I’m in London this week as we set out to grow @Apigee in the UK and throughout Europe. With the aid of sleeping pills, alcohol and the in-hotel gym, I’m fighting the good fight against jetlag and managing to stay sober for scrum calls and 2:00 am BST meetings with developers and designers in the US, all while meeting with customers, prospects, users and community people here. This is hard, I want to go shopping.
Good news though: I’m about to make status on my airline despite now much-regretted trysts with Virgin [because it's sexy] and Alaska [because it's cheap], a good sign I’ve been really busy working with startup and tech communities across the country – New York, Atlanta, Seattle, San Diego, Chicago, D.C., more. Tonight I attended the Hacker News London #hnlondon meetup, and talking to startup people there got me thinking about the “startup scene” across, well, everything. I spend more and more time working with startups, organizers, and aspiring entrepreneurs in emerging tech centers, and they all want to know what strong startup communities have in common, and how they can boot up those same conditions. So this post is about where emerging startup markets can invest to build a better ecosystem.
*which lines the virtuous road to community.
Every healthy tech community is mad promiscuous. Promiscuous in the sense of variate and frequent coupling - of companies, startups, students, technicians, hackers, weavers, schemers, groupies, marketers, spaces, locations. Promiscuity is what underlies our experiences of “richness”, “diversity”, “creativity”, “vibrancy,” “buzz”.
The promiscuity you find in mature startup communities is only possible with:
- Available, highly permissive common spaces
- Adoption of low-barrier online tools that describe communities and their interactions
- Promiscuous, open, accessible, extensible product ecosystems
London has beautiful examples of both. It is palpable how on one side TechHub (a coworking center), and on the other the Guardian (yes, the media company) have fostered community by providing this necessary space. Excitingly, you see the beginning of this community infrastructure in emerging startup hubs like Chicago- Morningstar is one company making powerful gifts to the community in the form of open, accessible space.
In the weakest tech communities, appropriate space for community-building is extremely difficult to find, expensive, or suffering from content control of large corporate sponsors.
Online Community is Predictive of Offline Community.
Another common theme in successful startups scenes is the adoption of community tools (Meetup, Eventbrite, Lanyard) that serve as logistical centers as well as social, cultural repositories or breadcrumbs into people, what they are doing and why.
Weaker tech communities have much more fragmentation in tools usage, much higher use of tools that are proprietary or highly segregated from a larger network, and tools that don’t do a good job of showing you the other people in your community and what they are up to.
Tools matter. Online visibility into communities is predictive of the offline community. Use tools that illuminate the community and you will grow it. I encourage community organizers in smaller markets to really think about pushing adoption of a small set of appropriate tools to gain critical mass of adoption on a limited set of distribution engines, weather that be a mailing list, a fancy social network or something you build yourself.. Having 100 or 200 people using a common tool is much more powerful than groups of 30-40 using 3-6 different tools each.
Promiscuous product builds community too.
Silicon Valley is the shining example of how promiscuous products hinge great communities. Promiscuous product ecosystems inherently encourage community. Promiscuous products are ones with open APIs, with source code, with awesome documentation and GitHub accounts, with extensible hooks, with integrations of data services, with visible opinions but viable options. Promiscuous product ecosystems have a focus on transmitting knowledge, sharing best practices, and enabling other products to benefit from yours. Promiscuous products hook into a vaster technical, social and cultural fabric that inherently predicts community.
Early startup markets tend to have more clustering around proprietary, inaccessible and high-barrier technology and lack promiscuous startups built with promiscuous technology. They have less focus on knowledge sharing, and skew towards experts (the few), not learners (the many).
Tim Falls of SendGrid predicted in our #twiliocon panel on developer community management that the future would see more cross-pollination of API communities as we tear down technical and adoption barriers to community (better interface design, standardized authentication, adherence to REST) and find synergies and, therefore, more effective ways to work together from a community and marketing perspective. This is a fantastic example of how technical trends are actually key to the cultural development of startup scenes.
There is no questions that light-weight BD, extensibility and permeability offered by open tools and open APIs contributes to healthy startup scenes – for example, one of the startups that presented tonight at #HNlondon was Stickygram, a company built on the Instagram API that lets users easily order fridge magnets of their photos. In doing so, Stickygram tapped into a significant local ecosystem of users as well as an international community of Instagram users. Their success helps build interest, content and activity in APIs and “lean startup” companies in London. ITS LIKE A VIRTUOUS CIRCLE OF PROMISCUOUS BEHAVIOR. I encourage people invested in building a startup community in their city to think about how to leverage product promiscuity and education about promiscuous technology into broader community engagement.
At #HNLondon, Harj Taggar of Hacker News spoke about the need for emerging scenes to support experimentation, “failing fast”, and rapid release. He commended one of the startups that presented as an example of the cultural attitude emerging markets need to cultivate: “It started with someone who had an idea… hack together a very quick prototype, release it, and find out that people are actually interested in it.”
This gets to the heart of the promiscuous product ecosystems that predict amazing startup culture: adoption of technology that supports lean, agile, rapid bootstrapping; and accessibility to the knowledge gained from fucking around with it.
Tap Into The Hive Mind.
Technology is a hive mind. Jack in. Living in Silicon Valley, it’s super easy to forget ALL THE OTHER PLACES IN THE WORLD. But then you go to London, to Atlanta, to Haystacks, Squirrels and Misquitoville Minnesota, and you realize we are all talking about the same things. Lean startup. Launch early. Iterate often. Listen to users. HTML5. Touch. Geolocosocialplatformification.
Successful startup communities align with global trending.
We are separated by vast differences in location but we are often united in extremely powerful ways: use of the same mass media and distribution tools (Hacker News, StackOverflow, tech news outlets, Twitter), global dissemination of trends (mobile hardware, cloud computing, open APIs, high-level languages, HTML5). Successful startup scenes have more proportional attention to the trending hive mind. They have more meetups and education on things like open APIs, mobile frameworks, new languages. They are trendy. Trendy works. Invest in fashion. Bring the hive mind home. Successful communities feel engaged in building some kind of future, connected to some kind of global happening. They show up because they are scared if they don’t, they’ll miss out on the next big thing. When they go home and read Hacker News, they now see themselves. They feel aligned. There is a sense of vitality and movement. If you’re trying to build startup community, bootstrap it on the back of global trending.
But Do Reinvent the Wheel
I haven’t been to a single tech event in a single city where I couldn’t do a conference call in the women’s bathroom. Why? It’s quiet in there.
The underrepresentation of women in the startup community is at a fucking monumental global scale. All tech communities I’ve encountered similarly struggle with issues like outsourcing, lack of racial diversity, lack of accessible education, prevalence of elitism and social media douchebags.
I have a lot of hope that emerging startup scenes will take the opportunity to create a better model that is both more inclusive and diverse. So as much as new scenes should try to emulate the conditions and successes of others, they also shouldn’t forget they have the chance to build the world anew.