On a warm Thursday night at the end of June, the Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood was buzzing with activity. Professionals of all ages milled around, beer in hand, while networking and catching up on work and life.
This group wasn't just randomly enjoying the nice weather: The 175 people were entrepreneurs, investors, and members of local tech organizations and resources, and they were at the bar attending the very first TechPint. The brainchild of Paul McAvinchey, an Irish native who's now living in Northeast Ohio, the event is a mini-tech conference taking place in local watering holes roughly four times a year.
TechPint is just one of many grassroots, entrepreneur-led activities that have popped up in Northeast Ohio recently. These resources can take many forms--from ad hoc mentoring groups and programmer meet-ups to more structured events--and they give entrepreneurs specialized guidance and opportunities for advancement that are separate from more formalized competitions or accelerator or incubator programs. The latter resources are certainly vital to the growth and development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem. But as an ecosystem evolves, grassroots resources become increasingly important for forward momentum. Here's why:
They signal that organic activity is taking hold. For communities that have been providing financial and other support, or intervening where they've seen market failure, this is a good sign that more natural--or "organic"--activity is taking root. In other words, entrepreneurs are starting to take control of their destiny and that of the ecosystem around them that supports their efforts. Acknowledging that it takes a village (as well as acknowledging the idea that we all do better when we help each other) is a critical component to future vitality and robustness.
They bolster a sense of community. LeanDog Labs--a robust organization that works with Cleveland-area startups to develop software and other crucial technology they need to grow--holds Lean Startup Circle mixer events and simulcasts the annual Lean Startup Conference, the latter of which entails doing some programming. Providing a forum for entrepreneurs to collaborate and/or simply meet each other has intangible benefits, not the least of which is bridge-building, says LeanDog Labs Director Nick Barendt. "We don't make any money off those activities. We really think that it helps strengthen the community--the development community as well as the startup community and then the broader community."
They bring disparate people--and, therefore, disparate ideas--together. Laura Bennett is the CEO of Embrace Pet Insurance, a pet insurance company that recently had an investor purchase a controlling interest. Last year, she formed the Burning River Coffee Community, a mentoring community geared toward women entrepreneurs leading high growth ventures. Bennett says that the diverse backgrounds of the Burning River members have paid dividends, mainly because they've been able to make connections that have helped businesses grow--from a high growth retail company that drew on the marketing experience of another member, to someone who found web design assistance from someone else. "Sharing ideas and swapping experiences is an immensely valuable way to spur on other ideas," she says.
They provide unique insights. Entrepreneurs who have been in the trenches working at startups--and experiencing the challenges and triumphs that come with such a job--have a very different perspective on the lifestyle and working environment. Chances are, they've faced real-world problems--and have real-world solutions for others in the same boat. At TechPint, "we were keen on getting into the nitty-gritty of building startups," McAvinchey says, and addressing more advanced questions like, "'How tough is it when, after you've built a product, you run out of money? Now you're trying to find customers, but it's not going well enough - how can you survive that?' and 'How tough is it to build a company up to 15 employees, manage two offices across the country and try and build a culture for a company?'"
They let entrepreneurs have honest dialogue with one another. When an entrepreneur has concerns about his/her business or process, expressing these to someone who'll understand isn't always easy. Having an impartial and objective sounding board of peers is one solution that Barendt finds useful. "I've made [introductions] for new founders or co-founders to other successful entrepreneurs because I thought they would get value out of somebody who had no skin in the game, who had no agenda," he says. "[I thought] they would benefit from somebody who was just a few steps ahead of them in the process, who would give them honest advice, who was not looking out for anything for themselves."
They promote the idea of peer mentors. The benefits of mentoring, especially in the startup space, are well-documented. In fact, peer mentoring is one of the major resources entrepreneur Nichelle McCall has turned to time and time again as she's built out her startup, BOLD Guidance, which makes the college application process easier. Having a network of peers to turn to for advice and guidance has helped McCall navigate the startup world. "It's a great journey being with your peers who you know are at the same level as where you are--or just a couple steps ahead," she says. "It's just like we have nothing to lose but plenty to gain from helping each other We essentially become each other's cheerleaders--like, you're excited about their growth and success, and you want to share in that."
They publicize other resources in a region. When entrepreneurs get together, they naturally talk about what's going on in a given region, including spreading the word about resources and events about which others may not have known. "You find out about what's happening," McCall says. "You can tell other entrepreneurs you know, 'Hey, I found out about this tech resource that I think will be very helpful for you.'"
They provide an atmosphere that is less competitive and more helpful. And in the case of TechPint--well let's just say it helps when a little lager brings out the truth and lets people's guards down!
If you're part of a support organization focused on entrepreneurship (or if you're a successful entrepreneur), and you are approached with these kinds of ideas, I would highly encourage you to support them with your sponsorship dollars and staff help to organize them. They're typically very low-cost and, as I've pointed out, have many intrinsic benefits. Above all, they help entrepreneurs move forward with their ventures, armed with the insights of those who have been there.
"There's really no room for bravado when you're talking to your peers," McAvinchey says. "There's room for confidence and ambition, loads of room for that, and maybe even egos. But when it comes to showing off things that you can't necessarily back up, that's more difficult when you're talking to your peers. You have to talk specifically about what you're going through, because they're probably going through some similar things themselves. And if you have all the answers - well, then you better share them all as well."
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