All the reasons why your startup ecosystem portal stucks and what you need to know to make the transition to a non-portal approach
For many years, the Startup Commons team has been invited to take part in different RFP processes and projects to develop and implement startup ecosystem portals with the aim to help navigate ecosystem actors (startups, supporting providers, investors, corporates, mentors, etc) more effectively within the ecosystem, improving the connectivity among them and therefore removing barriers to help anyone get access to the different available resources within the ecosystem.
And while we thanked the invitation, we decided to not participate in the majority of them due to misalignment with our own mission. We, as a company developing interoperability solutions for startup ecosystems, couldn't contribute to creating another silo. It is a matter of principles. When we properly evaluated each of those cases (we want to keep them anonymous for confidentiality reasons), we noticed that those RFPs and project requirements to build startup ecosystem portals had been poorly designed, targeting to develop portal solutions that were not reflecting the logic behind what startups and other actors need, and therefore contributing to a low impact for entrepreneurs and startups. Additionally, the RFPs and projects alike were fully misaligned with the direction the digital world is headed, with the technology, turning their back to the future evolution of the technology, developing short-term vision solutions with old techstack and technology architectures that will end up in inefficiencies or wasted resources. And what is most important, they became useless because information was outdated soon.
Once those startup ecosystem portals were delivered, we proceeded to evaluate their real impact, finding the following problems:
And while these portals became a good marketing tool to provide a good overview of many things, they simply failed in their efforts to serve the main purpose: help ecosystem users navigate within the ecosystem, giving them what they need at the right time.
This bad user experience encouraged the Startup Commons team to dive deeper in this topic so you can learn more about the next generation of online startup ecosystem portals. We simply call it the Non-Portal approach.
Building the startup ecosystem portal use case
First of all, one fundamental thing to understand is that geographical startup ecosystems are very fragile to political changes, where prioritization and maintenance of the supporting infrastructures for innovation and entrepreneurship are often very likely to be politicized. When a new government enters into power, it is very likely that existing strategies, budgets, key people, processes, tools, data and history are at risk to be changed, where significant learning, knowledge and progress will be lost and many things again start from the scratch and therefore ecosystems simply get stuck in their development. Therefore, as a first step, and before any digital development, there should be specific dedicated neutral entity with mandate from all ecosystem key actors, proper resourcing and long term approach, looking at the needs of all sides and representing all the key segments of the ecosystem, to become a neutral custodian of common ecosystem infrastructure and a hub for common information and data sharing, with sole focus for looking at the benefit of the entire ecosystem as a whole. We call it an ecosystem operator.
This ecosystem operator function is missing in the majority of the ecosystems, regardless of their maturity level. There are no sustainable resources defined for such setup, available for ongoing and long term data management and digital development efforts. And a typical reason for this is the lack of digital transition vision along with missing commitment to pursue it. Another related reason that is common in digital transition projects, is the typical separated relationship of “business” and “digital” teams, departments, or organizations. Where a more merged approach is needed for a team, where knowledge and expertise of both sides are embedded in one.
Regarding the startup ecosystem portals, they are also well known under different terminology like startup ecosystem one-stop shop or startup hub. In any case, when you hear an ecosystem deploys a portal, if you’re like an entrepreneur it means you can do everything you need to do for your startup in a single location, getting access to digital services and information offered by different ecosystem actors to help you navigate within the ecosystem easier, faster and finding support for the challenges related to the different stages of the startup journey, from formation to growth.
Entrepreneurs and startups are clearly in need of answers that are relevant to them and their unique circumstances. They are making decisions every single day. They come and go to different places and digital platforms to learn, connect, develop, sell, etc. They interact anytime, anywhere. If we think for a moment the amount of information that is demanded for entrepreneurs developing companies with all kinds of different business models, industries, strategies, people, etc, then it becomes clear that data is definitely a key asset that must be unlocked and properly managed. Therefore, with such reality, what should it be built to really help entrepreneurs, startups and other ecosystem actors?
Let’s reflect back for a while to review and understand some past portal approaches in order to understand what to build for the present and future:
The most basic portal - Yahoo!
The first and most recognizable portal I remember is the original Yahoo!, which had a directory view, in which the same information was provided to everyone and “forcing” users to navigate to find the information they need.
The Search Engine Approach
Google is the maximum exponent for this approach, providing users direct answers based on the questions (search queries) they make, with additional effort of trying to match the results based on the profile they can have on the user (language, location, search history, etc.) Users come to get answers when they have first identified that they have a question and know how to formulate that question, i.e. know the right keywords to ask
The Social Network Approach
And more recently, we have the social network approach, with Facebook as the clear example, with its ability to distribute/target messages with great (questionable) accuracy to users where they already are based on their profile and patterns, regardless if they have already identified or formulated the question.
With the previous references in mind, as a simple thought exercise, imagine an entrepreneur with a question that she/he can't even clearly formulate. Now imagine that via analogy of a medical condition and trying to find a useful answer via a portal with filtering type of intelligence without proper search. Now imagine being able to search via Google compared to that. It’s definitely better, but still far from what you would like to do, compared to if you could consult a real doctor with related subject matter expertise. And likely, you would definitely not want such sensitive information to be shared in Facebook to have such a public forum to collect your data and provide answers by drug companies or only commercial services that can afford to target you (pay for ads for you to pay for service you will get). But nevertheless the way you would like to get suggestions for actions to take would be optimal to get suggestions based on your profile without needing to know what to ask and whom. But naturally in such a way that you are not actually sharing your profile outside of your control and without being able to control what messages from who can even reach you (mute those that are not useful).
That’s the kind of experience we are visualizing. Entrepreneurs and startups should get responses for their ventures based on their local context, history, profile, achieved milestones, etc. and even getting responses and services without the startup having to ask or request a specific service, simply because there is intelligence that tracks them based on the ecosystem interactions and startups progress.
When considering solutions to cope with these challenges, we often see that key principles are missing or were not taken into account during the process to design the RFP/project. These principles are key in order to make sure that the collaborative and open nature of ecosystems is encapsulated by any solution that is implemented and deployed for the ecosystem, making sure that everyone is benefiting:
Transition to Non-Portal Approach
While we understand that perfect solutions don’t exist, the points mentioned above are not inconsequential, being enough to flag them here so that can be taken into account for similar future initiatives and also find additional inspiration by some insights for improvements below:
Ecosystems have a long way to go to activate this digital transition for ecosystem orchestration but it is definitely the right approach. However the decisions should have been made five years ago. We just have to look at when other industries like finance, telecom, healthcare, transportation, etc. started and how they are unlocking innovative cross-functional solutions by enabling interoperability.
This is the big void we are covering with ecosystemOS and I believe this is where we can best be in the world, helping ecosystem builders and operators to design, develop and deploy use case driven technology solutions, step by step, to enable interoperability and information exchange within and between ecosystems to help them make quick, secure and efficient decisions.
It's not Jules Verne's world. It is already happening. Reach out to us to find out how to start.
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