An Entrepreneur’s First Co-Founder: The Community

3/5/10

To do great work, you need community. I don’t think people generally comprehend just how important it is.

If you’re not the social type, perhaps you can get more work done today and tomorrow working behind closed doors. But if you do this long enough, you start to lose touch with the world. Your work becomes more and more irrelevant. What you can learn from your network is vast. And when you work in a community, you get hints along the way about which direction you should take.

Whether you’re a research scientist or a writer, the importance of community is there. And if you’re an entrepreneur, it goes even further: the community defines your chances of getting an outcome—any outcome.

“Release your product early and often,” they say. Your personal community, your user community (the small one that exists), and the entrepreneurial community will put you to the test. As you iterate, you’ll learn whether or not you’re on the right track.

When entrepreneurs are sequestered off by themselves, they wilt, at least just a little bit. And that little bit matters when you’re on a treacherous rollercoaster or on a dangerous mission searching for the Holy Grail. People who are as independent and gritty as entrepreneurs may not always like to admit these things. But I experienced it first hand. For a period of time, I had to work by myself. This was a discouraging time. Worst of all, it was terribly unproductive.

Then I realized this is a problem that many people in my situation likely had and that I had a unique opportunity to help alleviate it on a small scale. On the first floor of the building I live in, I had everything a group of entrepreneurs needed to work— desks, Internet, a ping pong table—so I decided to invite a few of my fellow entrepreneurs to work with me. Soon, a few joined me, and like magic, my ability to do great work was completely restored. The productivity of my new “co-workers,” most of whom had also been working alone, also increased. And along with it, our enjoyment of our work soared. (You can read more about our work group here).

The entrepreneurial environment is very cultural, and emerging companies are a product of the ecosystem. If money was made in enterprise security software yesterday, you’ll likely have an investor culture more friendly to enterprise security software today. Where there’s funding, entrepreneurs tend to follow. And where there’s a high density of entrepreneurs, there is energy and innovation and brilliance.

A high density of entrepreneurs is key to this entire cycle. When you have strong connections between the right minds, you have a lot of potential energy. It is only a matter of time before a spark comes along to ignite it.

Recently, thought leaders, particularly Bill Warner (an Xconomist), have started conversations about improving the Boston entrepreneurial ecosystem. In a recent blog, Bill outlined the “plays” necessary to grow the region. These plays include finding new talent, funding first-timers, pushing each other, and spreading success.

To help with such steps, we should think about our community centerpieces—Xconomy, Cambridge Innovation Center, MIT Enterprise Forum, MITX, and so on—and examine the role they play in the ecosystem. Then, identify the gaps that can be filled. Are Boston’s university students aware of the Boston startup ecosystem? Do zero-stage entrepreneurs have an environment that spurs them on in Boston? These are examples of questions that need to be considered..

Gaps in the community drain potential from the ecosystem. I know from experience—I found myself in one. But in a community as motivated as Boston’s, I’m confident these gaps will be filled. I know I intend to play my role in the effort. Others are already hard at work.


Kevin is a writer and entrepreneur based in Cambridge, MA. He blogs at KevinVogelsang.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KevinVogelsang Follow @

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  • http://www.greenhornconnect.com Jason Evanish

    Kevin,

    You bring up great points. The community is an essential part of raising a startup; just like the old saying is it takes a whole village to raise a child, I think the same can be said for molding great young entrepreneurs into future leaders.

    DartBoston and Greenhorn Connect are on the ground floor working on these problems and challenges. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for the greater community, but more importantly my friends and fellow young entrepreneurs that are battling just like me to try to make it. It’s definitely a different journey choosing a path of entrepreneurship, so we all need all the help and encouragement we can get.

    The Boston ecosystem is poised to explode with a new wave of innovation, the only question is how well that potential we see now can be converted to success. A core part of that is, as you suggest, the ability to actually connect and fill those gaps.

    As much as I know and love all of those organizations you mentioned, they’re ironic choices as Xconomy and MITX events are far from free to attend and the CIC is well out of the price range of most pre-funding/bootstrapped startups. They’re all key parts of the community, and they do great things, but they are not the end all solution.

    There are literally hundreds of resources in this great community (I was surprised myself until I built a site around finding them all…). The key is to utilize what we have to best fit all of those gaps; there is no one-size-fits-all solution and sometimes it is the lesser known or more niche organizations that may best fit certain needs.

    Count Greenhorn Connect in for doing their part for the solution. You’ll soon see what we’re doing to address some of those gaps…

    Best Regards,

    Jason Evanish
    Co-Founder, GreenhornConnect.com

  • http://www.startup-book.com Herve

    Bravo! I totally agree on many of your points: the community, the confrontation to others “Release your product early and often”, and probably something else which has to do with role models. I usually quote Tom Perkins (see http://www.startup-book.com/2007/12/20/tom-perkins-a-silicon-valley-venture-capitalist)

    “The difference is in psychology: everybody in Silicon Valley knows somebody that is doing very well in high-tech small companies, start-ups; so they say to themselves “I am smarter than Joe. If he could make millions, I can make a billion”. So they do and they think they will succeed and by thinking they can succeed, they have a good shot at succeeding. That psychology does not exist so much elsewhere.”

