Jun 6, 2014

Ecosystems grow around stumps

When I started Leancamp in London in 2009, I had this problem.

Back then, London was just another European city with a few startups in it. It was a crazy to think that any European city would develop a considerable startup community. Leancamp was also a crazy idea - that London could host some of the world’s startup heavyweights, or that a nobody like me could start something that would expand globally.

I wasn’t part of any of the little startup cliques in London; so no sponsor or government qwango would take me seriously. I ended up resorting to ticket sales rather than sponsorship, and a bit of financial gymnastics.

I had absolutely no reputation; so it was hard to convince people. The London startup world was small then, so my friends knew a few unlikely allies, who weren’t yet into startups. We were all outsiders then.

I was dealing with a lot of stumps. There are organisations in London who blanked me completely at first.

“What’s Lean Startup? Not interested.”

“We don’t host events for free here. You should get a sponsor and pay us.

And these were the groups that were promoting themselves as community supporters to the government and local media.

Of course, once Lean Startup was established in the US, they decided to compete rather than collaborate. Meanwhile, telling their government friends how much they helped the local community establish Lean Startup.

A lot of those stumps are still around, but most haven’t moved forward. They were once the most obvious things about the London startup scene, and now the ecosystem has grown around them. Some are completely ignored, like an old drunk uncle. Some still hang around but don’t have their former clout. Some now travel around using “I’m from London” as their credibility.

But some have stepped down and helped others grow from their former position. (I try hard to put myself in that last category.)

The good thing about stumps - there’s always a way around them.

In London and many other cities where I’ve helped start a Leancamp, I’ve hit stumps.

Leancamp and Founder Centric have taken me to loads of flourishing, little startup communities around the world, and I’ve seen a discouragement because of so-called local leaders blocking great startups and great initiatives. Like a rotting treestump in the forest, they’ve established themselves from a past leadership position, still get all the attention, but get in the way of progress.

Stumps are the people talking about your startup community to outsiders, but arrogant and unavailable to those within it. You can often notice them a few ways:

  1. They build fifedoms and get themselves into conflicts of interest. They outwardly try to appear benevolent, but don’t actually help community projects unless they’ve negotiated themselves a cut.

  2. They don’t make themselves available to local startups, or use their network to intro locals to the outside. They are connectors, but not to local startups.

  3. They use higher authority arguments, especially making reference to the famous people they know outside the local community. This builds their personal credibility, but also implies that locals are not as capable. (As opposed to those who build two-way bridges, and help the best local rise regardless.)

  4. They’re buzzword jockeys. They jump from one hyped-up topic to the next, using the buzzwords to appear in-the-know, but with no real interest in the underlying themes.

  5. They don’t big-up locals, either because they’re not paying attention to them, or because they see them as threatening. Often, they talk about the “growing pie”, but act as if it’s a zero-sum situation.

It’s hard to improve your startup community when people like that have established themselves, but far from impossible.

Credit: mlhradio on Flickr

Ecosystems grow around stumps. And that’s the trick.

How to deal with Stumps

To grow around stumps, all you have to do it pretend they don’t exist.

Ignore them. Go around them. Look around. Add value to your community and connect to others doing the same.

Directly connect with their network, and beyond it. Don’t let them be a proxy or accept that they represent the community. Don’t accept it when they imply they have a good relationship with, or speak for any other resource in your community. Consider alternative resources to the ones they actually do. Look for other allies: competing organisations, novice co-organisers, companies or schools willing to lend their space, student entrepreneurship groups who’ll volunteer, community leaders outside of startups who’ll engage…

It gets quite easy when you take the attitude that the stumps are just too busy, or haven’t had the chance to see the opportunity that you do. This makes it easy for other people to collaborate with you, and easy for the stumps to come around and help later.

Or, you can make things simpler. When the London scene started to boom, we created Startup Burger Night. No speakers, no sponsors, nothing but founders and catching up over burgers and beer every Monday. It wasn’t big - it was simply a safe place to meet real founders that wasn’t announced on any events listing. Job done.

The stumps will always be there, and they won’t shrink away. What will grow around them will make them insignificant. In my experience, it costs a bit more effort, more actively reaching out to people and more creative thinking. But it’s worth it to see things grow to the next level.

If you feel discouraged, look at London and remember it’s not too far ahead. You can do it too.

What am I up to these days?

I’m a new parent, and prioritising my attention on our new rhythms as a family.

Work-wise, I’m trekking along at a cozy pace, doing stuff that doesn’t require meetings :)

I have a few non-exec/advisory roles for engineering edu programs. I’m also having fun making a few apps, going deep with zero-knowledge cryptography, and have learned to be a pretty good LLM prompt engineer.

In the past, I've designed peer-learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures, The Royal Academy Of Engineering, and Kernel, careering from startups to humanitech and engineering. I also played a role in starting the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.

Contact me

Books & collected practices

  • Peer Learning Is - a broad look at peer learning around the world, and how to design peer learning to outperform traditional education
  • Mentor Impact - researched the practices used by the startup mentors that really make a difference
  • DAOistry - practices and mindsets that work in blockchain communities
  • Decision Hacks - early-stage startup decisions distilled
  • Source Institute - skunkworks I founded with open peer learning formats and ops guides, and our internal guide on decentralised teams