A successful entrepreneurial ecosystem connects people to people. That can’t be achieved by publishing a directory of service providers.
You’ve heard the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” right?
Well, when it comes to ecosystem building, a committed, collaborative and supportive network is worth more than a listing of organizations in a directory. A lot more.
Yet, an online directory or map is the extent of ecosystem building efforts in some communities.
Building an entrepreneurship ecosystem takes more than compiling organization names and contact information and then hoping aspiring and current entrepreneurs will stumble across it when they need assistance. Such a directory provides the “words,” if you will, but it doesn’t paint the vibrant community picture that’s needed to create relationships, connect people, share best practices, amplify voices and build the infrastructure that can fundamentally change communities.
A successful entrepreneurial ecosystem is centered on committed, collaborative people who have big-picture visions: the infrastructure builders, the service providers and the entrepreneurs. These people and others in the community infuse the ecosystem with vibrancy, blending each colorful sector onto one canvas.
It’s important to note that a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem doesn’t, as many might think, just connect entrepreneurs with resource providers. It also connects entrepreneurs and resource providers with each other.
Thomas Hall, the executive director of the Thomas Entrepreneurship Hub in Pembroke, North Carolina, is an ecosystem builder who understands why it’s critical for those who are part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem to actively build relationships among themselves rather than work in silos.
“A list of resources would help,” Hall said, “but the ecosystem is more impactful if it’s robust. Developing a feeling of inclusion or of being ‘in the network’ will help people be part of the ecosystem, support each other, and have a feeling of ownership and teamwork.”
He explains the difference between a simple directory and a vibrant, connected ecosystem by making a comparison to baseball: “You can read the rules of baseball,” he said, “or you can join a team, practice with them, enjoy the camaraderie and get better at playing the game.”
Warm Introductions Are Key
Most entrepreneurs are focused on the day-to-day details of running and growing their businesses. They do not have time to sift through a list, look up dozens of organizations and then cross their fingers, hoping they make the right call for all their effort. If they choose the wrong organization, they waste time. Worse yet, they may give up on seeking assistance entirely, missing opportunities for leveraging support when they may need it most.
A warm introduction is key. Notice I did not say referral. There’s a difference. A warm introduction is like a grocery clerk leading you to the aisle where the item you asked about is located and making sure the size and quantity you need is available. A referral would be that same clerk just gesturing toward the item from across the store.
When I was at IASourceLink, we implemented a free hotline service, based on the SourceLink hotline model, called the Business Concierge. Just as you might expect from a hotel concierge, the service is personalized for each entrepreneur who calls for help. There’s a human-to-human connection. The resource provider the entrepreneur speaks with builds rapport with the entrepreneur, learning as much as they can about the entrepreneur’s business in order to make the introduction to the appropriate network affiliate.
And the interaction doesn’t stop at the referral. Calling the entrepreneur back later to ask, “Did that help?” and taking the appropriate follow-up action based on the response you receive is the next step. Some of our SourceLink affiliates even go further to close the loop with the resource partner, asking how the experience went for them and ensuring the right type of entrepreneur is being referred.
Here’s the thing: For those personal introductions to be successful, ecosystem builders must create an infrastructure that allows for trust in the entrepreneurial service space. Resource partners must know one another and understand what each offers (think: services provided, stage of business or industries served, geographic area, etc.). It’s also important not to overlook another importance piece: the type of entrepreneur that would be the best fit for each organization’s services. That kind of knowledge and trust can’t occur with just a directory, nor can it occur if there’s a silo mentality.
Listen in Order to Support
Entrepreneurs need to be heard in order to be supported. That’s important to keep in mind as you cultivate relationships with the entrepreneurs in your ecosystem.
In more cases than you’d think, entrepreneurs reach out to service organizations seeking help in a certain area, only to discover their real problem is something else that requires a different kind of assistance. Those moments of discovery do not occur by studying a list of resources; they are revealed through thoughtful, guided conversation.
Alberto Lugo, the founder and CEO of INVID, a software developer and consultancy in Puerto Rico, said tapping into the programs and resources of Colmena66, a SourceLink community of more than 200 service providers, was critical for his business to survive after Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017 and then in helping him achieve double-digit growth in 2018.
“Entrepreneurs don’t know what they don’t know,” he said.
He said it took him five to six years to understand that, noting that most of the success his company achieved initially was in spite of himself.
“I thought I knew it all. I thought I had a thriving business. I went to the first course. I learned I had no idea about business and realized I had been lucky,” he said.
Once he plugged into the network, including the Guayacán Venture Accelerator, a business-building accelerator, he began seeking global contracts and his business took off.
“It took me 10 years because I didn't know, right? I had a university degree as a software developer, but if you don't know what you don’t know, then how can you ask for it?” he pointed out.
Peer Learning is Powerful
Lugo is also an example of what can be achieved when an ecosystem encourages entrepreneurs to act as resources too.
He said that not only did he learn from the other entrepreneurs who participated in the programs with him, he appreciated the realization that he “was not alone.”
“It's very important to have those networks where you can bounce ideas and talk to like-minded people,” Lugo said. “Before, I never talked about my business because my friends don't get it, and it's very difficult to talk to an employee about one of the issues I have as a business owner because most of them can’t relate.”
Now Lugo actively gives back as a mentor to various startups. He also launched a podcast in which he encourages guests to share their failures so other entrepreneurs can learn from them.
“As a mentor, I can give someone maybe 20 years of experience in an hour about a specific topic, so that could make a difference,” he said.
Finally, keep in mind that you can do many things “right” as you build your ecosystem, but the effort won’t matter if entrepreneurs don’t know about the resources or and how valuable they can be.
You, as the community champion, need to beat the pavement, meet owners where they are and actively recruit owners into your community’s network of support. During my IASourceLink days, I used to walk the downtowns of many small towns and have conversations with owners about how business was going and share a connection (or two) that I thought would be impactful.
Lugo has some good advice here too. Recruit entrepreneurs you’ve already connected. Ask the entrepreneurs who are in your programs and classes for referrals of other owners they think could benefit.
“To keep building the network [is key]. Get referrals and keep providing information about training,” Lugo said.
As you can see, simply mapping assets and uploading information to a website sets the bar too low. Your work as an ecosystem builder can’t stop there if your goal is to create a community in which entrepreneurs of all backgrounds have ready access to programs that help them thrive.
Getting your community to a place where there’s long-term momentum and commitment for entrepreneurs is not a fast (or easy) feat. The work is ongoing and will take years. Much like beautiful, timeless works of art, the picture may not appear to change much, but new insights and beauty wait to be uncovered when you have a community in collective motion.
To learn more about ecosystem building, or to get best practices to guide your efforts, connect with us via firstname.lastname@example.org.