What We Learned From Other Ecosystems in 2020

Keith McMunn

Keith McMunn, Fellowship Director


Startup Ecosystem Write Up 2020

Awesome Center of Entrepreneurship takes two ecosystem discovery trips every year to learn from other cities that Lexington either compares to or can strive toward. During these trips we explore the city and meet with its startup ecosystems’ major players. Usually, each member of the Awesome Team is responsible for planning and executing meetings relevant to their roles in tech, bootcamps/coding, coworking/workspace, marketing, corporate innovation, venture capital, and accelerators/incubators. Unfortunately, this year is different due to restrictions in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

After researching and speaking with leaders in multiple cities, we concluded that COVID makes a trip like this unfeasible and unsafe. On the bright side, our introductory calls with ecosystem players turned into research calls and the knowledge that we gained from these calls was valuable and paved the way for unexpected findings. What follows are seven learnings from our research on these cities: Pittsburgh, Grand Rapids, and Knoxville.

  1. Ecosystem Density is a relative strength
  2. Your ease of entry is your first impression
  3. Find way to measure your talent tipping point
  4. Universities need to feed their ecosystems 
  5. Positive Ecosystem representation is important
  6. Symptoms of an ingrown community
  7. Accelerators are not slow cookers 

Ecosystem density is a relative strength - Pittsburgh

When speaking with leadership of Innovation Works in Pittsburgh, PA, we learned that they see a significant difference between Pittsburgh’s ecosystem and Cincinnati’s, both of which are well respected and have garnered international attention. In fact, we’ve previously visited and written about Cincinnati’s ecosystem. Cincinnati seems to employ an “all-under-one-hood” model by way of Cintrifuse. Pittsburgh’s ecosystem seems to be more spread out, which they believe brings in more diverse minds from more Pittsburgh neighborhoods. In fact, it’s important to mention that Pittsburgh’s startup activity is more of an infusion throughout the city’s geography as opposed to Cincinnati’s being a centralized, beating heart. This insight has led us to be more patient with the way our ecosystem activity infuses the city. We do not feel like we need to rush to create a centralized, all-in-one, startup heart but, rather, we are excited to see how the city organically positions its startup activity.

Your ease-of-entry is your first impression - All Cities

Regardless of how centralized or spread out an ecosystem is, the ease of entry needs to be quick and capable of being self-guided. Many of our research leads were obtained through prior networking. However, when reaching out to ecosystems as a newcomer, it would have been difficult to get connected to an actual person. Few websites, if any, provided a phone number. Most websites elected toward a general “contact us” box. Only one website provided the email address for a specific person. What we found to be most surprising is, when a general contact was provided (e.g. info@example.org or “Send us a Message” forms) the response rate was less than half. They may be missing out on some great opportunities, if this is the experience of other newcomers..  We’ve met some great entrepreneurs in the past looking to learn about the Lexington ecosystem.  We believe it is important for Kentucky’s ecosystems to be prepared with automated welcoming of newcomers that also provides a personal appeal. Lexington’s ecosystem provides similar lines of communication as these cities. We may need to consider adding more specific contacts on our websites to more quickly put “faces to names.” 

Find ways to measure your talent tipping point - Grand Rapids

A common theme from the Grand Rapids and Lexington interview was the concern of talent flow in and out of the city. Talented people will visit a city for many reasons, whether it be family, college, vacation, or business. However, regardless of why they’re coming, a healthy ecosystem needs to be able to show their talented visitors why they should stay. Visitors should be able to see excitement and energy in the startup community and, perhaps more importantly, they need to see obvious opportunities for themselves. Several interviewees mentioned a critical point or “tipping point” where more talented people were coming to the city than leaving. We believe that this is the goal. We want Kentucky’s ecosystems to be able to measure and know when the scales tip and more talent arrives than departs. 

Universities need to feed their ecosystems - Knoxville

Universities typically play the biggest part in attracting talent to a city.  This means that a healthy relationship between a city’s startup community and its major universities are crucial. Per Startup Communities by Brad Feld, Universities will have a major presence and responsibility by acting as feeders and providing talent to its local system. Ideally, the university should provide students with a surplus of opportunities that showcase the local startup ecosystem and connect students with professionals. However, this relationship can become unhealthy if not carefully checked and maintained. Our Knoxville contact spoke on the problems that came from their ecosystem being overly reliant on the local university. Its reliance on the university narrowed its scope to only the interests of the university. Because the ecosystem’s focus is narrow, its leadership seemed to be narrow-minded and unwelcoming to other types of innovative and creative energy. 

Talk about your ecosystem like you would talk about your spouse - Knoxville, Grand Rapids

The way participants speak of their ecosystem to outsiders can be a helpful gauge of the overall health of the ecosystem and the morale of the members within. When explaining the nature of our exploratory trips and expressing interest in visiting a city, the responses of these leaders varied. Some leaders were excited about the work being done, the growth happening, and the overall direction things were headed in their city. Others could only speak on the negative aspects of their ecosystem. The interviewees from our Grand Rapids and Knoxville meetings even suggested checking out other cities instead of their own. We were inclined to continue our research of the cities which were portrayed in a positive light by its leaders, however, we also wanted to dig deeper into the apparently weaker cities to find more of what not to do. We equate this to how one should talk about his or her spouse. Just like in relationships, no startup ecosystem is expected to be perfect. If it is maturing, however, you should speak highly and optimistically about it.

Symptoms of an ingrown community - Knoxville, Grand Rapids

In the cities where the leadership we interviewed spoke poorly of their own ecosystem, we noticed another trend. One of the most common self-diagnoses was that they couldn’t look at themselves in the mirror nor find areas to improve. They were busy but stagnant in growth. The majority of their events had very few, if any, new faces. This conversation was a healthy reminder that it is possible to be busy but not see any results. It would seem that their ecosystem had management but not leadership. Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.

Accelerators are not slow cookers - Knoxville

The Knoxville interviewee, in particular, spoke of a problem that they were having with their accelerators. Several accelerators in the city had startups that had been in their program for 4 years or more. This indicates an unwillingness of the ecosystem to communicate difficult news to the “accelerating” companies. Accelerators should have defined parameters for participation and expectations of growth. After this call, our ecosystem is motivated to be able and willing to deliver unfortunate news when needed because we understand that “slow-no’s” don’t get founders to where they want to be.