Startup Ecosystems 101

This week, MassChallenge began a new initiative of employee continuing education courses — we are trying make sure that we focus on a bit of everything in these sessions so that our team can walk away from them with new skills and resources to do their job better.

I was asked to lead the first session on Startup Ecosystems. It’s a pretty broad topic but I decided to focus on what makes a startup ecosystem and how to map a startup ecosystem (using Boston’s as an example).

I’ve included my slides below as well as the example of Boston’s startup ecosystem and a worksheet you can use when mapping any ecosystem in the world. These are, by no means, comprehensive overviews but should be useful if you’re trying to begin to wrap your head around an ecosystem that you’re unfamiliar with. Please feel free to comment with any suggestions for improvement or other ways to improve this framework!

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Be Adaptable & Think Globally

In second grade I had my first Spanish class and I continued studying Spanish until sophomore year in high school.  I hated it, barely passed, and stopped studying as soon as I could.  In Israel, students need to study English the same way, sometimes starting study as early as kindergarten.  Now, today I can barely put together a coherent sentence in Spanish whereas most people in Israel are almost always fluent in English.

I was attending a startup event in a small city outside of Tel Aviv – it was a good crowd, maybe 50 people.  I arrived early to meet the event organizer and learn a bit more about the event, the community, etc.  He realized that I didn’t speak any Hebrew.  The organizer told me that they were originally planning to hold the event in Hebrew but because I didn’t speak Hebrew he was going to ask all the speakers to do their talks in English.  Think about that – for just one person out of 50, they changed the entire format of the event.

Even more impressive to, however, was how easy it was to do that.  In the United States if we had just one Spanish person in the audience who didn’t speak English, would we change the entire event language?  If we did, would the speaker feel comfortable with it?  That was one of the biggest things on my mind – whenever someone is going to speak at an event, they usually spend a decent amount of time preparing their content (even people who speak regularly at events).  They need to be comfortable with the content they’re presenting.  Now I’ve seen curve balls thrown at speakers with computers not working so they have to present without slides, or no one showing up to an event so they need to change the event format… but I’ve never seen a speaker need to change the entire language of their speech.

An easy thing to derive from this is that Israelis are smarter (you can say more adaptable if that’s easier to admit).  Now the question is why?  Well Israel is a melting pot of hundreds of different nationalities and Israelis not only welcome immigrants but their entire history relies on them.  Moreover, Israeli business people understand that doing business just in Israel isn’t possible – startups and large corporations need to think global from day 1.  They need to implement multiple language support and other features to adapt to other nations as their companies grow and they need to be adaptable.

Key take aways:

  • Be adaptable – Make yourself flexible and adaptable to make those around you comfortable.  It may not be changing the language of a speech but going to a vegan restaurant instead of a steakhouse.  It’s not only a way to show that you’re supportive of differences but it increases the amount of respect that others have for you.
  • Think globally – This is something Americans need to learn from the rest of the world.  How many US companies buy their Google Ad words in other languages?  How many US companies even support muli-language experiences in their products?  America is not the only country out there and of the 7 billion people in the world, less then 1 billion speak English.

Beginning the “best experience of my life”

About a month ago I embarked on a journey to work with the MassChallenge team as we began our global expansion opening our first office outside of Boston in Tel Aviv.  It was a really exciting, scary, and most-of-all unknown endeavor that I was about to begin.

It all happened really fast – I first discussed the opportunity of doing this with MassChallenge’s Founder and CEO, John Harthorne, in mid-December and by New Years I had a flight booked and soon after had an apartment to live in.  It’s nice being young that I was able to make this decision, not everyone has the ability to pickup their lives for 5 months to move to a new country and not everyone works for a company like MassChallenge, which has an entirely entrepreneurial spirit and can make huge momentous decisions so quickly.

Before leaving I had one last session of drinks with the MassChallenge Boston team following our New Years party.  I spent a lot of time that night talking with John and Scott Bailey, MassChallenge’s Director of Partnerships and the guy who first hired me on the team.  John made a promise to me that night.  Not only did he make this promise, but he documented it on a small post-it note and signed it.  The note said, “Israel for MassChallenge will be the best experience of your life. Guaranteed. – John Harthorne”.

