I recently had the privilege to attend a Q&A session with Techstars founder David Cohen at the Florida State University School of Social Entrepreneurship. Techstars is a startup network, accelerator, and venture capital firm, dedicated to helping startups succeed and proving that you don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to create a successful tech startup.
With a portfolio that includes Uber, Twilio, and DigitalOcean, Techstars model has experienced overwhelming success.
Techstars is based in Boulder, Colorado and has expanded into cities all over the world. Techstars operates on a “give first” ethos, which means they help others whenever possible, create a virtuous cycle, and appreciate the help of others. Although this model isn’t successful in all cities, it has worked in partnership with some really big corporations, such as Disney and Barclays.
At the Q&A, Cohen reiterated that entrepreneurship is about remaking the world. One of these ways is by teaching corporate America that giving first works.
Cohen acknowledged in his talk that “giving first” is proven by the open-source software world. This view is opposing to the popular idea that businesses are successful when they hoard their proprietary information and destroy their competitors. It was inspiring to see a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist talk about how much better it is to be giving than to act like a shark terrified to be caught in a tank.
This is fairly obvious to me as a member of the WordPress community, where we start by helping others — whether that be by speaking at or organizing WordCamps and Meetups, contributing to core, or putting our code on GitHub to share. That said, I learned a lot from his talk, partially due to the setting — it was a room largely filled with college students with an interest in entrepreneurship.
It also left me with a lot of questions about how I can “give first” and help to build a better, stronger WordPress community. Similarly, it also made me think about how the WordPress community can better nurture itself. This is one of those articles that is long on question marks and short on answers.
Cohen kept coming back to the idea of staying focused on your problem, not your current solution. This is an important mindset to have: Solutions come and go, but knowing that you have a problem to solve sparks innovation and improves the community, even if the solution isn’t obvious.
Giving First Must Be Explained
I can’t speak for every culture, but American culture, especially in the business world, preaches the value of aggressiveness and taking what is yours by any means necessary. Movies like The Wolf of Wall Street both celebrate and apologize for this type of thinking.
But while this may be the norm, it’s not the only way. I always go back to the book Give and Take by Adam Grant. His thesis states that those who give strategically tend to rise to the top in all measurable ways of success. He does acknowledge that sociopaths like Jordan Belfort, whose life is dramatically portrayed in The Wolf of Wall Street can also be very successful monetarily. Strategy, however, takes a special sort of damage and doesn’t deliver the same rewards that come with enriching the lives of others.
Giving in a meaningful way that is likely to strengthen your community requires orienting oneself around a “paying it forward” philosophy. It works for individuals and companies of any size, as can be seen within the WordPress community and the TechStars network.
This requires a constant process of orientation around these values. Cohen pointed out that tech communities don’t really have one leader, and we all must spread the values together.
The same is true for WordPress. We have leaders, but not everyone walks in through the same door. It’s up to all of us to show “the WordPress way,” not just because it’s how the community operates, but because it provides tangible evidence of just how well it operates.
Pipeline Problems Require Early Intervention
On the topic of building a startup community in a small city like Tallahassee, where I live, and on increasing diversity in the tech world, Cohen talked about the power of internships, creating heroes from diverse backgrounds, and being conscious of imagery.
Techstars has internship and apprenticeship programs for applicants who are not ready for their program but show promise. Matching inexperienced, high-potential people with more experienced entrepreneurs and developers is a way to ensure that there is a constant flow of new talent into the network.
In the WordPress world, like most parts of the tech industry, it can be hard for new people to feel like they belong. This can lead to imposter syndrome, which is especially prevalent among those who come from underrepresented backgrounds. Making a concerted effort in our community to include new people with a willingness to give, while also teaching the value of paying it forward and other important components of the WordPress way will help ensure that we continue to grow.
Our community constantly encourages people to build their own products and to be entrepreneurs, but do we provide training and mentorship for entrepreneurs?
