by Jay Clouse
I attended my first Startup Weekend event in 2012. I had an app idea (doesn’t everyone?) and after applying for a grant, was told, “This isn’t really aligned with our grants program, but here’s $100 — go pitch it at Startup Weekend.”
That event changed my life — and that is not hyperbole.
Our project was covered in TechCrunch. A mentor from that weekend gave me an internship at Fundable (now startups.com). And just like that, my life in the startup world began.
The following year, I started organizing our local Startup Weekend events in Columbus. It was a small team, I was still in college, and I was hungry. Our three-person team organized three events a year for a couple of years and had some of the highest attendance for Startup Weekends globally.
This is where my network really started — I met incredible founders, creatives, and professionals from all different walks of life. Running three events a year with over 100 attendees at each event will grow your rolodex pretty quickly!
It was all volunteer work, but it was all absolutely worth it to be part of the Startup Weekend global community while also building up our own local community.
the organizer’s dilemma
But as I got older, there were more opportunities competing for my time. As I became more connected in the community, my time became more valuable. And as my time became more valuable, it got harder to justify spending so much of my time as a volunteer organizer.
Our pace slowed to two events per year. We were trying to pull them together on shorter time periods (many communities take 5-6 months to organize an event, and we were working on less than 3 months) and burning out our community’s sponsors as much as ourselves.
Then in 2014, I joined the founding team of Tixers, a ticket marketplace that was ultimately acquired. We were a two-man team and, in the ticketing business, there were no weekends off.
I was burning out, and the first time commitments I cut out of my life were the volunteer positions.
I stopped organizing Startup Weekend. I stopped organizing just about everything.
Being a community organizer is mostly thankless work. Of course, we are paid in the appreciation from the people we help and the network that we build, but it’s a pure labor of love.
Most community organizers are carving out what little time they have outside of their own business or day job to create a space where people can connect, and often foot the bill too.
The longer you volunteer, the more you feel taken for granted. The more you feel taken for granted, the higher the likelihood that you give it up.
It’s just not very sustainable long term. In fact, through upside we’ve met a lot of prominent members of different communities, and they often mention a sort of “golden period” when a grassroots organizer really carried the torch in building community for their ecosystem.
And usually, those same organizers eventually got burned out (like me) or moved on to another city.
Recently on upside, we had a conversation with Stephanie Manning of Lerer Hippeau and her role as Director of Platform. “Platform” is a newer function in venture capital that’s gained popularity in the last several years (here’s a great, in-depth piece Stephanie wrote, if you want to go deeper).
It covers a broad range of post-investment support and services and can mean different things at different firms. A Platform role (or roles) vary by title but responsibilities typically fall into these six buckets:
- Business Development
- Content, Marketing & Communications
- Community & Network
Through the interview, I just couldn’t shake how familiar the job sounded. Connecting founders to other founders, investors, and employees…connecting talent to companies who desperately needed it…throwing events, large and small, as a way to force collisions and create new relationships…
As venture firms are putting more focus (and resources) into building out their Platform strategy, they are recognizing what community organizers have known all along:
This is valuable and important work that has a direct, noticeable impact.
But any venture firm has an inherent bias towards their own. This is not putting blame or shame on any firm – there are ancillary benefits to any platform team operating in a community. But, it’s a simple understanding of incentives and organizational design. The firm is going to focus on activities that bring the MOST value to their firm and portfolio companies.
The platform focus is a competitive advantage for Firm A. Stephanie told us about collaboration between platform teams (from Firm A to Firm B), and I believe that. And we know that ecosystems grow when there are multiple funding partners in an ecosystem. But in thriving ecosystems, there is some level of competition between Firm A and Firm B.
It got me thinking that ecosystems need platform roles for community.
platform meets community
It’s not the role of a venture’s platform team to be the “community” platform. In fact, I’ve witnessed firsthand how even well-meaning attempts by a venture firm to lead community are often met with distrust and disdain from the founders and grassroots community members.
So how do we bridge the gap? How do we create incentives that not only encourage the pure community organizer to continue their “platform” work, especially in areas without venture firms building platform teams?
After all, some communities have platform organizers — they just can’t keep them. It’s difficult to sustain on a volunteer basis.
I’ve long admired this talk by Tyler Crowley about building a tech community in Stockholm. He mentions a few key pillars:
- Meetups // Organized, scheduled activities for people to engage (ideally at a Nest)
- Flag (Hashtag) // An identity to rally behind and amplify signal, organize noise
- Town Hall Meeting // Monthly event bringing the smaller meetups together
- Documentarian // People or organizations writing about local startups and events
- Nest (Work + Meet + Events) // Center of gravity where anyone in the startup community work and meet
See the similarities?
And more importantly, see the differences?
The pillars Tyler lays out are about increasing collisions for all members of the ecosystem. The Nest is a single place that anyone in the ecosystem can use to meet. If I get off a plane as an outsider, it’s the obvious center of startup gravity.
The “Flag” (think #StartupCincy) is something that the community — from the grassroots and up — can align behind. It’s unowned.
The Documentarian is a huge role in itself. Covering the startup ecosystem, generating buzz on behalf of the startups, and documenting the different events happening around the city is a full time job in itself. Some communities have entire organizations for this purpose, like Startland News in Kansas City.
a new hope
It’s clear to me and many ecosystem builders that local, grassroots organizers do platform work of a growing ecosystem. And it’s time to create a system to cultivate it, just as venture firms have.
But here’s the rub: it probably can’t be funded by one entity. To professionalize the role introduces new challenges. Just as I mentioned above,
well-meaning attempts by a venture firm to lead community are often met with distrust and disdain from the founders and grassroots community members.
And if you create a job description and try to hire for the work, you will attract people who may not be the true champions you need.
Instead, ecosystems need to take a look around and ask, “Who is doing grassroots organizing work already?” and once they identify those individuals, “How can we incentivize them to keep going?”
Start small. If they are volunteering their time, they truly care — and a small stipend would go a long way. What if 10 local startups and firms pitched in $500? What if that was matched with a government or economic development grant?
That organizer would run through a wall for your ecosystem.
Imagine 25 local ecosystems with grassroots organizers (or teams) building the platform of their communities. Now imagine what would happen when they inevitably work together across ecosystems.
There are about as many startups companies started outside of Silicon Valley in the United States as inside of the Valley — and they are all operating in ecosystem silos. By creating community platforms, those silos would disappear as organizers work with each other across ecosystems to do what’s best for their communities.
And that would really get the flywheel turning in flyover country.
Jay Clouse is co-founder of The Up Company, co-host of the upside podcast, and author for Linkedin Learning / Lynda.com. Jay spent the last 6+ years as a global organizer and facilitator for Startup Weekend, based in Columbus, OH. He built and sold a ticketing company (Tixers), worked for a venture-backed startup in Columbus (Olive), and now runs an online accelerator for early stage founders (Unreal Collective).