Ecosystem Physics - Lessons from Egypt
With all the chatter around the Middle East, we welcome a guest post from Mike Ducker. Over the last two years, he has been the Entrepreneur-In-Residence for the U.S. State Department's Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP) in Egypt, a project funded by USAID and centered on starting, growing and facilitating financing for Egyptian entrepreneurs. His observations show once more the remarkable similarities around the world in terms of how to support startups.
by Mike Ducker
I remember the first Startup Weekend we supported in Cairo two months after the revolution. Some of the brightest, most passionate people throughout the Middle East were there supporting each other, challenging ideas, giving advice and connecting people. This was not your typical ‘blah, blah, blah’ workshop – I literally felt the energy generated from successful business people helping young startups. I didn’t really understand what laws of nature were at work, I just knew the weekend was special. Of the 35 that attended the original Startup Weekend Cairo, we have helped launch six startups and they are still pushing their businesses forward two years later. I can’t say that all of our 18 startup/mentoring events have created such energy or results, so it took me a while to understand how to unleash the energy of people to launch businesses.
The first force of the ecosystem is the startups. Do not believe the false assumptions that this force is driven by young people with big ideas, but are more likely driven by leaders who are energized by the passions and persistence of the entrepreneurs. The winner of the first Startup Weekend Cairo was a young person with a great idea, he could deliver a smooth pitch and was cute (at least that is what a girl on Twitter said). I talked to him and thought there was real promise and he wowed me too. But the fact of the matter is he had a big ego, could not focus and gave up when tough challenges came. There is no lack of ideas in the world, but there is a lack of people who can move an idea forward. It is critically important to find people who are super-passionate about their ideas and have a very personal connection with it, have leadership capabilities and can walk through walls to make things happen. These people are rare and probably have jobs (isn’t this the type of person you would want to work for you?) but the more powerful these characteristics are in a person the more powerful the force of the startup.
The other forces at work are coaches, mentors and angels who are experienced business people that will share their insights, experiences, contacts and finances. Mobilizing startups is much easier when you can provide them the right connections, which can be difficult. Finding the mentor or coach who is ready to give their time away and ask nothing in return, who has real experiences to share, who listens instead of telling, and has the ability to ask questions to lead while providing tough love when needed, these are rare qualities, indeed. Sometimes the coaches and mentors are people from the industry the startup is in, or even better in the marketplace the startup is targeting, but oftentimes it someone who has launched a business themselves and can show real empathy for the difficult times in the startup’s history. These are usually the unsung heroes of the ecosystem and thus need be treated as a rare force in the ecosystem. Handle with care!
The last force in the ecosystem universe is its connectors. These are usually the startup events, incubators/accelerators, entrepreneurship centers, university offices and so on. Their job is simple in theory but difficult in implementation because they need to search for talent, connect the forces and launch startups. Too often I’ve seen these institutions try to control the different forces of the ecosystem and utilize it for their own gain. Unfortunately, sometimes these organizations will try to act like the heroes of the ecosystem even though these are usually the only people in the ecosystem taking a salary and their hearts are not necessarily in it. The organizations siphon off the energy and don’t want to collaborate with others in the ecosystem and thus their startups lose critical connections that would have been helpful. There have been times when I have let success go to my head and found my ego getting in the way. This slowed down the work with other partners and ultimately slowed the program down. The best of these institutions know what to do: find the best talent, connect them with the right mentors, coaches, angels and customers and let the magic of the two forces being connected happen. The better the talent, the more powerful their contacts and the more connections they make, the more successful startups are launched. Institutions that are good at creating the energy needed to launch startups put entrepreneurs in the center of the ecosystem, collaborate, collaborate and collaborate, and make sure the mentors, angels, and market players are acknowledged early and often for their support.
Mike Ducker has focused his career on changing the lives of people who are trying to start and grow new businesses while encouraging the healthy development of local ecosystems. Over the last two years, he has been the Entrepreneur-In-Residence for the U.S. State Department's Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP) in Egypt, a project funded by USAID and centered on starting, growing and facilitating financing for Egyptian entrepreneurs. Mike has organized and implemented programs that have started close to 60 high growth companies; and has facilitated financing avenues for five of them worth 3.25 million Egyptian pounds (roughly US $470,000).
Note from the author: Thanks to Sean Griffin from the StartUp Cup for support on some of this thinking.