We’re entering age of cloud-based startup ecosystems: Here’s what that means

Everyone knows the Silicon Valley model of startup ecosystems: regions worldwide have sought to replicate it ever since. But startup ecosystems are moving to the cloud, where community and resources can be sourced globally. This has powerful implications.

Some key success factors remain intact. Ecosystems still need a high density of entrepreneurs, investors and mentors; strong, engaged institutions of higher education; frequent activities; strong networks; and a generous culture of “giving back,” particularly from successful entrepreneurs. But, for key stakeholder communities, the shift to cloud-based startup ecosystems changes much else.

Entrepreneurs: They need a stronger focus on digital soft skills, each with evolving best practices. Are you actively learning how to build and lead virtual teams? Thinking about how remote pitches can be shorter, more dynamic, more effective as “stories”? Choosing virtual events more intentionally, setting goals for participation and assessing your performance? Crucially, in this remote, low-trust era, are you intentionally building trust through every interaction?

When talent can be anywhere, leadership becomes tougher. You need to select people who can thrive in virtual environments, where it’s harder to work around a key individual’s failings. And onboarding is more important, because there’s less in-person culture-building. Across the business, you need clearer expectations and greater accountability.

Investors:  They are competing with more funding sources, locally and globally. To access the best deals early, you must work harder to clarify your competitive differentiators — and make sure they’re compelling to the entrepreneurs you target. Step up efforts to support entrepreneurs who move into your region but recognize that the era of investors living near their portfolio companies may be ending.

Five months into the pandemic, 86% of surveyed investors had already closed a deal “100% virtually.” You’ll need to evaluate new opportunities faster and more efficiently; and if geography matters less, being your sector’s smartest, most valuable money matters more.

Higher ed: COVID-19 and the cloud turned the world upside down. Institutions went remote almost overnight and faced new questions about their value when everyone looks like Zoom U. A robust entrepreneurial program can help you attract students, faculty and the community, and build robust networks that sustain you. It can also enable new funding streams through partnerships, tech transfer spinouts and licensing.

Nurture student entrepreneurship by linking it with broader digital ecosystems. By doing so, you widen networks of successful alumni who’ll pay it forward by helping you and your ecosystem succeed. Address diversity and inclusion by clearing paths for nascent entrepreneurs from local and national underserved communities as well as attracting immigrant talent from around the globe. Stand up more sandboxes, bootcamps and accelerators; and mix on-campus and online components in new ways. As you do all this, you build crucial digital soft skills, becoming more agile and collaborative throughout your institution — and beyond.

Governments: They must still control costs. But being competitive isn’t just about tax rates. If it were, Denmark wouldn’t be one of the planet’s most entrepreneur-friendly nations. Look for other ways to give entrepreneurs flexibility to start, grow, exit, repeat and give back. Make it easier to leverage your resources on demand.

When people can work anywhere, they’ll work where they want to be. So, focus relentlessly on quality of life, as rising generations define it. That means schools, culture, diversity, inclusion, transportation, safety, amenities and innovation.

Established corporations: They always have been crucial to startup ecosystems — from HP in California to Bell Labs in New Jersey. They’re still important, but they must resist continuing temptations to reduce innovation funding. Many will face the challenge of balancing local investment with seeking opportunities in emerging innovation hubs. Both offer value, but, as workforces disperse, a company’s sense of being a key local stakeholder may further deteriorate.

Companies will need to be intentional about maintaining socially positive, productive relationships with valuable existing ecosystems, even as they seek virtual opportunities elsewhere.

Entrepreneurial ecosystems: In going virtual, they risk feeling more amorphous, so organizations that prioritize building active communities become even more crucial. These include nonprofits that link emerging entrepreneurs to mentors, advisers, funding and talent. But those organizations will also have to evolve — for instance, running smaller, more frequent events, and experimenting with hybrid digital/in-person offerings.

As ecosystems float free of geographies, deep, rich community grows ever more urgent. Cloud-based startup ecosystems help you access innovation worldwide, but you’ll only get what you put into them. They require more intentional effort — but it can pay off handsomely.