What Makes a Community?

I normally write articles that carry a bit of authority. I usually write what I know about and have a high degree of confidence writing. I don’t write often because I want what I do write to carry authority and be hard-hitting.

This is not really one of those articles.

I haven’t done what people like Alex Hillman has done in creating collaborative working environments for independent entrepreneurs at Independent’s Hall in Philadelphia.

I haven’t been an organizer and champion of city-wide entrepreneurship like Josh Baer has in Austin.

I haven’t fostered a product community like they have over at StudioPress with the Genesis Framework.

What I have done is work within the context of a thriving WordPress community of developers, users, consultants and advocates.

I have lived in a city that has made it’s name on entrepreneurship and arts in Austin.

I have helped and supported entrepreneurs in their quest to build products in DC and find ways of succeeding both with and without investment money.

Moving Back to Baltimore

For some weeks now, I’ve made it clear that I’ve decided to move back from Austin to Baltimore. In 2008, I left Baltimore because I saw awesome things developing in technology in DC. At the time, there were guys like Peter Corbett who was just beginning to do technology advocacy work in the Nation’s Capital. By 2009, iStrategyLabs would launch the first Apps for Democracy contest that challenged contestants to create web and mobile applications with civic intent. That would morph into similar contest like Apps for America, etc.

You would also see some organizations that would flare out dramatically because of business model, ideas, weak leadership, lack of community involvement, etc.

I would then move to Austin where I would see a city immersed in technology. Lots of money flowing. Lots of incubator action, such as the products and entrepreneurs who would be graduated from the Capital Factory incubator. I would see ATX Startup Crawl occur several times a year as guests would have the opportunity to move around town and visit some of the great startups like TabbedOut, InfoChimps, uShip and more. Thousands of people would come through these offices and see the great technologies and ideas being built, all while enjoying local Texas beers and eats.

I would see awesome projects like We Are Austin Tech highlight influencers in that community (including myself) come up.

And I watched Baltimore grow as a technology community to the point where DC entrepreneurs started paying attention to their up and coming little brother 45 mins up I-95. I watched from afar as Dave Troy would put his heart and soul into building Baltimore as a center of entrepreneurship and tech. I’d watch as Greg Cangialosi would build his Blue Sky Factory marketing firm out and have a successful acquisition, all while continuing to personally invest more in the Baltimore scene.

I even watched great tragedies like the systematic destruction of Advertising.com by Aol.

I watched this all over the last 4 years and realized Baltimore was coming into it’s own. It had successes. It had failures. It had investors. It had bootstrap. It’s still not entirely cohesive, but from my seat, it looks promising.

So I’ve decided to move back to my home and put my money where my mouth is and see if I can take what I’ve gleaned from DC and Austin and apply it here in Baltimore. I may be one of those failures. Or I may not be, but I’ve got to try.

What Makes a Successful Community?

In the last few weeks, I’ve had several conversations with Baltimore business owners and entrepreneurs, and I’m finding a common question and point of discussion: What makes a successful community? The answers and opinions are intriguing. Again, I can’t say my opinion carries any authority. What I can say, however, is I’ve been in a bunch of communities and witnessed elements of success.

Some folks think a successful business community requires investors who are willing to commit their time and money. Anyone who has gone through the fundraising process knows that hands on investors are the best kind. If a VC or Angel investor can help a portfolio company supplement resources (human capital or otherwise) through their network, they bring quite a bit of upside to a startup. Investors who wire money and never pay attention to their portfolio companies, expecting the founders to execute according to plan, are in my opinion bad investors.

So in this light, some entrepreneurs here in Baltimore find the lack of investment money or engaged investors as detrimental to the community.

On the flip side of the coin, some entrepreneurs seem to be thinking that the mark of a good startup community is going to be in the number of entrepreneurs who are able to successfully bootstrap. There is some validity to this claim as well. The more you can do on your own, the less of your company you’re giving away (as I noted in the “Valleyboys” segment of this article a few weeks ago).

However, there is also value in bootstrapping and taking money, if the situation is right.

Other folks I’ve talked to feels the value is in the number of people attend professional meetups compounded by the sheer number of meetups. In Austin, we have a vibrant meetup community. From the Austin WordPress meetup to Austin on Rails to Austin Lean Startup to Refresh Austin and the list goes on.

My opinion is that a city startup community is built on all these things. It’s not money, really. Money will follow success. Perhaps Baltimore needs to have an IPO or high profile acquisition that allows the company to continue to operate and hire in Baltimore to put them on the map and in the conversation. I don’t really think it’s that, per se, but that certainly helps.

It would help if the State of Maryland was more business-friendly to small businesses, as Texas is. People come to Texas, and more specifically Austin, from California and New York because the environment is notably friendly to small business. More business would be created in Maryland with better business policy. It might even attract out of state growth.

Beyond that though, meetups are important but meetups don’t create value if the conversations end at the meetup. The idea of building something – a prototype – as you might get out of a Startup Weekend is good… if it continues afterwards from prototype to business product.

But I think the biggest thing that makes community grow is collaboration and the willing to share ideas without being defensive, sharing resources without being possessive, sharing physical space without being prohibitive. It takes more that an entrepreneurs flying solo behind his Macbook Pro in a coffee shop, but it takes less than structured office space with prohibitive managerial org charts.

It doesn’t take sacrificing lifestyle on the altar of work, but it does take entrepreneurs willing to gut out ideas by working with other entrepreneurs and customers and transparently sharing war stories of success and failure while helping to mentor others new to the space.

It does takes the karmaic “pay it forward” approach without fiefdoms and regional rivalries to ensure that a rising tide raises all ships. What you put in to other companies you have no direct stake in, but can help with informal advice (when solicited) makes for a circle of life that encourages a community to exceed expectations and move from one level to the next. Mentorship is not an ROI term, but it is critical to the ecosystem.

