jobs and wealth, you are not an ecosystem builder.”
It’s easy to pay attention to the startups and entrepreneurs who make the most noise. It’s simple to drop some advice on the person you just met at 1 Million Cups.
Building an infrastructure helps you move from helping people one at a time to creating a system that moves the entire community forward. It levels the playing field, making opportunities, funding and success more visible and accessible for anyone who has a dream or wants to seed hope in a problem not yet solved.
So ask yourself and take an honest assessment of your entrepreneurial community: Who are your entrepreneurs? What do they need? After you help them (or if you can’t), where do they go next? What industries feed your region’s economy—and where are the ideas coming from that will drive new innovations that will grow the economy? How many jobs do your entrepreneurs create?
If you can’t answer these questions, then you may have an entrepreneurial ecosystem, but likely you need to do some work on building a connected infrastructure.