In the process of creating a brand identity for WeAreYVR, we consulted with the community of startups that the initiative will both serve and represent. Though we primarily set out to inform the branding process with this project, we gathered many opinions about the information the community, its observers, and newcomers need, as well as thoughts on its health and dynamics.
We used several methods to gather input from both individuals and groups, across known connections and anonymous contacts.
We printed six variants of question cards and left them in public and organization locations where members of the startup community work and spend time. Each card had an opening question and unique URL pointing to a mini-survey. The cards did not use the WeAreYVR name in order to avoid any preconceived notions of what was being sought. After about ten days of the printed cards in the wild, we then promoted the questions through the WeAreYVR Twitter account.
The questions in the survey were:
We conducted eight one-on-one interviews with interested participants. Their experience with startups spanned light to fully-involved in both longevity and proportion of their working time. The interviews used the following questions:
We invited about 40 known people of various backgrounds for an evening of consultation. Participants formed rotating groups of about five people each and discussed three different questions, which were shaped by the responses to the earlier surveys and interviews:
The core premise of the WeAreYVR initiative, that the community does not have a comprehensive and quantifiable understanding of itself, was strongly confirmed. Comments about community happenings and conducting operations as a startup spoke to a lack of centralized guidance, and that decentralized sources are simply too disparate and unevenly updated to be considered trustworthy.
How many startups are in Vancouver?
How many people are employed by startups?
How many startups were founded last year?
How many were funded last year?
How many investors are looking for opportunities?
On the qualitative side, we didn't see many clear trends in the kinds of information that people in startups were after, but we did see a trend in wanting to know more about who is out there and what's happening; and, of course, where's the money at:
An additional question about what resources people most immediately need, informational or otherwise, produced a similarly interesting cloud:
Of note in this cloud is the strength of the adjective good. It came up so often as a qualifier that it dominated the cloud. One possible explanation is that participants are experiencing a quality gap, especially in marketing, design, strategy, and advice or guidance. That point correlates somewhat with comments in the individual interviews about talent and quality gaps. It is also possible that people saying they need 'good' talent simply haven't been paying enough for the quality of work they want, a sentiment that surfaced in a minority of the individual interviews.
Opinions on the nature of the startup community are tightly tied to personal experience. Many interview subjects had been drawn to Vancouver, and into the startup community itself, by positive impressions that have played out in reality to varying degrees after investing themselves into the community. Those associated with tech startups tend to find the community less accessible except through peers in their specific domain. In non-technical startups, there was strong evidence of pre-existing business networks that opened up pathways to assistance, resources and advice more easily than for technology startups.
In several cases, people spoke of a zero-sum view that closed off access to collaboration and assistance. That is, in the midst of what is seen as a capital-scarce environment, people were less willing to share network connections and resources for fear of lost opportunities. In other words, "if I help you, I might lose something by doing so because there is so little to go around."" What was common in our individual interviews was contradicted in the roundtable, where one of the most commonly offered resources was connections to personal networks and advice.
Interview subjects tended to map positive attributes to the city itself, and negative attributes to the social and professional habits of individuals. For example, numerous people spoke to the city's natural beauty and quality of life, while admonishing its inhabitants for being lazy and cliquey. They also acknowledge that Vancouver, and by extension its startup community, are younger and live in a place that is still very much an outpost of the mainstream, and as such are somewhat immature.
Interviews revealed a vague sentiment of two tiers in the startup community: those who have made it and those who have not. A small number of companies are the success stories that should be acknowledged, celebrated, but not necessarily modelled. Surprisingly, all examples of startups commanding respect no longer qualify as startups by most of the definitions offered through our questions about when a startup is no longer a startup, but instead have transitioned out of the startup phase. As such, there are no businesses still in the startup stage that are commonly cited as rising stars; instead, people only talk positively about startups where they know people or have worked.