Am I off-base in my thinking here?

SXSWi at the Austin Convention Center

Working SXSW (And How I Will Be Hired)

SXSW Interactive is now over and with it comes a big long exhale. For those who were here who I saw, it is always good to catch up and meet new people. For those I missed, let’s connect online somewhere.

This year I came with one goal in mind: to find a job. I didn’t come for the parties. I didn’t come for the constant, lame fist pumping and business card sluttery. I came to find a job. To that end, I did not get a badge. That may seem counter-intuitive but, in fact, worked tremendously in my favor. Every day of the event, I tracked down people who I thought could help me in some way. Shameless? Perhaps. The reality is that karma is always something that goes around.

Photo by AllAboutGeorge on Flickr

I’m not about to do the namedrop thing where I list everyone I talk to. That’s lame and it’s really no one’s business but mine. But what I do want to address what I do because, as much as I have been a public face, there are a lot of public faces and it’s become clear over the past few months that a lot of people really have no idea what I do or what I want to do. They want to help, but when all I can be introduced to an executive at a company as, “a really famous blogger,” then there is a disconnect in my own personal messaging. As more companies are discovering that I am on the market, they really want to know what I’m about.

In short, my official bio can be summed up as: “I am a business-savvy author and PHP developer who has led development teams, managed technical product lifecycles and have built up enough social capital and marketing prowess to put any agency to shame.”

In greater detail, I come from a PHP development background having coded for the last 10 years. I still do that. As part of that, I have been part of the WordPress community as a core contributor for years and have built a reputation as a high-end WordPress “data guy” (as opposed to a design guy). I build plugins and do architecture stuff, for the uninitiated. I have led development teams. Remotely. Which is hard to do. We built products for the internal growth, analytics and monitoring of our company and for our investors. Very nimble, very small, very distributed teams.

Somewhere in the past five years, I became a marketer. Not really because I don’t have a degree in communications and I don’t really do marketing. But I know how to do marketing well and can run circles around Agency types who like to ask, “Do you have Agency experience?” and then don’t want to talk because I don’t. Son, I could school your entire Agency.

I came to SXSW to find a job. Specifically, I came to find a job in Austin or a job where I could at least move to Austin. I have several solid leads from the resulting conversations and introductions. I did it by being real and not trying to be someone bigger than I am. I did it by acknowledging my own strengths. And my own weaknesses. I didn’t get caught up in the scene. It’s a distraction.

As a result, for the first time in four years, my SXSW experience was better during the day than at night during all the parties.

I don’t know if I will find the technical job with a business and public-side interface that I’m looking for. But I do know that there are people now who know that I can run a development team to build a kickass product that is going to need the grassroots, public-facing social capital that I’ve built up. I think I met a few this week. Here’s to hoping.

Julia Allison, Brittany Bohnet and Randi Zuckerberg at SXSW 2009

Your SXSW Survival Guide

Next week begins the 2010 edition of South by Southwest (SXSW) with the Interactive and Film festivals. This will be followed in the following week by the legendary music festival. As a veteran of SXSW (This will be my fourth year), let me share my tips from a Pro standpoint. Mind you, these tips are an aggregation of lessons learned over the years. Many new people come every year, and most have no idea what to expect. You can review my SXSW power tips from last year.

Parties

SXSW is known less for it’s sessions and more for its parties. For better or for worse, the best networking and results come out of the parties. It is not a drunk fest like many think it is. Okay, it can be. But generally, it’s just a bunch of industry folks catching up with each other, enjoying the early Texas spring night times, having some drinks, blowing off steam and rebuilding relationships. Good business comes out of good relationships.

Julia Allison, Brittany Bohnet and Randi Zuckerberg at SXSW 2009

As a veteran, I am constantly asked if I can take newbies under my wings and guide them. Let me be unequivocally clear: No. I cannot. I will not. Now that that’s out of the way, understand that there are 10,000 people wandering around for SXSW. There is plenty to do and my agenda won’t be everyone’s agenda. RSVP for any party you think you might go to and blaze your own path.

Alcohol

There are more than enough opportunities for free booze. It is not hard to take advantage of this. It’s also not hard to get drunk and all. Be very careful. Maintain your buzz. Don’t get drunk. If you get drunk, you run a chance of being hungover the next day. That ruins the next day. Then you’re likely to get drunk again the next night. Instead, maintain your buzz. If you absolutely have to get wasted, wait for the last night before you go home (You didn’t get a 7am flight, did you?). It’s much easier to maintain a flatline than to have the up and down effect of multiple drunken nights and the impending hungover day.

Meet People

This is somewhat cliché but I swear, if you come to SXSW looking for someone to introduce you to people, then you’re going to be disappointed. You get out of SXSW what you put into it. Don’t rely on someone else to make your trip productive. Get outside of your industry. Get outside your comfort zone. I’ve heard SXSW described as the one event where the attendees come to see attendees, not speakers. Go meet people. Say hi to Guy Kawasaki. Don’t say hi to Loren Feldman. ;-)

You Can’t Be Everywhere, You Can’t Meet Everyone

So don’t try.

Hotels and Lodging

At this point, it’s too late to get a hotel near the convention center. Rent a car and stay out by the airport, but realize you’ll pay cab fees or the car rental – depending on your choice. While hotels are cheaper, you will make up for it in travel. And it can be darn inconvenient in the evening. If you know people who are going, pay them to sleep on their hotel room floors if you can. It’s uncomfortable but probably worth it. Don’t ask me. I’ve already got similar arrangements.

Anything else? Veterans? More tips to add. Add them in comments below.