What #StartupCincy needs, is to stop comparing ourselves to others.

First and foremost a disclosure, I didn’t attend Steve Case’s recent visit to #StartupCincy this week. I’m on vacation in Hilton Head with my family. But what I did do, is read about it.

Why I think #StartupCincy can do better.

We are all entitled to our opinion so in no way do I mean this post to demean others opinions. My intention is that it would give another perspective and help start a conversation.

As I sit on the beach, I can’t help but to share my own thoughts. Maybe it’s the sun that’s gotten to me or that I’m speaking next week at Startup Grind when I haven’t spoken in Cincinnati for some time now. Whatever it is, doesn’t really matter, I’ve been fairly quiet for 7 years and I’m starting to get tired of not sticking up for what I believe in.

So for better or worse here it goes…

As I’ve read, a person in the audience at Union Hall asked a question pertaining to how “Cincinnati stacks up” to the rest of the cities during Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest tour. He responded by saying something along the lines of, “We are middle of the pack.” None of this was super shocking.

Speaker speaks. Person asks question. Speaker responds.

But what was surprising and disappointing was our reaction to this answer.

What would have happened had Steve Case said we were number 5 or let’s say top of the pack? Would the work have stopped? No. Because doing the work isn’t about being a number or a ranking on a list.

Comparison kills creativity and joy. — Brene Brown

What Steve Case confirmed is the very story we all had in our heads except this time someone (an entire room at Union Hall and across Facebook Live) heard it out loud.

Cincinnati we’re “Middle of the Pack.”

Not exactly the slogan you want to read while driving into the city.

That not only sucked to read over 600 miles away but it was also extremely discouraging. It’s almost as if I could feel the creativity being deflated out of the Cincinnati ecosystem.

Instead of reacting to Steve by saying, “You know what Mr. Case that’s an interesting opinion. I respect you, but I firmly disagree with you.” We instead responded like a friend who got left out at a party. We said, “You’re right, Steve — we ARE middle of the pack. Then, we crumbled into the same repetitive cycle of… we’re not good enough, not pretty enough, not shiny enough, not techy enough.

In finite games (short and long) there are players, there are rules and there are winners. The game is designed to end, and it’s based on scarcity.
In the infinite game, though, something completely different is going on. In the infinite game, the point is to keep playing, not to win. In the infinite game, the journey is all there is. And so, players in an infinite game never stop giving so they can take. Players in this game throw a slower pitch so the batter can hit it, because a no-hitter shutout has no real upside.
You certainly know people who play this game, you may well have been touched by them, inspired by them and taught by them. The wrong question to ask is, “but how do they win?” The right way to understand it is, “but is it worth playing?” — Seth Godin

So Cincinnati, is it worth playing?

How do we continually do more and yet continually come up short? It’s simple — we stop playing the game. We stop competing. We… just… STOP!!!

The reality is we will never be Silicon Valley. We simply can’t. We would have to go back over 40 years ago to start making devices using semiconductors. But what we do have on Silicon Valley is that we’re different. We’re not them. And, that’s okay. In fact, it’s great! Because 45 years from now we will be our own thing IF and WHEN we stop comparing ourselves to others.

I’ve spent time in startups, pitched investors, and been through two accelerators in two different cities. I’ve been part of Detroit’s, Cincinnati’s, and Indianapolis’ startup ecosystem. As the CMO of Cladwell, I also recently spent 4 months living in Silicon Valley while going through 500 Startups.

Silicon Valley wasn’t better than Cincinnati. It was different, just like all the other places I’ve lived.

Not better, different — a mantra to repeat.

Sure, they excelled at product, but to be frank, they kind of sucked at marketing and design. Their community was older with more stories of failures and successes, but had less spirit and young naivety that’s needed. There was more normalcy around starting something new, but less opportunities to stand out and do something different.

We’re different — both in stages and in skills. And again, that’s okay!

So why do we exhaustively compare ourselves to others?

Why are we striving to be something we’re not? Why do we want to be on a numbered list by someone who hasn’t lived here? And most of all, why do we hold what a single guy says about our community as a be all, end all?

We’ve been socialized as a society to embrace the idea of the #1.

But the reality is that life doesn’t work that way, nor do startups or communities. Startups and particularly startup communities instead thrive on connections. This isn’t a zero sum game. And anyone who tells you it is, is a fool.

Startups don’t thrive on who wins in Cincinnati or Detroit or Silicon Valley for that matter. Startups thrive on connections across people, countries and the world. If we truly want more startups in Cincinnati, if we honestly want Cincinnati to thrive — the question shouldn’t be how to make Cincinnati’s startup scene number 1 or 2 or 5? But instead, we should be asking ourselves how we can support and encourage fellow founders and those in the startup arena doing the work, so they can make their next moves even better.

This is an infinite game.

There is no need for a single winner or loser. If the goal is to be in the top 5 or have a dude from Silicon Valley anoint us as worthy, this I can guarantee — we will lose every time. With such high stakes, it won’t be long before it becomes a grind, work. We’ll all feel pressure to cut corners and forget compassion, diversity, ethics in favor of ranking high on a list.

Creating a community is hard and takes years.

I don’t know what you’ve heard, but there are no short cuts, quick exits, and success without failures, lots of them.

So what do we do?

What we can all do is take responsibility. We can make small connections small experiments and small failures and own the results. We can honestly and clearly report what we’re learning and what we’re making and then do it again. (Definitely stole this from the oh-so wise Seth Godin.)

We’re at our best when…

We’re in service of others. Not when we put people or companies on pedestals based on who raises the most.

When we’re encouraging, sharing, and supporting. Not when we cut off those who don’t fit our criteria (famous colleges, raised x dollars, waited too long to succeed, didn’t look the part).

When we make it personal. Not when we compare and compete.

When we’re honest and open about how hard this journey truly is. Not when we cut those off who didn’t make it.

The last thing we need to do, is to stop supporting each other.

That is short term thinking. It will get us nowhere. If we start treating the building of our community as one without an end date, we will start to see that there is enough to go around. We will thrive rather than chase.

Last but not least, we need to define what success is for us before we can strive to achieve it.

In my opinion, we should be seeking joy and satisfaction in the fact that more founders are creating more things that matter in this world.

Our collective goal as a startup community should be finding every way to support those who are IN it, day in and day out, picking them back up after they fail because they will, and cheering them on as they succeed. IF and WHEN we do this, #StartupCincy will be a success. But until then, we might just stay in middle of the pack.