  • john

    What about BetaHouse?

  • http://kevinvogelsang.com Kevin Vogelsang

    @Jason Evanish
    Thanks for the comment, Jason. And keep up the good work on the “ground floor.” In my book, this is where the efforts are the most important. When you’re going “against the grain,” shared experience and energy are the most important.
    And you’re right, there are a lot of resources out there. But, it sounds like you’ve noticed a gap yourself–a way to help others better utilize them.

  • http://kevinvogelsang.com Kevin Vogelsang

    @Herve
    Absolutely. Entrepreneurialism and the consequential psychology is extremely cultural, as mentioned in your quote. This is important to understand in community-driven movements (which entrepreneurship is).
    One of the harshest reminders of these differences is MIT. A huge portion of MIT grads sprint to Wall Street and consulting firms. I’ve met many that want to do a startup, but they get caught up in that path. This is an institution that is supposed to be the premiere technological institute.

    It comes down to a phrase you used “role models.” With some successes, the entrepreneurial community will reach a critical mass. The “potential entrepreneur” demographic will start saying, “damn, look at what these people have done.”

    Getting there is on the shoulders of those with past successes and the pure-born entrepreneurs, the animal of the working world that belongs in the wild.

  • http://kevinvogelsang.com Kevin Vogelsang

    @john
    Works spaces like Beta House play an important role in the community.
    Beta House absolutely deserves mention.

  • http://VentureFizz Keith Cline

    I am very excited about all the cultural shifts that have taken place in Boston. A good example of this shift includes the Office Hours movement. In the past, it was very difficult for a first time entrepreneur to get on a VC’s calendar. This is no longer the case.

    I launched VentureFizz last July with this same mission in terms of helping foster and educate the Boston entrepreneurial community. As a recruiter for startups in Boston for the past 11 years, it seemed apparent that a site which pulled everything together in one spot would help fill this void.

    On Monday, I was invited to speak at Harvard Business School on the following topic: How to join a Startup. It was a packed house and there was a tremendous amount of interest. I think the majority of the graduate students were very surprised about all the great things going on in Boston and now feel more connected.

    The entrepreneurial community in Boston is very vibrant, strong…and growing day by day! Let’s keep the momentum going!!

  • http://kevinvogelsang.com Kevin Vogelsang

    @Keith
    You said it Keith! And thanks for your great work.

    Hopefully next time you speak the students will already know a lot more about what’s happening. And maybe next time the crowd will also include science/engineering students.

    You’re right. Let’s keep it up.

  • http://getyourbizsavvy.com GetYourBizSavvy

    Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! Such a great read. I love reading about entrepreneurs and the community and the importance of both working together. I agree with your points about feeling discouraged when you work alone. I have that same feeling. Let me just say that I would love to work in your building. That is the perfect environment. Thanks for the inspiration and guidance!

  • http://dornfeldmg.com C Dornfeld

    Maybe the bigger question is not just what Boston can do for itself, but the role it could play in helping the US develop into a more entrepreneurial country. For example, St. Louis has developed an entrepreneur mentor program based on an MIT model that already has over 100 start-up companies involved…

  • http://KevinVogelsang.com Kevin Vogelsang

    @GetYourBizSavvy
    Thanks for your feedback. And I’m glad that you enjoyed. There’s a lot of energy out there to be tapped into.
    Currently, the work situation is small and very informal. However, I am looking into replicating the situation at a more permanent location…..
    Regardless, I’d love to get in touch. Click through to my blog at KevinVogelsang.com. You’ll find my email address there.

  • http://KevinVogelsang.com Kevin Vogelsang

    @C Dornfeld
    Big problems are an aggregation of many small problems. But you are correct, it’s about furthering entrepreneurialism, and ultimately, driving economic growth at large. By solving problems at home, we’re then better able to provide support elsewhere.

    MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service is a great example. I’ve personally benefited from the program, and I’m glad to hear similar programs are being implemented elsewhere.

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  • Rahul

    I’ve recently moved to Boston from San Fran. I agree with Jason in that many of the publicized events are not cheap to attend. Most of the value from these conferences comes from the personal interaction & relationship building, as oppose to the general topics spoken about. With that being said, I understand that there are costs to holding the events.

    I have noticed in my short time here that there is definitely a cluster of entrepreneurial people but the environment is not where it could be in terms of nourishing it. I think an initial step would be to definitely have more social events, such as at bars & restaurants (people just need an excuse to gather).

  • http://kevinvogelsang.com Kevin Vogelsang

    @Rahul
    You’re absolutely right. It really is about an excuse to get together. In fact, half the time I skip the “event” and just show up for the hangout period.
    You know what you’re also right about, there needs to be more informal, straight-up meetups. There are quite a few small ones, but I have trouble keeping up with when and where they are because they’re so irregular. And honestly, I can’t think of a single one that takes place in a bar. I’m going to have to change that, either by finding one or starting one….
    (I do go to OpenCoffee on Wednesdays at Andala’s every once in a while. I like the fact that it’s regular and weekly. Easier to keep track of).

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