The Difficulty of Ecosystem Building
I spend some time every week helping founders with pitch decks. I am always pushing them to simplify, to be clearer, and to find some way to make it make sense.
Finding a good analogy that will help people ‘get’ what what you are building is always helpful. Explaining something new or not well understood is hard. Having an example to give to help the them create a mental model of what they are looking at is crucial. We have trouble understanding the future. We have all experienced the past. Saying something is ‘like when the iPod came out and how we listened to music changed’ is powerful as it tangible.
As someone who spent the better part of a decade doing what has come to be called Ecosystem Building, I have always struggled with explaining to people simply.
I left Ecosystem Building behind 2 years ago to try something new (starting a fund to invest in IP heavy hard tech) — but the last couple of weeks sucked me back into the ecosystem orbit a bit. I was asked to comment on the EDAs new Tech Hub proposal. The questionnaire frustrated me a bit and brought back some PTSD from past encounters.
For a long time I have struggled to explain ecosystem building to people simply. Having someone read a couple of books to understand systems thinking, startup communities, and how innovation happens never worked.
Often when trying to explain it all, I was stymied by the need of the stakeholders wanting a set of clear and simple best practices. There is nothing wrong with wanting best practices, but I also left those interactions feeling like they are asking the wrong questions.
The other night, my wife and I watched ‘The Serengeti Rules’ on PBS. It is a great show and I now will suggest people watch this instead of reading a few books. While not perfect, it does offer up a digestible way to understand the challenge of ecosystem building.
In the show, they go over the concept of a ‘Keystone’ species — a species that acts as a control around which the rest of the ecosystem organizes itself. This was ‘fringe’ science back in the day, but now has become accepted wisdom. As an understanding of ecosystems, it is a good primer.
What stuck out in this show was that it showed several ecosystems and outlined the behavior of different keystones in the context of the ecosystems they are in.
When I get asked about best practices, I can give my experiences of what I did in my ecosystem. If someone did what I did, they may or may not have the same results. Implementing ‘best practices’ that I did would be akin to solving the problem of ‘urchin blight’ (regulated by starfish, that ecosystems keystone) by introducing wolves (Yellowstone’s keystone species).
Ecosystems are dynamic. We have a framework of how it works, but the specifics matter in the context of the ecosystem you exist in.
I used to live in Oregon. I now live in New Jersey. The challenges faced by the NJ tech and startup ecosystems are WAY different. The ‘solution’ for each ecosystem has to respond to the unique environment in which they are implemented. I am a skeptic that there is a single set of ‘best practices’ that we could apply to any ecosystem.
The only thing that I have seen that works is having someone in the ecosystem who is living in it, breathing it day in and day out, and taking notes.
I quickly wrote this in order to get it out there as food for thought before I return to my day job, which involves an ecosystem of a different sort (which overlaps other ecosystems, and why I find it so interesting).