Now that’s a big promise to make, and one that John 100%, whole-heartedly means and believes.  John is, without a question, the best mentor and supporter I have ever (and probably will ever) have in my life.  I have learned a lot from him and trust him completely.  Saying the “best experience of my life” is a bit extreme but John means it and I promised him that I would take every opportunity to make it exactly that.

I also promised a lot of people that I will blog during my trip, and three weeks in I don’t have anything posted.  But, I am going to change that.  Over the past few weeks I have made a lot of interesting observations of the culture of Israelis – specifically Israeli entrepreneurs – and will use this forum to share my insights and things that I think Americans can learn from Israelis and visa-versa.  And, most importantly, I will use this to share why the remaining 4 months I have in Israel really culminates in “the best experience of my life”.

So here are my key takeaways:

  • Carpe Diem – If you have an incredible opportunity like I have to explore a new country and learn a lot while being part of a mission bigger then yourself, do it.  Don’t think twice, just do it!
  • Trust & appreciate your colleagues - Without John, Scott and MassChallenge I wouldn’t be the person I am today.  Find opportunities and individuals like this and surround yourself with them.  Dave Balter gives a talk about being a sponge and a stone and I firmly believe in surrounding myself with great people and learning from them as a “sponge” does. Get close to people like John, follow their guidance, trust them, appreciate them, and absorb as much as you can from them.
  • Find a job that you love & that respects you – Building MassChallenge isn’t even a job, it’s a love of mine. I am grateful to wakeup every morning and love what I do and this is critical to getting meaningful opportunities in life.  If you find a job you love, you will work hard, if you work hard, you will gain respect, if you gain respect you will get amazing opportunities.
  • If you make a promise, keep it – John promised me that this will be the best experience of my life and I promised my friends and colleagues that I would share this experience.  Talk is cheap (and especially in Israel they believe that) so I am going to keep my promise – I hope you enjoy reading my insights over the next few months!

Startup Summer Reflection & Learnings

In January, I set out on an incredibly aspirational and surprisingly difficult project – I decided to utilize my first co-op experience to start a new organization, Startup Summer, to connect college student with internship opportunities at early-stage startup companies. It seemed so simple. I had the most impressive people in the area committed to serve on my board, the whole state was talking about “the brain drain” as a hot problem to solve and I even had the backing of the White House’s Startup America Partnership. However, just a few months into this seemingly simple project I learned that I was overly ambitious and had to cope with a bit of reality.  Not to spoil the story, but ultimately this endeavor was a success.  Less then 6 months after I started working on it, the Chairman of the Massachusetts State Senate publicly committed $1 million annually to support the initiative, but getting to that commitment wasn’t easy.

For the 4 months that I was working on the project, it was essentially a one-man operation with a total of $1,000 raised. I have always said that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and start a company of my own but this made me realize that it’s not as easy as it sounds. I single handedly had to market the program to thousands of students and companies, screen over 1,200 student applications and over 120 company applications all while trying to fundraise and keep my entire board updated and engaged. I loved the mission I was working towards, I loved the recognition the program was getting, I loved the people that I was getting meetings with and gain support from, I loved the opportunities I got, I loved it all. But I was still a one-man shop without funding.  I learned a lot during these four months – the majority of the leanings were about how I work best.  A few of the key learnings were:

  • I need accountability – I learned that I’m very independent and like setting my own agendas but I need some accountability – whether it’s an active board or a respected co-founder, I need someone making sure that I do what I say I will.
  • I’m a terrible sales man – I didn’t expect this but I’ve realized that I’m a better marketer then I am sales man. A marketer needs to be passionate about their product and attract evangelists to it (which I do really well) but a sales man needs to close the deal with those evangelists (which I’m not so good at).
  • I really like social missions – I’ve always looked at myself as a greedy capitalist looking for profit and wealth. But I’ve realized that I actually am passionate about having a social mission. Money is nice but I thrive more knowing that I’m improving the world.
  • I need to be happy - one of the biggest problems I’ve faced because of working so hard is that I’m not true to myself and I prioritize work over friends and family. I know that I’m a workaholic and I thrive over constantly having things to do but need to prioritize being happy.
  • I need to look long-term – I setout to start this organization as a co-op.  Starting an organization of this magnitude in 6 months is impossible and setting it up for sustainability moving forward from that is even more impossible.  I need to look at the long-term implications of projects more in detail before just beginning.

