Jan 5 2019 by

Startup Communities Are Not Like Recipes, They are Like Raising Children

I’ve often heard people say “building startup communities (or startup ecosystems) is not about the ingredients, it’s about the recipe.” What they mean is that a focus on the individual people, institutions, and resources will provide only limited insight or success, and that what matters most is how these things all come together. Integration is the right concept, but a recipe is the wrong analogy.

Recipes, like chicken noodle soup or chocolate chip cookies, are simple systems. These recipes require some understanding of techniques and tools, but once learned, they are replicable with a high degree of certainty. The process of creating these “systems” can easily be broken down into constituent parts, such as chopping vegetables or sifting flour, and their integration (mixing) requires little precision.

Recipes become complicated when they involve a twenty-course tasting menu at a restaurant with three Michelin stars. Producing and serving these meals is surely a challenging problem, requiring highly specialized expertise, coordination of many factors, and consistency at scale. But these systems are also ultimately solvable, and when mastered and carried out with care, they can be replicated with relative precision. Restaurants do this repeatedly every night in cities around the world.

Startup communities and startup ecosystems are nothing like this. They are complex systems, meaning they have many “agents” (people and things), interdependencies, and are in a constant state of evolution, which makes fully wrapping your arms around them a challenging task. Most importantly, no one is in control. Such systems cannot be fully understood, predicted, controlled, or replicated; they can at best be guided and influenced. And yet, many strategies used in startup community building today still attempt to impose a complicated systems worldview onto what is an inherently complex system. This is the central problem facing startup community building in practice today and why so many well-intentioned efforts fail.

A better approach for building startup communities is not one steeped in a fixed set of ingredients, a rigid prescription of rules, and where engineered, linear processes are carefully calibrated through tight control. Instead, dealing with complex systems is best done with an informed intuition, trial and error, humility, and a desire to learn. It is more about getting the conditions right than aiming for a specific outcome. This is why you can learn more about startup community building from raising a child than you can by flawlessly executing even a complicated recipe (or system).

To drive this point home, I’m going to pull a passage from Complexity and the Art of Public Policy: Solving Society’s Problems from the Bottom Up, by the economist David Colander and physicist Roland Kupers, which I think captures this idea perfectly. (this quote has been slightly modified to improve readability where text was streamlined):

One approach to parenting is to set out a set of explicit rules for the child—”this is what you are to do; this is what is best for you, and these are the consequences of your not following the rules.” That is the idealized “control approach” to parenting.

There are two problems with this—the first is that most parents are not sure which rules are the correct ones. If they pick the wrong ones, then the child’s welfare won’t be maximized. The second problem is that the child may not follow the rules—do you then give in or not?

The true alternative to top-down control parenting is the parenting equivalent of the complexity approach we are advocating; a laissez-faire activist approach. In a laissez-faire activist approach you have as few direct rigorously specified rules as possible. Instead, you have general guidelines, and you consciously attempt to influence the child’s development so he or she becomes the best human being possible.

Instead of focusing on the rules, the focus of complexity parenting is more on creating voluntary guidelines, and providing a positive role model. (emphasis added).

This is why, in my upcoming book with Brad Feld, The Startup Community Way, we’ll be talking a lot about the behaviors, attitudes, and leadership qualities that promote healthy startup communities, and not about ingredients or recipes. We understand that startup communities require a different set of guidance, tools, and techniques than most of us are used to applying in our professional lives (which occurs because most workplaces are structured in a top-down, hierarchical way).

But the reality is, we all deal with complex systems everyday—from cities to our bodies to any situation that involves interacting with other people. Complexity is all around us. Our hope is that we’ll do our part to help you uncover how to apply what you already know to a different type of problem: that of building a vibrant startup communities in the city where you live. We can’t wait to share our ideas with you.