Branding your startup ecosystem
What’s the story you tell yourself and others about your region’s or city’s startup scene? What is your brand? Do branding and marketing have a place in ecosystem building? Aren’t they corporate and antiquated terms anyway? During our last Startup Champions Network Summit we spent the better half of a morning working on best practices for ecosystem branding, a topic that I have put a lot of thought into since I came across Richmond Magazine’s headline “Are we the next Austin?” and thought to myself “Hell no!”; and it started even before that. I moved to Richmond less than two years ago and when I tell folks back in Europe why I live where I live, I find myself telling a story of how it is a city of makers, tinkerers, and craft-everything. But there is more to the story, especially when it comes to our startup scene.
What’s your story?
Telling an authentic story about your ecosystem is crucial for at least two reasons: It keeps us on track in terms of priorities and serves as the source of motivation. Constantly telling yourself how fragmented the ecosystem is or how certain players sabotage your efforts is a downer and saps all the good juice. Cut it out! Tell yourself a good story that guides your action and helps you get other people on the same page. Which leads to #2: Telling an authentic story of your ecosystem allows you to build relationships with the right constituents. Be frank about shortcomings, be positive about opportunities. Knowing what you are lacking and where your ecosystem’s potential lies are key to making allies. Most importantly, strive for a shared goal. What story will you tell in order to attract and retain talent, capital, support and national/global partners?
What’s a brand anyway?
If there is one thing I understood that morning, it’s that a brand is not something you create. It’s what you get when you distill the unique characteristics that make your ecosystem special, and find a way to tell that story to those who matter. Nobody wants to be the next Austin or next [anything]. We strive to be the first and best version of our city (or region)! To that end, it is essential to know what you are good at, where your strengths lie but also what you cannot offer. During last year’s selection for Lighthouse Labs, we decided to not invite an otherwise very qualified and promising team of founders because we knew we didn’t have the right networks locally to help them accelerate their business.
Fargo is doing a great job of telling an unusually candid story. It is not Silicon Valley, and the startup scene has turned this fact into their mantra. Greg Tehven of Emerging Prairie opened a panel at our most recent Startup Champions Network Summit with “We in Fargo have no glorious mountains or beautiful beaches to distract us from building startups, just flat boring plains. It really keeps us focused on the job at hand.” They represent their city with slogans like “North of Normal” and “Exceeding exceptionally low expectations”. And it resonates. We are starting to see that Silicon Valley is not all it’s cut out to be, so what’s next? I’d say embrace your uniqueness and create your own narrative.
Your toolbox: Goals, Audience and Channels
Once you know what the story is you are trying to tell, spend some time defining who you are telling it to and what you are hoping to achieve. Are you communicating to increase awareness among founders that your city is the place to be? Are you hoping to attract investors? Make big foundations notice your city? Are you trying to get media attention?
All of the above?
Adapt your message to your target audience. Avoid MVP-Lean-Startup speak when approaching foundations, emphasize your metrics when addressing investors, and so on. Make sure you know what channels are the most effective in reaching your target audience. Jessica Korthuis from the International Business Innovation Association InBIA, for example, has two main customers: (1) Traditional long-time members who respond best to email marketing and (2) current-generation members who respond much better to social media. Felecia Hatcher of Code Fever Miami explained that traditional radio and newspaper ads work best for reaching African American communities — channels I wouldn’t even have considered for attracting founders into programs! If you don’t know how to reach your target audience, ask! Put your Lean Startup hat on and do some customer discovery!
Equipped with a goal, message and an idea of the right channels for each audience, put some thought into relevant success metrics. With every campaign, blog post or interview you post, ask yourself if this serves your overall goal of telling your ecosystem’s story. Not every piece needs to be on brand (it will stifle your process) but with limited time and resources, set priorities of what part of the story deserves a spotlight. Back to metrics: If, for example, all your communication efforts are aimed towards attracting tech founders to your area — how do you know whether your efforts are bearing fruit? How will you measure success in this case? Higher attendance of founders at tech-centered events? More requests on your website? Higher application numbers for your accelerator programs? Know your end goal and decide on a metric to assess your success; after all, that’s what we teach our founders.
The most important lesson I learned from this Summit is the importance of relationship building. Don’t just reach out when you want something. Instead, cultivate relationships with your stakeholders. Regularly. Know what they are working on, know how you can help or get involved. This is what makes ecosystem building different from marketing or any type of one-directional communication. As an ecosystem builder, be part of the ecosystem. Don’t take on everything but check in with different stakeholders on a regular basis and build authentic relationships. If you invite people, they will come.
The more I thought about what it takes to tell your ecosystem’s story I realized two things:
- Telling your story is not about sending tweets or Facebook posts about how great your city is to start a company in. Authenticity comes from the people involved in your ecosystem. Identify champions in your ecosystems and make their voices heard. Run a campaign, connect them to partners, empower them to sing the right tune. You don’t have to create every piece of content from scratch and do all the work. Connect with partners who already write content (local newspapers, national startup news outlets) and have them help with the storytelling. Pitch strong founders who represent your ecosystem to media outlets.
- Telling an ecosystem’s story is not one person’s job. The weight of storytelling should not rest on the shoulders of one single institution. On the contrary, you want as many perspectives and facets as possible! Besides, different organizations reach into different networks through their own channels. Having everyone be part of that storytelling effort diversifies your effort.
After the Summit I felt nothing short of overwhelmed. How was I going to do all the storytelling with an already-full plate of clients and projects? I was nervous about the prospect of trying to get all stakeholders buy into one mission for Richmond’s startup ecosystem. And then it dawned on me: Instead of trying to define a mission that works for every support organization in Richmond, maybe we could at least agree on a set of values that define how we support entrepreneurs in launching and growing their businesses. Rallying actors in a startup ecosystem around the same set of values still allows each of them to interpret and adapt them to their work. It avoids the one-size-fits-all expectation. Besides, organizational leaders have their own vision of what they want to achieve for whom and why. And that’s ok. If we all focus on what we are best at and do that one thing really well the ecosystem will be better off; and even more so if we agree on a set of values to help us all move in a general direction.
Here’s a list of of people and organizations who I think are already doing a fantastic job of telling the story of RVA’s entrepreneurs and innovators: Who am I missing?
- GRID Magazine: recent issues on local makers and innovators
- RVAHub: neighborhood magazine on all things RVA
- Virginia Biotech Park Innovation Council: Snapshot of Richmond’s ecosystem & a full-blown metrics report
- Creative Mornings RVA
- Coffee with Strangers
- Lemon Umbrella’s “What does it take?“
- 1 Million Cups