So what is the final outcome of all of these leanings? Well I’ve built my network and affirmed that I love the startup world in Boston. I’ve learned that I always want to be part of it and devote my career to contributing to its success. But I’ve realized I need to do this in a setting of other supportive, hardworking, like-minded people.   As for my next career steps, I want to spend more time in the apprentice role working for established organizations to learn from the successful individuals there.  I’m a student right now after all and my full-time job is to learn so I might as well take advantage of every opportunity to do that.

Surround Yourself with the Right People

Come January 1st, I will be moving on from MassChallenge to start my own organization. It’s sort of crazy to say that, but the way that things have been working out in life lately has been just amazing. I’ve realized that there is really one common denominator in all of these recent occurrences – being surrounded by the right people.

Nearly every book that you read about how to succeed in business will say in one form or another that the critical component to success is building meaningful relationships with the right people. If I could track down my success over the past couple of years it all routes to knowing the right people and ceasing opportunity.

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What I have learned lately

For the past few weeks I have had task upon tasking piling up in my to-do list and have just been putting a specific one off. I set up my list to have a recurring reminder to write a blog – at this point I have four list items to write posts. Well, let’s see how I can succinctly summarize everything I’ve learned over the past two months.

Prioritize and Say No

I have always had a problem saying no to tasks, I’m a do-er and I want everything done the right way so I hate passing off tasks or dropping some.  When it comes right down to it, though, I have too much going on:  I am currently working with MassChallenge, running the Husky Startup Challenge, taking classes, leading Startup Massachusetts and trying to have some fun as well. With such a full-plate, I don’t have a choice but to say no to some additional things.  To be honest, it actually feels good telling people that I can’t do things.  It makes me realize that the weight of the world really isn’t all on my shoulders and there are others who can help lighten my load.

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Ice Breakers, Grasshoppers and a Need for Crazy Innovators

I firmly believe that no entrepreneur can truly be successful without being, at least partly, insane.  Entrepreneurs need to think outside of the box to create things that have never been created before.  They need to test every boundary and create their own rules.  The best innovators whom I have interacted with and have learned about are the ones that have said f*** off to the status quo and seek to change the world.  Let’s try a Boston example of this – IdeaPaint.

If you’re not familiar with them, IdeaPaint has created a whiteboard paint that can be applied almost anywhere to create endless brainstorming space.  One of the reasons I know this company so well is because at MassChallenge, we are home to the world’s largest continuous writable surface made completely of IdeaPaint.  This idea came out of Babson’s E-Tower when a group of Freshman students had a need for brainstorming space and covered their entire walls in white paper.  Not to long after, they were running out of room and had to replace the paper.  The solution – paint that could be used as a white board.  To these student’s surprise, nothing of this sort existed and after a bit of research everyone had told them it was an imposible product to create.  To use a tacky line originated by Adidas and repeated by my boss, John Harthone, Impossible itself says I’m possible.  It’s true though – these students spent the next few years working with chemists and engineers to develop what is now an award-winning product with over 50,000 installations in dozens of countries around the world.

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It’s about time I do this

Technically this will be the third blog I’ve written.  Previously I have blogged while traveling to Poland/Israel and to China but I have never really blogged just to document my daily experiences.

This semester I am working at MassChallenge as an independent study through Northeastern.  In order to do this and get credit for it, I am working under the supervision of Professor Gordon Adomdza, an entrepreneurship and innovation professor and the faculty advisor of the Northeastern Entrepreneurs Club.  I am working with Gordon to do research related to the outcome of MassChallenge companies but have subsequently been learning a lot more through this experience. Continue reading