Entrepreneurship evokes images of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos – but the reality is that the lone-wolf genius with the change-the-world idea is rare. Today, it’s almost impossible to build a startup alone.
It takes a community of shared knowledge and of shared resources. A community that is more than just entrepreneurs: it includes people who work inside large companies and institutions; and investors, partners and customers. It takes a community that understands and fosters entrepreneurship, so startups can thrive.
Every discussion of startup communities starts and ends with Brad Feld and with Boulder, Colorado. Brad Feld is a former entrepreneur, angel investor and venture capitalist, and cofounder of Techstars. Few have been such a driving force in startup communities than Feld. He literally wrote the book on Startup Communities.
Most of Startup Communities’ tenets are based on Feld’s experience within the Boulder entrepreneurial community. He calls it The Boulder Thesis, and it reads like a manifesto for building entrepreneurial communities. Most of the tenets are straightforward cultural traits, such as: build a strong sense of collaboration; be inclusive; experiment and fail fast; and maintain a ‘give before you get’ mindset.
Brad Feld is describing startup communities’ most successful cases like Boulder, Austin, Seattle or Los Angeles – the ones that became examples for the rest of the world. All over the world, people are trying to recreate those startup community success stories in their own regions. Alas, most get it comically wrong. And it can ruin the entrepreneurial community for decades. It’s called T-Ball Entrepreneurship.
All over the world, people are trying to recreate those startup community success stories in their own regions. Alas, most get it comically wrong.
You know T-Ball: It’s a sport for 4 to 8 year olds. It’s an attempt to give kids a baseball-like experience in a safe environment. In an attempt to make playing more fun and more inclusive, they use equipment and rules designed to make the sport artificially easy.
In T-Ball there is no pitcher. No one ever strikes out. The ball is lined up on a tee, and you can take as many swings as you’d like. Everyone is guaranteed to hit the ball, and everyone gets on base. Everyone gets a trophy and everyone is a star player.
T-Ball Entrepreneurship happens when a startup community just tries too hard. They begin with the best of intentions. Participants and leaders want an encouraging, nurturing environment where everyone is included, and where everyone can be an entrepreneur. But these good intentions transform the startup community into a T-Ball game where everyone is a star, no one fails, and everyone feels good. Everyone gets a trophy but no one is ever ready for the major leagues.
Here are the four pillars of the T-Ball Entrepreneurship community:
See if any of these describe a startup community you know:
Are there lots of cheerleaders in the community? Are the loudest cheerleaders the leaders of the startup community?
T-Ball cheerleaders make every product seem great, treat every company like it’s the next Google, and treat every founder like a rock star. First time entrepreneurs become the subject of glowing articles, give keynote speeches and are featured on expert panels based on no other accomplishment other than they started a new company. New products are showcased always as breakthrough, regardless of any market validation or other evidence.
T-Ball cheerleaders make every product seem great, treat every company like it’s the next Google, and treat every founder like a rock star.
It’s impossible criticize these cheerleading efforts without sounding like a curmudgeon, a naysayer, or just plain negative. Cheerleaders are so positive, encouraging and nurturing, who could possibly see this as a problem? But T-Ball cheerleaders try too hard to make everyone feel good. And if everyone is a “star” we cannot tell who has talent and who does not. We cannot tell real achievement from kindness.
Cheerleaders not only try to encourage startup community members, but they try to showcase “wins” for the entire community. The underlying premise is that demonstrating a series of successes will elevate the region’s stature compared to other regions – and thus will attract investors, customers, partners and encourage more entrepreneurs.
In T-Ball Entrepreneurship, accumulating wins means ‘talking up’ the community’s entrepreneurs and their activities – reframing average results as major accomplishments.
Cheerleaders love talking about wins so much, they create games just to produce wins: contests and competitions.
Profits, revenues, customers, market share – startup ventures usually don’t have any of the traditional metrics yet, so they rely on a variety of other indicators: interim milestones or surrogate metrics that point to the likelihood of greater success – a product launch, attracting venture capital, a patent, a partnership, or a large customer sale. These are the “wins” that telegraph the venture’s progress on the road to success.
But if a startup community is not amassing any wins, inevitably the cheerleaders spawn a plethora of local startup contests and competitions because competitions create winners. Contests and competitions can indeed be great methods to excite and fuel the entrepreneurial community (and the general public), but more often they serve to sustain the T-Ball Entrepreneurship mentality.
At best, contests and competitions showcase the promising companies in the region – but only relative to the other companies in the same region. A contest win for a Orlando-based software company might raise their prestige in the Orlando region, but won’t do much to telegraph their prospects to the software industry, to customers, or to venture capitalists. It’s a local win.