When I attended WordCamp Las Vegas this year, Devin Walker of WordImpress gave an impactful talk on monetizing WordPress plugins and creating a profitable business around them. We haven’t seen enough of these talks, however, I do see this changing in recent times. Education is a good start, but we need more of it, and more mentorship as well.
Cohen talked about the fact that internships are an opportunity to show people as early as possible that being a developer or entrepreneur is a possibility. At Techstars they do mini-internships for eighth graders. These one-day internships show kids what it means to create your own job.
Inspiring people is important, but increasing diversity in the industry and empowering people to feel as though they, too, can be successful entrepreneurs is also critical.
Cohen mentioned the need to do both overt and big things, like their Techstars Foundation, whose mission is to increase diversity — to have mentors who are women or part of other underrepresented groups. He also talked about the seemingly small things that have a big impact, like website imagery. Cohen said they used to have an image on their front-page of entrepreneurs on stage that was almost entirely white men. It wasn’t intentional, but it reinforces unconditional biases, which they are becoming more cognizant of when selecting imagery.
Does WordPress project an image that our events and community are inclusive of people from all walks of life? This is something we need to be mindful of as WordPress continues to grow to ensure that we bring non-English speakers and people from developing countries and emerging economies into our leadership, events, and our supportive entrepreneurship network.
Don’t Forget Your Other Communities
The Q&A with Cohen also reminded me that I invest myself more in the WordPress community than the local tech community here in Tallahassee. This is something to consider next time I want to grow my team. I’m more likely to hire within my WordPress network, probably on Twitter or some other online medium, but is this best for the local economy?
I want to remake the world so it is feasible for me to own a home here in Tallahassee and run a tech startup here as well. The remote work model makes that possible in many ways, but it doesn’t really help my local community.
Although there are very few WordPress people in Tallahassee, hiring high-potential interns or junior developers from the local colleges and training programs can help me build a local network of WordPress developers and strengthen the larger WordPress community. It can help make my city a better place to do what I do. Along with the joint efforts of other people working to make Tallahassee a tech hub, it could change the community over time for the better.
Be In Love With A Problem
Too often when talking to people who have a great idea for a product, they don’t actually know what problem it’s solving. Similarly, if I ask them who they are solving this problem for, the only honest answer they can give is “me.” This is a bad approach to take, but it’s not as bad as being too in love with a solution to a problem that you lose site of the problem itself.
Cohen talked about how when he first met the Uber team they were trying to solve the problem of how to afford all the cars they would need to power a car sharing service. Luckily, they stayed focused on the actual problem Uber was out to solve “there are too many cars on the road” and they moved on to a new solution — making it easier to get a cab.
Remember, Uber was originally called UberCab and was an efficient way to get a cab or a livery cab. That didn’t get them to where they are today. They stayed focused on the problem they set out to solve and evolved into a personal car sharing company. They continue to experiment with self-driving cars and other ways to reduce the need for having so many cars on the road.
I’m a programmer, too, but I often have trouble identifying the problem and solution. As fun as it is to write code, if it’s going to be a product, it has to solve a problem. More importantly, if the product is going to be successful, you can’t be in love with your first solution. Be nimble and let it evolve.
WordPress and WordPress plugins and themes have a fanatical commitment to backwards compatibility, which is part of the reason WordPress is so successful. That said, this tends to lock us into a solution, which we iterate on for better or worse.
But when is it time to start over and solve the same problem better? I don’t know the answer to this question. Starting over, while still supporting the old, totally different version is a challenge that not everyone has the resources for. If a redo solves the end-users problem’s better, most of them will get over the migration hassle or dropping support for the old version.
Community, Like Software, Requires Iteration
WordPress is amazing for several reasons. It challenges and empowers us to reshape our own worlds to better fit our own unique needs while giving back to the community. The WordPress economy has fairly low barriers to entry and when you do it right, you enter into an incredibly supportive network of talented and aspiring entrepreneurs.
When we emulate those who came before us in this space, we have an opportunity to succeed. But, we still have to iterate, and stay nimble and stay focused on the problem we set out to solve.