SXSW panelists advise how to foster entrepreneurial communities

BY SUSAN LAHEY
Special contributor to Silicon Hills News

Startups in Austin may forget how good they’ve got it.
A SXSW panel Sunday called “How to Build Entrepreneurship Communities” explored strategies used by other places—Los Angeles, Omaha Nebraska, New York City—to build communities for startups. In many places, key players don’t know one another or have viable opportunities to mingle and there’s no community culture to foster interaction.
Jeff Slobotski, founder of Silicon Prairie News in Omaha, talked about having tech journalist Sarah Lacy, founder of PandoDaily, give a presentation in town and watching startup owners and venture capitalists sitting feet away from one another at the bar, not recognizing each other.
The solution, panelists said, is multilayered: build a functional mentorship system; create meet ups and events centered on the needs of entrepreneurs; provide avenues for storytelling…telling the story of your business in content such as blogs and publications like Silicon Hills.
Mentorship, panelists said, is a key ingredient. But there’s a right way and wrong way. Just because a person is successful, for example, doesn’t mean he or she is good at helping others become successful, said Mark Nager CEO of Startup Weekend which brings developers, designers, marketers and others together to create a startup in 54 hours.
“One of the things we do is educate successful people how to help others and not just let anyone call themselves a mentor.”
And of course, there’s the startup owners responsibility. Nick Seguin, manager of entrepreneurship for the Kauffman Foundation said: “One thing I get really scared about is the entitled entrepreneur,” Seguin said. “Just because you’ve started a company doesn’t mean you’re entitled to someone’s time. You need to engage them in an efficient meaningful way. Mentors aren’t taking anything from us. They need to be engaged.”
Mark Davis, CEO of Kohort which provides tools for organizational management touted the advantages
of a system like TechStar’s which matches mentors and startups in terms of skills and needs. Also, he acknowledged, chemistry has to exist between the two.
The panelists all supported the idea that community must evolve organically from genuine need and interaction. Groups, for example, should solve a need. Any time you can see that the group centers on one personality you can assume it’s doomed.
“You know you’ve succeeded when you have a lot of people coming to your events who don’t know who you are,” Davis said. “If everyone knows it’s the so-and-so person show it’s not sustainable. Not community.”
Nor should the community event focus outside the community.
“We have six events in Iceland,” Nager said. “It’s the local developers and fishermen. We’re not talking about how to do trips to Silicon Valley.”
It helps, he said, to give each volunteer one task: Like throwing four Happy Hours a year, then putting their name on that task—manager of happy hours. That cements accountability and builds social capital.
One audience member suggested that startup advisors be willing to talk more openly about their failures. Again, unlike Austin, not everyone has a “fail faster” mentality. Nagel suggested that would be an excellent topic to hold an event around.
“To me, having mentorship and community events…make you feel like you’re not crazy,” Davis said. “How many of us, when we had an idea, we were working a normal job, people thought you were nuts. When you find there’s a community of folks out there who think like you it’s all about feeling normalish enough to go for it. Safe enough that you’re not going to waste your life. It’s just dealing with the fear.”

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