Becoming a Leader in Your Own Startup Community

Everybody that’s spent time in both knows that life outside of Silicon Valley is just different than when you’re inside.  Admittedly, I’ve only been a visitor to the Bay Area, renting rooms in Palo Alto and Atherton from AirBnB when I stay.  My friend Kyle is actually living it right now, though, as he picked up his entire family from Cleveland to (hopefully) temporarily relocate his family to the Bay Area while he goes on a quest for funding.

When I interviewed Randy Komisar for my book, he had a really interesting perspective.  Sometimes, there can actually be significant advantages to locating yourself outside of Silicon Valley.  One of those advantages is that you can, in a way, become a “big fish in a little pond.”  You can become the leader of your own startup community.  In Silicon Valley, this would be pretty tough to do.  It’s hard enough to get noticed among the thousands of founders that have seemingly taken over San Francisco and the surrounding communities.  But in a place like Cleveland (or Louisville, Chattanooga, or any other more nascent startup community) it’s not only possible, but totally doable.

In my own hometown of Cleveland, while I wouldn’t necessarily pin “startup leader” on my own lapel, the truth is I’m asked by founders for advice often and am asked by event organizers to speak or mentor at various startup events.  They must see something in me to make that ask.

So I guess I’m considered a startup leader in my community.  But why? And how did that become the case?  It’s not like I’m a multi-millionaire with multiple startup exits under my belt.  After reflecting on this a bit, and taking a look at other (better) startup leaders in my community, I’ve noticed that they all share some common traits.

What does a startup community leader look like?

They build stuff:  Entrepreneurs respect other entrepreneurs who have shipped stuff.  I don’t mean that they have to code — but they have to be more than talk.  Too many people are “idea people” who talk about the businesses or products they might launch some day.  Not everybody backs it up with action.  The people that get the most respect in a startup community are the people who walk the walk — not just talk the talk.

I’ve launched two products along with other co-founders.  One was a physical product, and another was a digital product.  Neither were necessarily major financial successes.  But we didn’t just talk about them.  We shipped.   The other leaders in my startup community are all people that take pride in releasing products into the world, not just talking about them.

They’re humble:  People that know me best know that I’m not one that proactively looks for accolades.  I can be pretty self-deprecating, sometimes to a fault.  I know all too well the “impostor syndrome” that entrepreneurs feel as I very much felt like an impostor when eFuneral was getting all sorts of media attention (despite the fact that we were struggling as a business and weren’t really asking for it).  Don’t get me wrong — I’m confident.  I’m proud of who I am.  But I’m not one that likes to brag.

The other startup leaders in my community aren’t “braggers” either.  The true leaders remember the times when they were just getting started.  Instead of rubbing success in the face of others, they stay true to themselves.  Which leads me to…

They’re helpful:   People who truly want to see their own startup community succeed help others — no questions asked.  They don’t contemplate “what’s in it for them?”  They don’t trade (or count) favors.  They simply help — and look at it as a way of paying forward.

I’ve tried to be helpful to others in my own startup community by having a simple rule:  if anybody asks me to meet for coffee, I accept.  This is a really hard rule to live by, and sometimes it takes a few weeks to find a time that works.  But I don’t turn people down.  Why?  Because if there’s a way that I can help somebody else, it’s a great thing for my own startup community.  Plus, even though I might receive more invitations than I give right now, it used to be the opposite.  And when I asked, people generally met with me.

They’re connectors:  Along the same lines as being helpful, they’re also free to connect others who don’t have such strong connections to those in their networks that could actually help them.  They’re not possessive of their own personal networks.  They open them up to others — to an extent, of course.  Our networks are precious and you simply can’t open them up completely to everyone.  But true startup community leaders can instantly imagine who within their network might benefit from meeting each other, and they’re happy to make that connection.

Mostly in life, I view myself as a connector only because I know for a fact that I’m not an expert at everything.  When it comes to a certain topic, I’m happy to give feedback based on my own experiences — but chances are, there’s somebody that I know much smarter than me.  When I meet with somebody who doesn’t have a strong network, I’m usually quick to think of people in my network that they’d get value from in having coffee.

So what can you do to become a leader in your own startup community?  Think about the traits above, and start to live them:

  1. Don’t just talk — take action.  Build stuff.  Launch it into the world.  Don’t be afraid of the fact that you may be embarrassed by the things you release.  We are *all* embarrassed by the first versions of products we launch.  But the very fact that you’re willing to put it out into the world shows that you’re a person of action.
  2. Don’t be an asshole.  It’s pretty simple.  Don’t be that guy that talks about all of your successes.  Don’t brag.  You can be proud of who you are and what you’ve accomplished without making others feel smaller about themselves.  You can give credit when it’s due.  People won’t be unimpressed — they’ll respect you more for it.
  3. Give, give, give, give, give…ask.  Don’t think about what value you can get from others — think about how you can add that value.  When you do, people will remember it.  Trust that in the future, what goes around will really come back around to you.  But remember, it’s not about counting and trading favors.  Do this because it’s the right thing to do and just trust that the universe will thank you later.

I’m convinced that anybody can become a leader in their own startup community.  Surprisingly, becoming a leader isn’t about the successes you’ve had or how much money you make.  The real leaders are the ones who simply think about, and take action, on making their startup community a better place.

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