At the conclusion of a 1 Million Cups event in California, a young Software as a Service startup is asked how the community can help them. They reply, “Help get the word out about us. We need users and people to test out our product.”
A rural ecosystem building organization in Oregon wants to get more people to pay attention to the positive things that their organization is doing and dispel some of the negative stereotypes of rural entrepreneurs.
In a Midwest city, ecosystem builders want to raise awareness about the great innovation that is happening in their city.
Whether you’re trying to raise awareness of the entrepreneurs in your community, your organization, or your city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, there’s a powerful tool available to all ecosystem builders that we don’t use often enough — storytelling.
Since launching the StartupSac.com website and blog about our startup ecosystem in Sacramento, I’ve become convinced that storytelling is one of the most impactful things we can do as ecosystem builders. Through interviews with startup founders and other ecosystem builders in our community, I’ve seen the positive impact firsthand, not only on the companies we spotlight, but also us as an organization, and our city as a whole. When I started publishing interviews and stories of our community’s founders and innovators, website traffic increased, raising awareness of the entrepreneurs and ourselves.
Until recently, I was unaware that my conviction about the power of storytelling in startup ecosystems was shared by others. But at last year’s Kauffman Foundation ESHIP Summit in Kansas City, I learned that others also share in this conviction. In fact the Kauffman Foundation believes so strongly in the power of storytelling that they’ve listed it as one of seven design principles for building entrepreneurial ecosystems in their Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building Playbook.
“Every community has its strengths. An ecosystem builder’s job is to uncover these strengths, publicize them, and leverage them to write a fresh positive narrative. Every community has its secret entrepreneurial success stories. Ecosystem builders must recruit those individuals and elevate them as examples for others by highlighting their stories to others.” — Kauffman Foundation Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building Playbook
Many of us not only want to help raise awareness of the entrepreneurs in our communities, but we also want to see the field of ecosystem building grow and become a recognized discipline. Ecosystem builder and author Ryan Lilly believes in the power of storytelling so much that he thinks it is one of the key things ecosystem builders need to do to advance our field. When I asked him how the ecosystem building community can advance, Ryan replied, “Getting those stories out there — helping ecosystem builders get their stories out there. For me it’s about storytelling. How do we get those little stories out that collectively add up to make a big difference.”
The Benefits of Storytelling
The simple act of creating and sharing stories about our entrepreneurs and our ecosystem has a multiplying effect.
Raising awareness. A lot of ecosystem builders are doing great work and making an impact on the entrepreneurs in their communities. But if they don’t share that work, they’re missing an opportunity to have an even greater impact. For instance, raising awareness of our entrepreneurs may land them new customers, partners, or investors. Raising awareness of our own organizations may help us get funding. For example, some of StartupSac’s sponsors are very interested in our website traffic analytics. Since telling stories has increased our traffic, it has put us in a better position to attract funding from sponsors.
Establishing credibility. Not only does storytelling raise awareness about what we’re doing, it can also increase credibility. By interviewing a founder, you’re helping to establish their credibility and legitimize them in the eyes of others.
Shaping the narrative. For ecosystem builders like Steven Rodriguez in Washington D.C., telling stories can actually help us change the societal narrative around entrepreneurship. The stories that are typically told in the media about entrepreneurship tend to focus on the big successes — like the stories of Facebook and Google. The stories of regular entrepreneurs typically aren’t told. But there are a lot of entrepreneurs doing amazing things that don’t attract the attention of mainstream media. If we as ecosystem builders can collectively share those stories then we can help change the narrative around entrepreneurship.
How to Get Started
Hopefully by now you’re convinced that storytelling is a powerful tool in the ecosystem builder’s toolbox. Here’s how to get started.
- Identify the People. The easiest way to start is by highlighting the people in your ecosystem — founders, members, innovators, and other ecosystem builders — through interview-type articles or feature pieces. These can be published as text articles, videos, or audio podcasts.
- Create a Set of Standard Questions. After you’ve identified who to highlight, create a standard set of 5–10 questions you can ask entrepreneurs — the origins of their startup idea, biggest challenges they’ve faced, biggest successes, biggest lesson learned, what they like about your city’s ecosystem, what needs improving, etc. Send these questions out via email to a list of people you identified in your ecosystem. The responses to those questions provide you with a pool of answers you can pull from to create simple template-based stories.
- Use Technology to Help You. When I started telling the stories of our founders and innovators I decided I wanted to meet with them and record the interview. Recording the interview provides several options. It can be transcribed into a text article. It can be released as a video uploaded to YouTube and embedded in a blog article. It can also be turned into an audio podcast by extracting the audio track from the interview. If you have a video or audio recorder, take advantage of it. You can also take advantage of the voice memo app on your smartphone. When you’re at events and run across entrepreneurs, ask them your set of questions while recording their answers. Then transcribe it and turn it into an article.
- Repurpose Content. Keep in mind that you can repurpose content. For example, interviews can be published in whole, and they can also be segmented into snippets for short, quick shares on social media. It’s okay to do both.
- Track Themes for Future Stories. Here’s a variation on repurposing content. As you develop a repository of stories, you may begin to see themes that emerge from the various stories, such as funding, inclusion and diversity, industry verticals, or a history of the entrepreneurs in your region. You can use elements of those previous stories to create new theme-centric stories that include multiple perspectives.
- Plan for Multiple Perspectives. Speaking of multiple perspectives, while it’s fun to discover surprises as a storyteller, you should be intentional about including multiple voices and perspectives around your theme. There are always multiple perspectives to a story, not just a single narrative. Think about how to present those different perspectives.
- Keep Your Audience in Mind. When doing any kind of communications, it’s important to have top of mind who your audience is. Are you looking for internal engagement within your community, or are you hoping to attract an external audience? Having the primary audience in mind will help inform the aspects of the story that you want to focus on.
- “Nothing about us, without us!” It’s important to keep in mind that there are pitfalls to be avoided in storytelling. Some communities, eager to tell the story of the ecosystem, have engaged others to create a story but have done so without including the entrepreneurs. Don’t fall into the trap of telling a story without involving the people you’re writing about. Also, make sure that you’re the right one to be telling the story. If the story needs to be told by someone else, help facilitate the telling but step aside and let others tell it.
- Get Help if Needed. Most ecosystem builders I talk to can see the value in creating and sharing stories. The issue is having the capacity to do it. Consider seeking help to tell the story. Check out local universities and colleges to see if there are journalism students or interns that can help. Liberal arts schools in universities often want to provide their students with career development opportunities. Helping out with storytelling might be a great fit for them. Contact your local newspaper to see if they might want to include a regular feature about entrepreneurs in the community.
- Share, Share, Share. There is no shortage of easy, affordable places to share your stories. Your organization’s website likely has a blog component already, especially if it’s built with a content management system like WordPress. This is a perfect place to share your stories. Additional channels to consider sharing your story are in a weekly or monthly newsletter and on various social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
Make no mistake, storytelling is work. But I’m convinced it’s worth it. I wholeheartedly agree with Ryan Lilly’s assessment that not telling stories is one of the 5 biggest errors in entrepreneur ecosystem building: “We have to get better at telling our own stories. Maybe that means starting a startup news organization in your community. Or it could be more simple, like writing a blog article or doing a Facebook Live video about a new startup in your town. But you have to start getting the word out!”
Read on for more insights on this ecosystem building topic:
- Interview with Ryan Lilly, Ecosystem Hacker
- The ESHIP Summit + The National Resource Providers (NRPs): A Progress Report
- The Value of Ecosystem Connectedness
Missed Connections: Know other voices that connect to this story? Link them in the comments.