Ecosystem Hacking 101

At Voyhoy, my co-founders and I have learned first-hand just how impactful and important being a cog in your startup’s ecosystem can help your business. Our company is currently part of three separate and unique ecosystems:

The enthusiastic and supportive hub of the Andes: Santiago, Chile
The center of mobility with heaps of corporate backing: Detroit, Michigan
The sunny and eclectic capital of Latin America: Miami, Florida

Each one has its pros and cons, cultural nuances, and unique leaders driving startup, venture, and M&A activity. The one constant that we’ve noticed regardless of the city is how an ecosystem can have a multiplier effect in helping your startup. It might not be direct or quick, but making the right friends, showing your face, and entering the “favor economy” can pay dividends. Every ecosystem looks for founders, experts, and individuals who want to do their part to help support and foster their community.

No matter who you are, what your building, or who you know, there are ways you can tap into this value and use it to improve your business, make connections, or discover opportunities. Some folks will never open their doors to you. Others keep them wide-open, but never show you the house. Networking can feel like a waste of time and energy, overly fake, and reserved for those with nothing to do. That can certainly be true. I do not recommend going to every meetup or startup workshop, but I strongly believe that knowing how to tap into your ecosystem’s network and befriend folks who genuinely want to help you and your business grow will provide value for years to come. Here are my recs:

  1. Identify the big fish with a track-record of helping founders and startups. The single biggest boost we’ve received from our ecosystems have not been intros to investors or partners, but rather, the key pieces of feedback that helped us refine our strategy and learn from folks who are smarter than us, or at least, those who have already done what we need to do. References help you make the intro, but what you do with it is entirely up to you. Some folks have a great title or a great company, but they might not give a shit about you and the ecosystem. Anyone who has a measurable track-record of helping an ecosystem or a startup will be more likely to be a key mentor or friend to make.
  2. Show your face at top events. Don’t go to every single one, and definitely don’t waste your time. If you’re always attending meetups, folks will wonder when you actually build your business. Events that are particularly relevant to your space or ones that boast important speakers are sure to be more fruitful than the ones that occur every week. Never go to a networking event without first identifying your key objective. Are you trying to make a key connection? Are you trying to learn a new strategy? If you can’t highlight what you want out of an event, then you probably don’t need to go.
  3. Give back. Look for any opportunity to help the folks who drive your ecosystem however you can. You might be a small fish today, but you might know the one person that can truly help that big fish with his or her mission. If you can provide value to someone, they will be more inclined to pay it forward when you need a favor.
  4. Think big. Maybe the MD of the biggest VC in your city is a definite no today. Making that connection early puts you on the map. Don’t be afraid to take a meeting that will bear no fruit today if you think it might tomorrow.
  5. Be coachable and listen to feedback. As much as investors invest in founders, communities also embrace the individual. Always be respectful and try your best to understand where feedback is coming from. You might not always agree with the feedback you receive, but rarely is it born from nothing. If you can demonstrate that you are flexible, perceptive, and respectful, someone who can’t help you now might remember these qualities and intro you to someone who can. Additionally, if someone thinks your project is a dud, you still want them to come away believing in you.
  6. Be clear with your asks and always know how to follow-up. Sometimes its not clear where a meeting will take you. When it is clear, make sure to know exactly what you want out of it and how to make your ask. Be sure to have a defined follow-up and never leave without going over next steps. It’s much worse to take a meeting with a key or important figure and not follow-up properly than to not have it the first place.

There are a million ways that embracing your ecosystem can help you as a founder and help your business succeed. Those who have already made it have stuck around for a reason: They want others to make it too. Tap into that and turn it into a resource.

TLDR: Don’t be a dick. Embrace your community. Make the right friends.