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Monteverde National Park, Costa Rica (Photo courtesy of WikiMedia)

This original guest post was authored by Ignacio Castro, Managing Director of the Boston Founder Institute, and Founder & CEO of Get Hackers.

Many experiments throughout an eight year journey since my first encounter with Startup Communities

Brad Feld just published a new book: The Startup Community Way, which is the sequel of his 2012 book Startup Communities that introduced the basic principles of how to build a vibrant community in any city in the world you happened to be.

Brad’s new book sparked a self-reflection on my own journey that started even before the original book was published, but then I stumble upon Startup Communities and it was the perfect roadmap to what ended up being an amazing story about #GiveFirst (or how Brad originally phrase it: Give Before You Get) and a series of experiments that took me to where I am today.

Join me October 8th for a live, interactive online event: A Conversation with Brad Feld: The Startup Community Way in Boston

Preparing for the journey

I’ll keep the this section very short, but some context would help.

Originally from Costa Rica, I moved to Boston in 2010 at age 36 to go back to school full time for a year long executive program at MIT called Sloan Fellows. In principle I came here just to study and get an MBA, but in reality it was to pursue a dream and continue to build upon many previous entrepreneurial experiences I had before.

For example, my first real company, Inova Consultores, was started by a group of college friends, all Industrial Engineers, right out of school in 1997 and it was probably just the inertia from having done informal consulting projects for Chiquita Brands, where one of our friends’ father worked at the time and it was kind enough to let a group of young wannabe engineers get some real life experience.

In retrospective, this experience combined with my father’s influence, a tenure university professor with an strong consulting practice servicing government institutions that basically became competitive with big private consulting firms at a fraction of the cost, whom let me participate in some of these projects as a junior consultant, inevitably was the moment when the entrepreneurial seed was planted and rooted heavily in those formative years.

Finally, those experiences back in Costa Rica were followed by a few not very successful stints as a convenience store disgruntled franchisee and a fast food restaurant co-founder; and ended up coming full circle to the initial consulting firm that was rebranded in 2009 as Gears Soft to service the software industry with a skillset I developed over the years around quality assurance and project management.

The first leg of the trip: Boston — Costa Rica

Going back to Brad and his 2012 Startup Communities book, in there he mentions that entrepreneurial communities have leaders and feeders, and strongly advise that in order for the community to be successful it has be led by entrepreneurs. So then who are the feeders? Everyone else.

The feeders are other actors in the community like lawyers, accountants, angel investors, venture capitalists and government officials. In his new books, that includes a new edition of the Startup Communities original book, he updates this concept and complements it with a new figure, the instigators, but the basic principle remains, entrepreneurs are the ones called to lead and grow the community.

While I was reading the book, given my past experiences, I clearly identify myself as a leader, and there were two chapter that really stuck with me: chapter 5 — “Attributes of Leadership in a Startup Community” — and chapter 11 — "The power of the community” — . In these chapters, Brad lays out a critical foundation for the evolution and growth of this type of communities by sharing the following key principles:

  • Be inclusive: this is incredibly powerful and makes a huge difference when communities are truly inclusive. One of the more important aspects around inclusiveness is the fact that leaders are expected to constantly nurture new leaders and to pass the baton when taking on new responsibilities.
  • Play a non-zero-sum game: it is not about winners or losers, but as a collective how we can build a community that benefits everyone. In this particular case, collaboration is the name of the game, even among competitors in the ecosystem, because “a rising tide lifts all the boats”.
  • Experiment and Fail Fast: each community is unique and is going to have to approach its growth with a number of different plans and programs. Leaders and feeders alike need to be intellectually honest and call out initiatives that don't work, so the energy behind it can be redirected to ongoing more successful efforts.
  • Give before you get: not everything can be transactional when your are trying to build a community and not always there is a clear return on specific efforts one needs to undertake. For this reason, leaders just have to focus on what’s need to be done to help the community grow and trust that they will get something back later on.

In chapter 7 — “Activities and Events” — , Brad provided a list of relevant initiatives that were instrumental in building Boulder as a role model for other startup communities around the world. In my personal case, this list was a practical inspiration and a roadmap for a number of passion projects I decided to get myself involved with to have an impact in a place a care deeply about: Costa Rica.

But then the big question becomes, if I was in Boston, why investing time and effort on a community 4,200 miles away? The answer is twofold:

  • first, being a former entrepreneur studying at MIT was like drinking from a firehose, and pretty much felt like a kid living permanently in a candy store. This was a huge contrast to where I was coming from, and make me think what if I had all these resources when I tried, and in some cases failed, to start my own companies in Costa Rica. I also recall reading MIT Sloan’s mission: “to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice”, and asking myself, where can I go and improve a region in the world through entrepreneurship? Given my experience and background, the answer always was: Costa Rica;
  • and secondly, as a newcomer to Boston, a very mature and dynamic startup community already in 2010, it was hard to even identify where to start as a potential leader and really make a difference; while in Costa Rica it was very obvious that there were many gaps that someone with my expertise could try to help close.

1991 Fire Hose Drinking Fountain Hack (Photo courtesy of MIT)

One of my first attempts in this journey was to start curating the Costa Rica Startup Digest, which didn't exist at the time (early 2013), and from having seen the massive event activity in a city like Boston, it was very clear that starting here was a great way to add value to the startup community, but also monitor and measure what was happening and understand what other critical initiatives could be missing.

As I continued to explore what else was necessary in Costa Rica, I decided to formalized my efforts in a non-profit called Startup Costa Rica (SCR) with the main purpose of “building bridges to support entrepreneurs in Costa Rica”. The idea of SCR was inspired non surprisingly from a great program called Startup Chile which I was fortunate to be part of in 2011 (I believe on the third batch) and has been transformational for Chile at large.

