It’s Love, Actually.

Ending my one-sided relationship with ecosystem building.

Ecosystem building and I have been going through a rough time lately. It’s not like we’re breaking up but it’s fair to say that we need some time apart, figure out what we see and value in one another, imagine life without the other, find some assurance that we are still in this for the right reasons. Over the last few weeks I have really started to question the value and appreciation of the work we are putting in day in and day out as ecosystem builders. I can’t pin it down to one event in particular, some left a little chip, others resulted in real cracks; the surface is not pretty right now.

The Leech

I’m not really sure when this first incidence started escalating. It was more of a cascade of exasperation.

Some time at the end of last year a want-to-be-founder reached out to me via LinkedIn; happens every now and then, no big deal. After some initial chit chat and several weeks of silence, he hits me with a very long email asking me to join his startup as a co-founder. Needless to say that I had never met him, let alone spoken to him in person. And I was going to join him as a co-founder because…?

It gets better! I rejected with thanks and pointed him to our business model validation program CO.STARTERS, we were accepting applications at the time. He informed me that he had long moved beyond the phase of talking to customers and didn’t see much value in doing more of it (red flag anyone?). And, anyway, he was already in talks with a local VC firm to raise a few million dollars; after all, he needed to move quickly before someone else went to market, HIS $60-$80 billion market. A few days later, he asked whether he could still apply for CO.STARTERS, oh and could I make an official introduction to that VC firm? He hadn’t heard back from them and needed me to get him a meeting with them. Did I?

The current CO.STARTERS VA main street cohort

But wait, it gets better! I encouraged him to apply to CO.STARTERS only to learn that my co-founder had already spent several hours advising him on how to move forward and had come to one conclusion: not coachable. The final straw was his informing me that he had applied to another accelerator and listed me as his reference: “You should have received an email asking for a recommendation. Can you write one?” Sure, let me put everything else on hold and put in words the type of impression you have made over the last ten weeks.

Really?

The Flakes

While some founders expect too much, other don’t expect enough — of me, let alone of themselves.

We have a great mentoring program for small businesses and startups. Founders search for a mentor with the area of expertise they are looking for and sign up for a meeting with her/him. The service is free and accessible to anyone. On average I am booked two months in advance. When I’m not travelling, I have between three and seven meetings in the books per week. It takes up a substantial part of my work week and that’s a good thing! I love working with founders one-on-one! The only problem is that one out of three doesn’t show up. The gracious no-shows cancel the day of, the others simply don’t show up and ignore every reminder and follow-up.

I get it! Stuff comes up, especially when you’re a solo founder trying to run a business. But how do you drop the ball on a meeting with someone who volunteers to talk you through your idea of opening an online shoe store, a publishing business or a dog bar? (I personally really liked the dog bar. And that person actually showed up, so no hard feelings.)

Dave McClure of 500 Startups on ecosystem building at Tom Tom Founders Festival

The Bully

An experience that took me totally by surprise happened just last week. Another program in town asked for a meeting to discuss their plans for scaling across the state. Nothing unusual — we meet somewhat regularly to talk about applications, deadlines, and other startup-relevant opportunities. What caught me off-guard was the third person who I had never met and who opened our conversation with “Let me get straight to the point: I need you five hours a week for the next two months to help us build the model for scale and talk to the right people. Just open some doors for us, get us a seat at the table.” Not once did he ask whether I actually want to be involved.

Now, under other circumstances I would have been flattered to be considered so influential. But this was not one of those moments. His tone was hostile and bully-ish more than anything and you can blow me shit about being a girl and needing to toughen up, but it was inappropriate at best, no matter what gender. I didn’t feel like I was being asked so much as I was being TOLD. I looked at the other guy across the table with a what-is-going-on-here-?- look and he smiled timidly — or cockily — I really couldn’t tell.

Startup Champions Network is a national network of professional ecosystem builders (trying to keep each other sane).

After I had exhausted my vocabulary for “no”, I left the meeting not sure what had just happened. If you and I have met, you know I am all for collaboration and helping each other; but the reality is that I have a part-time gig that pays the bills (which I’m thankful for!) while I work full-time to build a community of values-driven companies, advise founders one-on-one and run (pre-) acceleration programs. My plate is full. And I make about as much as a sheet metal worker with a high school degree (I fact-checked this). I kept wondering whether I was being too thin-skinned but I couldn’t shake the feeling that these two gentleman had tried to bully me into working on their program instead of pursuing my own plans. The feeling stuck with me for days.

The day following our meeting that had ended with “no”, a calendar invite for a standing meeting with that group hit my inbox. I let out a primal scream [insert Anika-looking Hulk comic figure], took a deep breath and let it roll off my back.

How did we get here?

Most of the time we are heads down, creating at full speed, without ever questioning the type of culture we are cultivating. And I have come to realize that by giving everything away for free, we are hurting ourselves in the long run. If we don’t value our work accordingly, then why would anyone else? We have been providing free services in the name of ecosystem building for so long that founders and other support organizations assume we work for free. We have nurtured a mindset of entitlement: free physical space, mentorship, social media, events, free-everything. To be clear, none of us invest our heart and blood in ecosystem building to become rich, but part of our currency is being able to pay our bills and be treated with respect.

Of all places, the startup ecosystem in Australia taught me the real value of assigning monetary value to our work. Isaac Jeffries, back then at The Difference Incubator, explained to me very matter-of-factly: “Of course we charge for our programs! How else would we know that we are creating value? The best indicator for our success is whether participants are willing to pay for the services we provide.”

Why should that be different in ecosystem building?

The local B Corp community might be small but it’s a great group of dedicated individuals who get excited about using business as a force for good.

As far as my tense relationship with ecosystem building goes, I really hope we’ll be able to work things out. I’m not going to throw in the towel as soon as things get rough. But right now it sucks. I have been feeling down; it’s been costing me sleep, appetite and a lot of energy that would have been better invested in those founders who do in fact value our work together. I think I will look back on this a few years down the road and shake my head in embarrassment the way you look back on your first teenage heartache, the one that has you walking around with slumped shoulders, feeling physically ill, and wondering if it’s ever going to get better. You don’t know yet that greater and more exciting opportunities are waiting for you. But that’s how first loves go, in romance as much as in work.

So here is my promise to you and me: I am not going to give my services away for free anymore. I will still work on my own passion projects. They might not be profitable from the jump but at least I know they are investments in my future. Everyone else will have to decide for themselves whether investing in my services is worth it or not. And if it isn’t, then it probably wasn’t a good fit to start with.