The Fall Colors of Colorado and a Community Idea

The fall colors in Boulder are amazing.  I took this photo after a 10-minute drive from downtown yesterday.  I love it here.

Boulder, Colorado

 

So now, a big idea.  Perhaps.

I’m really interested in companies’ obsession with culture and first hires.  The culture drives the ability to attract and retain top talent.  Most (successful) companies have worked years on developing their identity.

I don’t think there is anything grand about those statements.

So take out the word “company” and put in “community.”  Try that again.

  • Communities obsess over culture (good ones do).
  • The community drives the ability to attract and retain top talent.  You bet.
  • Most communities have worked years on developing their identity.

So the last line feels odd.  Communities, as tech and startup communities are concerned, are led generally by volunteer efforts.

 

Let’s look at the BarCamp movement (which is what got me into tech).    It was company culture seeping out and driving community culture by people that stepped up and volunteered.  They wanted to see that change in their community, and they were the best people they knew to do it.

 

Look at Startup Weekend and Ignite organizers as well.  Not too much benefit for the organizers compared to the work and risk involved.  But the events happen.  And the events make a lot of peoples’ lives drastically better. The community abides.

See what I’m getting at?

 

Community culture management or development is highly important to the healthy infrastructure we want to see, and nobody seems to be doing it.

 

How does that happen, especially in cities like Boulder, Colorado?

 

We have worked on community for years.  A town of 100,000 hosts the largest Ignite and TEDx events in the world.  How?  Why?  What does this really mean?  2% of the town shows up for these events.  Think NYC can ever have 2% show up to a tech event or movement?

So that really is an aside.  Numbers don’t matter, community does.  How does a strong community improve the citizens and companies that make it up?

 

Or the big question:

 

Can community management be managed and fought for just like you would in a company?

 

Who leads that effort, and what structure does that have?

 

Something I’ve been thinking about more and more.  Can we rely on an all-volunteer and self-organizing group to build a world-class community?  In Boulder we have relied on volunteers and companies like TechStars that care about what the ecosystem looks like, not just their block.

 

So what are the problems we hear over and over?

  • Moving to a new town – it might take you years to find your niche.
  • It is hard to connect with people you don’t know, but should (while fighting off sales people).
  • Hiring quality people is tough.
  • Tech community leadership is funded by another company culture or by people with motives that don’t align with the community.
  • Events don’t line up to my interests or expectations.
  • I don’t have time to show up to many events.
  • We don’t get respect.

I’m leaving that one open ended.  Community problems are almost universal (and that list can be 1,000x longer).

 

So, what does the future look like?

 

I’m leaning toward an idea.  A central community funded nonprofit (in methodology or incorporation) that works toward a goal of simply making the community better.  Events, welcoming and reporting being the three big ways to make the group better.  Sponsorship by larger companies looking to give back or a guild management system.

 

A Community Culture Company.

 

What do you think?  Worth giving it a go?

 

  • I would ask what you would gain as a result of having these community efforts be centrally  organized – vs – what you would lose? Is it going to be more effective at solving the 1000x problems you mention? 

  • Sounds like an old idea with a fresh approach. Rotary Clubs, Jaycees, Knights of Columbus, and the list goes on. All of these kinds of organizations strove for what you have proposed, and many of the achieved it, on their own terms, and in their own time. 

    The barcamps, ignites and other like events are the new Masons, Jaycees, etc. How does viewing what we have in the Boulder tech scene under this filter change your approach? does it? or have I missed the target?

  • I think I mentioned this to you the other day, but do you think @downtownboulder is the city’s attempt at that? 

  • This is interesting Andrew. Not sure I’m clear on the direction… does this step outside the tech circle and address broader community issues? Or is this still firmly planted in the tech industry and the people that make it tick?

  • NULL

    I think it takes 30 organizations and groups to really deliver a quality experience for a huge group.

  • NULL

    The focus would be tech but the events could be more general (or how do you involve tech in events). 

  • NULL

    You are right on target.  The event in many ways is a step back to look at how community events come about and what is really needed by the community.  

    Can we have a small team that would be teamed with the task of making the community’s experience better?  

  • NULL

    Central resources (banking, insurance, lessons) can help in obvious ways, but I’m more excited about a team really looking at a communities direction and needs as a challenge.  What events are not started because people are developers and not organizers, even though their leadership is the only way it would work? 

