Graphical rendering of an entrepreneurial ecosystemGraphical rendering of an entrepreneurial ecosystem
Ecosystems + Economies

How to Build an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Building an entrepreneurial ecosystem is hard work. Here’s our step-by-step guide to growing your community, based on over a decade of experience.

“How do we build the community that we want to see here?”

Have you ever asked this question?

Have you ever visited a community that seems to be thriving and wondered why home isn’t more like that?

New businesses seem to crop up every week. There’s a buzzing energy on Main Street and in the downtown area. When you ask locals about things to do or places to shop, they can’t stop listing unique local spots.

You know a flourishing entrepreneurial ecosystem when you see one. But how do you create one in your own community?

Building an entrepreneurial ecosystem is hard work, but it’s completely possible for you and your community.

We at CO.STARTERS have been working in the ecosystem building world for over a decade. During this time, we’ve done a range of work, including partnering with the Kauffman Foundation on their ESHIP initiative and working with over 300 communities around the country as they grew their entrepreneurial ecosystems. 

We’ve learned so much from our work in this industry, and we have a rare 10,000-foot view of what works and what doesn’t.

In this step-by-step guide, we’ll tell you exactly how to make it happen for your community.

Assess Your Current Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

To get started building your community’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, you need to know where it currently stands. 

Think about your community for a few minutes and answer the following questions:

  • If someone has an idea for a business (a coffee shop, bookstore, or PR agency, for example), how easily can they figure out where to go to move that idea forward?
  • Are there resources for entrepreneurs in the community? 
  • If so, how many different local organizations are providing these resources?
  • Are those organizations communicating with each other? Or do they often offer the same exact services for the same people, resulting in awkward competition and reduplication?

Many entrepreneurship communities can be characterized by a lack of organization. And that lack of organization is often felt by the entrepreneurs, not just the people who support them.

To begin the work of building an entrepreneurial ecosystem, you need a clear idea of just how organized or chaotic your community actually is.

Identify what’s missing and real action steps you can take today. 

From what we’ve observed, entrepreneurial ecosystems grow from chaos to thriving in six key stages.

At CO.STARTERS, we call these the Stages of Community Growth

You can use this framework to build your community’s current entrepreneurial ecosystem. 

Here’s how: Take a look at the “What’s missing?” sections for each stage. Which one best describes what your entrepreneurial ecosystem is missing? 

Remember that these stages of growth “stack” on one another, so you need to make sure you maintain activity in the previous stages as you grow your community into the next one.

Once you identify the stage that sounds most like your community, take a look at the “What’s the fix?” and “What can I do right now?” sections under previous stages to make sure there aren’t any gaps you need to fill in before moving forward.

Stage 1: Connection

What’s missing?

Intentional support for entrepreneurs in the community. 

What’s the fix?

Organized opportunities for entrepreneurs to connect with each other and relevant leaders in the community.

What can I do right now?

Start by hosting regular entrepreneur meetups. Weekly or monthly coffee hours like 1 Million Cups or Creative Mornings are some great options. It might just be two or three people at the beginning. But keep at it, and more will show up—we promise.

Stage 2: Awareness

What’s missing?

Enthusiasm or awareness about entrepreneurship or new businesses from the wider public.

What’s the fix?

Opportunities for the public to witness and support local entrepreneurs and small businesses.

What can I do right now?

Try hosting a low-stakes idea-pitch night like SOUP or a Pecha-Kucha. These are great for making local residents feel like they have a voice in what kinds of businesses they’d like to see, connecting new ideas with supportive people, and getting some small amounts of funding to the entrepreneurs who need it.

Stage 3: Action

What’s missing?

Momentum or action following the first two stages. Ideas stay ideas because they don’t have an easy way to move forward.

What’s the fix?

Events and workshops that encourage starting small and failing fast.

What can I do right now?

Host some business launching workshops like the CO.STARTERS Get Started Workshop. Or, if your community is ready for it, hold a hackathon-style launching event like CO.STARTERS Bootcamp or Startup Weekend. Make sure the local press is at these events!

Stage 4: Structure

What’s missing?

Systematized accountability and more structural support from the entrepreneurial ecosystem, as opposed to one-off intervention.

What’s the fix?

Longer, more substantial programming and formal opportunities for new entrepreneurs to connect with mentors and advisors.

What can I do right now?

Host a CO.STARTERS Core cohort or other multi-week program for launching businesses. Schedule some meetings with successful entrepreneurs in the community to discuss long-term mentor relationships. Also, now is a critical time to think about your organization’s branding and marketing efforts. If you haven’t already, now is the time to invest in your public profile.

Stage 5: Support

What’s missing?

Support from the entrepreneur ecosystem for businesses that need to grow.

What’s the fix?

Programming for businesses that want to scale and investment opportunities to support them through the process.

What can I do right now?

Identify the resources in the community available to existing businesses in the community—coworking spaces, loan programs, investment funds, incubators. Leverage what’s already there and identify what needs to be created. This is typically the stage when accelerator programs and angel investment opportunities become crucial.

Stage 6: Transfer

What’s missing?

Ways to ensure that connections and knowledge remain as key leaders leave, retire, or transition out.

What’s the fix?

Systems and processes in place to transfer knowledge to the next generation of leaders in the community.

What can I do right now?

Identify the most important success stories in the ecosystem, and create case studies that other people can learn from. Sit down and make a plan for how knowledge can be transferred before a leadership transition occurs. Create a database for local resources and support using a platform like Ecomap Technologies or Economic Impact Catalyst to preserve knowledge and connections within the ecosystem. 

Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building is a Team Sport

As your entrepreneurial ecosystem progresses through these stages, keep in mind that this is not something one person can do on their own. 

An entrepreneurial ecosystem by definition is a network of people and institutions within the community. Maybe your calling is to lead the charge and rally the community together. But no one person can be the ecosystem.

Try to identify a few people within the community, either within your organization or outside of it, who have complementary skills to you who could help you begin the entrepreneurial ecosystem building process. Send them this article or have them download our Stages of Community Growth pdf below.

Let’s build together.

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Based on over a decade of ecosystem building experience, this framework will help you identify what's missing in your community and make a plan to move your community forward.

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