In our case, Startup Costa Rica ended up being a very different organization that spark a series of other initiatives. Initially by partnering with leaders from other organizations like YoEmprendedor and Startup Weekend Costa Rica, we launched in 2014 the first Founder Institute program in Central America. This was a critical milestone since there was basically no presence at the time of world-class programs to support startups in this region.

SCR also participated in a program sponsored by the British Embassy to support Science and Innovation projects in 2016 and as a result we published the report: Costa Rica Startup Ecosystem Mapping: actors, connections and best practices, the first in-depth research to map the main actors in the country, their connections and suggest best practices for the community.

Right after finishing this project with the British Embassy, I started to shift my focus back to Boston, but it feels great to be able to look back and see now other teams are thriving now running programs we started like the Founder Institute, which continues to make a difference in the community and hopefully will do so for many years to come.

British Embassy’s Science & Innovation Fair (March 18th, 2016)

Coming back: Costa Rica — Boston

Early in 2016, the team that came together to launch and run the Founder Institute program in Costa Rica ended up parting ways and it was a natural transition for me to start thinking about my role in the Boston Startup Community given the experience gained in the past several years.

As I started to reflect about my next move, I realized that I was basically wasting a huge opportunity by not immersing myself on the Startup Community in Boston, find ways to add value and start playing a leadership role in the city.

At that moment, MassChallenge was an obvious place to start, as I have been part of their community in different capacities (applicant, active participant on events, etc.) since it was launch back in 2010. I would also add that watching John Harthorne and Akhil Nigam build and grow MassChallenge over the years has been a great source of inspiration.

MassChallenge also lives up to the expectation and values you would expect in a leader of an Startup Community, so being inclusive is at the heart of this program and have played a key role in nurturing the Boston entrepreneurial ecosystem at large (not to mentioned many others as they operate in multiple geographies around the world!).

After reaching out and offering to help, I eventually became a mentor and judge for the signature program, and years later, given my financial services background, I’m also giving back in the newer program: MassChallenge FinTech.

About the same time, while I was trying to help Founder Institute recruit a new group of leaders to re-launch the program in Costa Rica, a new team was also getting together to re-launch Boston, one of the few major cities in the US that didn't have an active program, so I was offered to join the team and help out given my past experience with the program.

I was fortunate to join an amazing team, and by the way, what are the odds of all of us living in the same town, not to mention less than 2 miles apart. Thara Pillai (recently joined the team at Harvard Innovation Lab) and Andrea Jackson (an experienced BioTech exec now turned VC at Northpond Ventures) were just incredible partners to be able to do something really hard: rise above the noise and stand out a meaningful program from the bottom up in Boston.

None of us were coming from a signature program in the city or an established player in the industry (an known angel group or a VC with the relationships and the connections), so no wonder how the re-launch of the program was received by the media: “A ‘Pre-Accelerator’ Program Returns to Boston After a 5-Year Hiatus”.

A lot of skepticism is what we faced in many different places, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In a place like Boston, where there are literally hundreds of events happening in any particular week, and people with good intentions come and go, it is only fair for established organizations and programs to be cautious and not let just anyone build on top of their hard earned reputation.

Through hard work and persistence we ended up earning the trust of those gatekeepers in the ecosystem and receive the support from many individuals and organizations that believe in the power of an strong community, because what you get it is much greater than the sum of the parts, and experienced leaders know this very well.

Fast forward almost 5 years and we have managed to build our own purpose driven community looking to support early stage founders launch and grow their businesses through the Founder Institute program in Boston. We have a large mentor pool with key players in the ecosystem represented, built strong relationships with partners and sponsors to support each other and the overall community at large, and finally but not least important (actually the most important), a very interesting portfolio of graduate companies (33 in total) that we continue to help in any way we can.

I’m extremely proud of what we have been able to achieve with these efforts and also to bring amazing talent to support this program in Boston, so really thankful to have share this journey with my current team: Ross Palley (also General Manager at Venture Lane) and Joseph Botsch (also Investor at OpenView), and also Sapna Tyagi (CPO at Hive Pro) who is a long standing mentor and part of our team in the past.

2019 Founder Institute Boston Fall Graduating Cohort

Finally, as Brad suggests in his books, as leaders in the Startup Community we should have a 20 years horizon, so I firmly believe that a program like the Founder Institute is a critical player on the overall entrepreneurial ecosystem to support founders journey from idea to launch and beyond, and certainly hope it would continue to operate and grow for a long time in Boston.

He also mentions that “the best startup community leaders are constantly nurturing new leaders, handing off existing activities to them, and then taking on new responsibilities”, so we are doing exactly that with our team in Boston, with Ross and Joe taking the lead over the recruitment and running our 14 weeks program, while I support the team from a fundraising and overall strategic planning perspective, which is something we need to do in order to secure the long term sustainability of our local team.

This also comes at a time when I’m personally looking to launch my own venture: Get Hackers (more to come about this in the near future), which is going to take most of my time and the new team setup makes more sense going forward.

If you get this far, thanks! … and really hope you enjoyed the story and would maybe push you to find ways to give back to the startup community in whatever city you call home, doing something that you enjoy and help others with a #GiveFirst mentality.

Join me October 8th for a live, interactive online event: A Conversation with Brad Feld: The Startup Community Way in Boston

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Graduates of the Founder Institute are creating some of the world's fastest growing startups, having raised over $950M in funding, and building products people love across over 200 cities worldwide.

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