  • Beth Hartman

    I like this idea a lot – it would be so cool to be a kind of “official ambassador” for Boulder! The organization could be sponsored by all the companies looking to hire software engineers, who would probably be high priority targets for ambassador-type activities 😉

  • In my experience, getting established community organizations to cooperate is difficult.  Each has its own motivations, and eventually its own turf to defend.

    That said, my experience with most of the tech community has been quite the opposite.  I’m game for putting in effort to make this happen if you choose to go down this road.

    There’s only one way to find out if it can work…

  • While not completely what you have in mind, the Boston tech scene does a great job imo of events, reporting, and welcoming — check out what Jason Evanish and Rob Go have done for example… Here’s a great place to start (I wish Boulder had one of these):

    http://robgo.org/2010/11/09/the-hitchhikers-guide-to-the-boston-tech-community-2011/

    http://www.greenhornconnect.com/

    I don’t see any reason why it could not work; in fact if it can be done anywhere Boulder is the perfect place, as there are so many people here that *do* care about the community. 

  • NULL

    “I’m leaning toward an idea. A central community funded nonprofit (in methodology or incorporation) that works toward a goal of simply making the community better. Events, welcoming and reporting being the three big ways to make the group better. Sponsorship by larger companies looking to give back or a guild management system.”

    Oh, bad idea.
    As soon as people think Other People Are Handling That, it stops. Or, just as bad, it becomes owned, and soon stagnant or politicized or commercialized. 

    Do not strive for critical mass and centralization; strive for critical dispersal and organic networking.

    People need to know that the key to great community is “Get off your ass.”  There’s no shortcut.

  • I like neurogami’s response and think there’s a way to meld it with what you’re thinking.  Or at least what I think you’re thinking. 

    What if the community piece is the “city centre” of the community – a one stop shop for seeing what the community has on offer – event calendar, sponsorships, job board, relevant blogs, comment wall etc.  The community itself doesn’t have to create all the content (although it may have it’s own signature event); it just creates a terrific, accessible stage for the players. 

    This builds a hub and stills counts on the creativity and energy of members to achieve the “critical dispersal and organic networking” that neurogami highlighted.

  • NULL

    Doesn’t this already happen?  

    Why did BarCamp die in Boulder?  Someone else is handling that, right?  

    I don’t think an organization providing the support to make a place better would cause any sort of ownership conflict. 

    The key to a great restaurant isn’t you showing up, it is someone taking a risk and people supporting them. Community in every nook and cranny starts with people taking risks and stepping out of their comfort zone, and we should actually look at the amazing amount of missed opportunities not just as a ‘it will come’ but with actual leadership.  

  • NULL

    Agreed.  No easy way to do this.  

    Support those who want to make the community better.  Can it go wrong?  You bet, especially if the central leadership’s intent is questioned.  Is there a core that just cares about the place and wants to make it better?  I think so, in Boulder and beyond. 

  • NULL

    “Why did BarCamp die in Boulder?  Someone else is handling that, right?  ”
    BarCamp  != every community event (I’m assuming).   

    It’s one thing for this or that group to look after this or that event or meeting.  Quite another for there to be The Central Community Group.

    The question is, what else besides BarCamp are people taking upon themselves to create?”The key to a great restaurant isn’t you showing up, it is someone taking a risk and people supporting them. ”

    Sure.  But, unless I’m misreading the main idea, it’s the difference between any one restaurant and a town with, overall, vibrant eating options.  I don’t see how you get the latter via central management.  

    I ran the Phoenix Ruby User Group for many years; it clearly had a stamp of “ownership”, something required in order to ensure it continued even through attendance swings.  I’ve started and/or ran or helped run a number of other groups and events (Refresh Phoenix, Ignite Phoenix, Phoenix BarCamp), and seen  a dozen groups and events flower.  Things seem to work best when there’s strong local, group-level, leadership but wide-open, anyone-can-play  “global” ( i.e. community) opportunity.    Part of this was that organizations that were supposed to be looking out for their communities became turgid and “clubby.”  They lost touch and people took action.  I have a feeling that the turgid and clubby part is inevitable despite all best intentions.

    This is all anecdotal of course, but it seems like something that’s at least played out this way in Phoenix.  