Contests and competitions cost local startups valuable time (in preparing). At their worst, competitions can validate the wrong startups. How so? Well, startup competitions are not like sports, where teams compete directly against each other. Instead, winners are chosen by panels of judges. And this is where so many regional communities veer off the tracks.
How do you judge whether one entrepreneur is more promising than another? How do you judge whether one early stage venture is more promising than the other? Career venture capitalists can’t even do this with better than a 20% success rate.
If an entrepreneurial community doesn’t have a concentration of seasoned professionals with intimate startup experience, then the pool of qualified contest judges is slim. Making matters worse, the sponsoring organization – usually a government agency, university or a large company – chooses the judges. Few inside these organizations have enough experience with entrepreneurship to judge a competition much less know how to identify a qualified judge.
Instead, these judges are usually chosen from a mix of former executives, managers, lawyers, consultants, and other service providers with little hands-on entrepreneurship experience. The judging pool is very flawed. The competition will have winners, but they won’t necessarily produce winning ventures for the startup community.
Brad Feld warned about feeders attempting to taking over the community. But far more harmful (and more subtle) are the feeders that masquerade as leaders.
In a T-Ball Entrepreneurship community, these dangerous feeders are mentors and advisors who never started a successful venture nor have been directly involved with one. And they masquerade as the experts, and the coaches. These are usually people from other professions: services, large companies, institutions or those who have run a successful consulting or small business. They may have recently taken a Lean Startup class or a few workshops.
Even more common are the T-Ball cheerleaders who end up running regional entrepreneurship organizations. They are T-Ball coaches posing as major league coaches. And T-Ball communities fall for it big time.
…they are T-Ball coaches posing as major-league coaches. And T-Ball communities fall for it big time.
A telltale sign of a T-Ball Entrepreneurship community is when a local university or economic development agency has a database of thousands of available mentors from the business community truly an great example of ‘quantity over quality.’ This practice dilutes the value of mentors and advisors who have legitimate entrepreneurship experience. It progressively and successively lowers the bar for mentors and thus for the entrepreneurship community.
But what if you already have the talent to be a successful entrepreneur? What if you’ve already been a successful entrepreneur? What’s it like to be a “pro” and walk into T-Ball game? Would you immediately be a star and a role model to everyone else? Probably not.
If a pro-baseball player joined a T-Ball game, he’d probably be kicked off the field after hitting the ball over the fence every time. His presence would be highly disruptive to the other players. His knowledge and talent would be a threat the T-Ball coaches. His advice would be ignored, since everyone is playing a much simpler game with different objectives. Eventually the pro-baseball player would be relegated to the bleachers.
This is what it’s like for experienced, accomplished entrepreneurs in a T-ball Entrepreneurship community. They are alienated because they are playing a different level of game, they are drowned out and silenced by the cheerleaders: Ostracized.
This is what it’s like for experienced, accomplished entrepreneurs in a T-ball Entrepreneurship community. They are alienated because they are playing a different level of game
T-Ball cheerleading can be irresistible and infectious. Who wants to be the voice that says ‘the emperor has no clothes’? When the cheerleaders rally adoration for products, companies, or entrepreneurs that aren’t ‘major league’, almost everyone cheers: Almost.
Seasoned entrepreneurs sometimes feel compelled to point out when products or entrepreneurs are not ‘major league’ – i.e. not on par with the major startup communities. When the experienced entrepreneurs point out that the local accolades are unwarranted, they are often ignored or made to be pariahs. Honest feedback is subtly discouraged, particularly if it is unflattering.
Experienced entrepreneurs risk being disregarded as being too negative and end up branded as heretics to the community: Heretics for speaking the truth among the noise of the T-Ball cheerleaders and coaches. And like heretics throughout history, we try to burn them at the stake: marginalizing them, banishing them, and excommunicating them.
Without the heretics, the T-Ball community becomes an echo chamber for the cheerleaders and coaches. It is dangerous to ostracize the heretics, since it diminishes the entire startup community. And it ensures that the T-Ball Entrepreneurship community supports only T-Ball level players.
Without the heretics, the T-Ball community becomes an echo chamber for the cheerleaders and coaches.
Is it any wonder why so many talented entrepreneurs flee their T-Ball communities and flock to Silicon Valley?
Entrepreneurial startup communities are vital for modern entrepreneurs. Done right, they are truly useful ecosystems, support systems and environments for fostering successful entrepreneurs. But it’s easy to get it wrong and become T-Ball Entrepreneurship communities. If you’re immersed in one, it can be hard to resist.
T-Ball Entrepreneurship communities: everyone gets a trophy – but no one is ever ready for the major leagues.
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Excerpted from the book: The Age of Metapreneurship – A Journey into the Future of Entrepreneurship, by CJ Cornell (May 2017, Venture Point Press)
For more on T-Ball Entrepreneurship, and other issues in modern entrepreneurship, read The Age of Metapreneurship by CJ Cornell