Depending on personal experience, interview subjects expressed a sense of disconnection and of being outsiders who cannot access a closed off core, OR a sense of strong support by an interested community. Regardless of what side of that divide they land on, all participants acknowledge a strong sense of potential and adventure in the startup community, and don't seem likely to give up their involvement any time soon.
Many spoke to a sense of adventure and purpose-finding happening through the startup experience. People choosing this path consciously exist outside the norm of career development. They revel in living this journey with others, cherishing camaraderie with others even if their respective businesses are largely unrelated. The feeling of pushing against the edge of career and craft is exhilarating, and by some measures, a bit addictive.
As a community there appears to be a great sense of happening and liveliness that is tempered by a pervasive frustration with ongoing issues: access to money, access to networks, and talent supplies often come up. And yet, the same resources said by some to be needed were most often offered by others. In short, the community's lack of self-knowledge may be preventing it from helping itself in ways that it can, and wants to.
We can see this by comparing word clouds from the answers to what people need and what they can offer, asked at the same time, in the roundtable consultation. The most common needs are marketing, design, strategy and advice; and in what people offer, those resources are there but not being connected:
Hand-written card answers showed slightly different trends, where we saw a lot of people looking for better access to government information, and many offering access to their personal networks. People are willing to help, but not enough are asking for help or asking in the right place.
There is a strong sense in the community that it has been long-perched at a tipping point towards something bigger, a phase transition to what it knows it can be, feels it deserves to be, and will grow to if only it could take that step. That may be an echo of the cultural codes surrounding startups, and technology startups in particular, where tomorrow is always what we reach for today, but the sense of unfulfilled potential ran throughout technical and non-technical participants.
Access to governmental information about funding, subsidies, and even regulatory advantages were found to be sorely lacking, and some comments carried minor resentment towards those who had enjoyed benefits that are actually available to many businesses. In general the governmental and regulatory climate around startups was seen as advantageous, especially with respect to immigration laws and a civic culture that welcomes newcomers from around the world.
Perhaps the most striking finding is the degree of contradictory perceptions set against the consensus that something good is going on here. We found many people frustrated by ongoing problems such as lack of funding and not knowing where to go for information they know is out there, coupled with strong optimism about the community. Moreover, we found that the things that many people are looking for are the very resources that are available in the community, but that they aren't finding each other as easily as they could. That lack of connection fuels perceptions of opportunity, talent, resource and other deficits that may not actually exist.
Interestingly, we noticed that the assumption that technology workers would naturally be connected to each other at odds with reality. People in technology startups that we spoke with were the most likely to express frustration at a lack of the right connections and access to information that they felt would help their startup.
As noted earlier, there is a strong belief that Vancouver's startups are waiting for a catalyst that will unleash a great deal of latent potential, and from there attract the attention and funding they believe are deserved. We heard the phrase 'if only' more times than we could count, suggesting that there is wide agreement on what we want to know or need, but that an authoritative source needs to assert itself to act as, or to facilitate the formation of that catalyst.
If one metaphor could be used to capture the variety of experiences and sensibilities in play within the startup community, it would be a gold rush, which follows a number of lines:
There's a pride in the risk people take to involve themselves in a startup, and throughout the community they see each other with a sort of respect reserved for those taking a similar risk. While each is trying to find their own fortune, they've bought into a collective dream, living in a city at the edge of a continent and at the edge of growing into something bigger. They are on personal journeys, but also together on a wild ride that sets them apart from the culture at large.
These adventurers tumble together through Gastown, about which interview subjects often noted the juxtaposition of heritage-age buildings with high-tech and big aspirations for the future. The narrow space between buildings crams them together as they tread across interlocking bricks, seeing each other and being seen as they play out these days living their careers as the time of their lives.
That camaraderie is forged in shared adversity and shared dreams, and while chaotic and disorganized and somewhat disconnected, they all feel something is happening. They just want that something to emerge from the shadows and be seen by the whole world.
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Download Roundtable Results