    BTW, I see similar dynamics in individual groups.  Some seem to reinforce the idea that there’s a Well Regarded and Infinitely Wise speaker, and an audience of passive droids.  Others try to break down that barrier and get as much participation  from members as possible.  I’ve watched many people go from shy, “I could never give a talk types” to dynamic presenters.  Mostly it’s a matter of clearing their heads of self-doubt and giving some tips on presentations.  The best is when someone for one groups decides to g start their own group because they’ve seen how it’s done and believe they can do it.

    Perhaps the right sort of high-level support is an organization that doesn’t actually do anything but teaches people how to do it themselves.  (Perhaps this is akin to what Cindy posted.)

  • NULL

    BTW, thanks for posting this and for the follow-up discussion.  

    I’ve been interested in what makes for strong communities, and how can you get people engaged, for some time.  Most of what I know comes from trying things out, making mistakes, and watching others.  I’m always interested in what others are up to and what they’ve discovered.

  • Cindy, I’ve worked with Andrew and a few others on the thing that you’ve described: http://www.boulder.me.  My lesson learned from this?  It’s harder than it sounds.  Having something a little more structured than what you propose (and what we’ve tried) seems like the next logical step, no?

  • “People need to know that the key to great community is ‘Get off your ass.’  There’s no shortcut.”  Agreed 100%.

    I acknowledge and share the other concerns you’ve outlined, but in terms of the particular comment I’ve quoted, I’d say that what Andrew is proposing isn’t a shortcut, it’s a support mechanism.

  • I agree with Bing – formalizing and appropriately resourcing this kind of effort is anything but a shortcut.   I see it as a meatspace analogy to the Linux Foundation or Drupal Association – these organizations provide community infrastructure and management that just wouldn’t happen organically.

  • NULL

    One way to think about this is as a collective action problem — are there instances where it is in the general community good to tackle certain problems, but hard for any individual party to capture enough benefits to have enough incentive to take action?  

    From my vantage point, Boulder is lucky to have the equivalent what political scientists in another context call “political entrepreneurs.”  That is, we have a several effective individuals who are able to galvanize collective action.  Andrew is among those at the top of the list.  It is one of the secret sauce reasons that this is a world class place to start a business. It also is critical that we have a culture in which individuals feel a strong sense of ownership in the collective enterprise.  

    I’d ask three questions w/r/t entrepreneurial community and Andrew’s community management idea:  (1) are there collective action problems that are not currently resolved or in danger of being unmet?  (2) is there a new structure that could help resolve these issues better than existing structures; and (3) are there unintended consequences — e.g., people lose the “get off the ass” spirit of ownership in the enterprise — that need to be guarded against?

    With this in mind, on question #1, there are at least two unmet needs that I think will matter over the next 10-20 years.  I’d want to think more about structures.  But as I look out, these are two issues that will matter on a near and long term basis.  

    (1) Boulder should focus not just on attract a stream of creative class talent, but also should focus upon establish cross-regional connections with entrepreneurial communities on a global basis.  This is a hard problem for any individual or one company to resolve.  It strikes me that international connections that are useful for entrepreneurs is a collective action problem that could use help.  

    And (2) We need to focus upon how to connect CU’s best and brightest professors and researchers to the entrepreneurial community.  Over the past 5-7 years, we’ve made a lot of progress in bringing entrepreneurs to campus ( Silicon Flatirons programs like New Tech + Unplugged) and in expanding connections for students to the community (New Venture Challenge — cunvc.org).  In these respects, CU is now among the nation’s leading public universities concerning entrepreneurship.  But we’ve not yet established a culture where our professors’ leading edge research is given rock star status in the community (or even well known), where professors and post docs are consulting with startups/companies, or where graduate students are coming to Boulder to work on research + startups.  We at Silicon Flatirons have started a series this year to begin to tackle this problem.  But it is another issue which is difficult to crack.  Maybe we at Silicon Flatirons can do it with partners like Deming, ATLAS, the Tech Transfer Office, and the community.  But if not, the community should pay attention to it, because CU’s top researchers should be part of the rocket fuel for creative ideas that entrepreneurs take forward. 

    Brad

  • as one of the folks that organized the barcamp boulders, from my perspective, barcamp did not die. it evolved. it evolved into bdnt, and startup weekend, and boulder open coffee, and code and coffee at dojo4, and ruby group, and techstars, and iphonedevcamp, and tedx, and the various other meetups around town. i think joe p. would concur.

    the beauty of these things is it does not take a comittee to get started, it just takes one or two folks w/ passion to kick start and seed the momentum.

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