In publishing my Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Boston Tech Community, I had a heavy emphasis on grassroots efforts vs. big top-down events and organizations.
This is clearly a value judgement on my part. I’m a big believer in organic communities that are created by and for the end users. I’m skeptical of top-down initiatives that are led by governments or large companies that fit their PR agendas but don’t really address the needs of end users.
Let’s take events and meetups for example. One of my favorite meetups is PopSignal. It’s an organic event – the founders were both entrepreneurs that wanted a venue to collaborate with their peers. They keep the meetup pretty small and invitees are asked to bring +1’s to the events to keep bringing fresh blood into the group. It’s a small network, but a very very high-quality one, and one that has strong camaraderie. My relationships at PopSignal have probably resulted 10 real business engagements, dozens of productive business conversations, and some real friendships that I know will endure.
Contrast this to some of the entrepreneur events hosted by VC’s. There is nothing wrong with these – I’ve was involved in planning a few at my prior firms. I will definitely do so again. But they are not organic events. Usually, other investors are not invited, the guest list is generated by the organizing firm, and the community itself does not endure beyond one night of drinking. Not including other investors is a decision that benefits the organizer (in the short term), but does not benefit the end users (the entrepreneurs). It’s one of the reasons organic communities end up being better than manufactured ones. Imagine if Charlie O’Donnel was a tyrant and didn’t allow other investors to join NextNY events! That would be horrible… luckily, I think that community is strong enough that he would be overthrown if that ever happened 🙂
A new example of really amazing organic community is being formed at the Harvard Business School. It’s the startup tribe (www.startuptribe.com). Professor Tom Eisenmann deserves a lot of credit for promoting this community over the years, but he’ll be the first to admit that all he did was add a little fuel to the potential energy that already existed among the student community. Every year, there are individuals within the student community that just emerge as the nexus of entrepreneurial thought and activity. Guys like David Vivero (‘08), Sunil Nagaraj (‘09), and Rafael Corrales (‘10). Their group of friends and similar startup conspirators informally embodied the “startup tribe”, although you wouldn’t have any idea it was happening from the outside. Recently, a few really motivated students have tried to create some structure around this by having regular meetups, an online nexus for the community, and other events. Now, HBS has had a TechMedia Club and an Entrepreneurship Club for years and years. But I think this Startup Tribe is completely different and the more authentic entrepreneurs will gravitate naturally to this organic community vs. more manufactured ones.
It’s with this lens that I sometimes challenge what I feel are top-down, manufactured efforts at building community. I always ask, “why reinvent the wheel and create a new venue for x,y, or z when there is a perfectly fine place that entrepreneurs are already doing their thing?” I urge folks to think less like city planners and to listen to the community and respond to their needs. I think Gus Weber at Microsoft does an amazing job at this. He makes the NERD space available to so many organizations, and it’s easy to tell that he’s not thinking about a direct ROI to Microsoft when he does this.
Fostering a strong culture of innovation is so important. It builds upon itself and fuels so many good things. But culture and community are really really hard to manufacture. So don’t. See what is already happening organically and build from there.