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Oct 07

Community – A Common Thread

Posted by: Mark Solon        
 

It’s hard to believe it’s been a month since I’ve returned from sabbatical with my family this summer and that this is my first contribution to our blog since I returned. Our travels surpassed all of our expectations and it was truly a life-changing experience for all of us.  Many friends have asked what the highlights or favorite part of our experience was and it’s really hard for me to answer that question. It wasn’t any particular country or place we visited. What I’ll remember forever are 1) the wonderful people we met 2) how happy they were, despite many of them having far less (as westerners would define it) than most of the poorest people in developed nations and 3) watching my children turn into young adults before my eyes.

The beautiful children of Chres Village Orphanage

Our service projects were coordinated through GlobeAware, an incredible organization that organizes and leads volunteer work projects. In Southeast Asia, most of our work was in small remote villages.  Among other things, we spent a good deal of time with and helped children in an orphanage with their English and geography, dug a well for a family without access to clean water, assembled and donated wheelchairs to landmine and polio victims, worked with high school students to build a classroom and helped teach English to adults in evening classes.

Clean water for a family in Cambodia

Building a foundation for a classroom in Laos

Everywhere we traveled in Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam), we were treated warmly by everyone we met. We always felt safe and left with a renewed sense that America genuinely represents a shining beacon of hope for people in faraway places. That feeling was reinforced when we moved on to Africa and found ourselves in a small village in the northern region of Ghana. While there, we lived with and worked alongside the local villagers to build a washroom facility (completely lacking beforehand) for their tin-roofed cinder block community center, once again through GlobeAware.

Carrying materials to build a washroom in Ghana

It was during our time in Ghana that I became aware of a common thread throughout our travels: the smaller and more remote the village that we spent time in, the greater the sense of community that we observed (and felt a part of).  While these villages lacked the most basic needs that we so easily take for granted (clean & easily accessible water, anything remotely resembling modern healthcare, food beyond what is farmed, etc.), they were inhabited by some of the happiest people we’ve ever met. Everyone waved and smiled at one another, singing and laughter filled our ears, and greetings were long and genuine with elaborate handshakes.  We learned that crime is virtually non-existent in these small villages and poor behavior not tolerated because of the shame it would bring on one’s family. Lastly, it seems that everyone cooperates and helps each other with their day-to-day struggles.

Community, Ghana Style

As a result, I’ve been spending a good amount of my alone time pondering the importance and impact of community in our lives (both during and since our trip) and (as it relates to work) how it can positively impact startups in places like Boise or other smaller markets. Having had a front row seat for the past few years to the phenomenon that is TechStars, one need look no further than what David Cohen and Brad Feld have fostered in that program to see the positive impact a sense of community can have on the success of young startups.

David and Brad didn’t invent the idea of a collaborative effort to help startups. On the contrary, the landscape is littered with dozens of incubators and accelerators that have come and gone. What David and Brad did differently was instill a strong sense of community into the equation and the results have been nothing short of staggering. Not only did they assemble an incredibly talented group of mentors to assist the startups in the program and convince them to devote valuable time and resources to the companies, but perhaps more importantly, they fostered an environment of community among the Founders (as the entrepreneurs are referred to) and Mentors that reminds me of the small villages we stayed in during our travels.

Community, TechStars style

For instance, in the TechStars bunker (where all of the Founders work and practically live together during the program) both Founders and visiting Mentors are quickly inculcated with that strong sense of community. If one company is having a coding problem, others quickly jump in to help out. Expertise and rolodexes are shared, friendships are forged through all-nighters and fun-filled stress relieving blowouts, and incredibly tight bonds are created between them that transcend traditional business relationships and carry well beyond graduation day.

I’m not sure that David and Brad could have imagined just how special TechStars would become when they set out, but to their credit they’ve moved quickly to try to capture the magic they’ve created and share it by publishing a book called “Do More Faster” (the Yoda-inspired mantra of Techstars). They’ve reached out to a host of Founders and Mentors and collected short stories from each in an effort to help guide the next generation of young entrepreneurs.  The book is an extraordinary collection and is wonderfully edited (with great insight and wit) and annotated by David and Brad. The book really is a must-read for entrepreneurs or anyone trying to create an innovative ecosystem in their own town or city. As a Mentor in the Boulder program, I’m very honored that they asked me to contribute to the book and I wrote a short piece on the importance of following your heart, not your head when it comes to your career.

At Highway 12 Ventures, we’ve been lucky to invest in three TechStars companies (Everlater, Sendgrid & Kapost) and we’re very excited about the prospects for each of them. Nate, Natty, Isaac, Jose, Tim, Toby and Mike are the fabulous founders we’ve backed and they all swear by their time in the bunker.  They’ve shared their stories with us about the strong sense of community they enjoy with everyone involved in the program and I know they all feel lucky to have been a part of it. I encourage you to buy the book and continue to follow the TechStars story through various social media outlets or their website and remember, “Do or do not, there is not try!”

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10 Responses to “Community – A Common Thread”

  1. avatar Tac says:

    Mark,
    Amazing post my friend. Probably one of your best. I've ordered my book and can't wait to catch up with you next time I'm in Boise.

    • avatar Mark Solon says:

      Thanks so much pal. You are missed in Boise my friend. Still looking for the answer to "Who's going to be the next Tac Anderson?"

  2. Mark,
    What makes you different the rest of them is your willingness and courage to do the hard work to define your voice and then take the time share your leanings. I know I am appreciative of the effort you willingness to share your world with the rest of us. To anyone reading this, don't underestimate the effort and time it takes to be social in a thoughtful way. Anyone can tell spout out "I just had the greatest chicken soup"… but it is work to actually say something of meaning in today's social world.

    Well done Mark….

  3. avatar Mark Solon says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to say this Jonathon, I really appreciate the kind words…

  4. avatar @codyboyte says:

    Great article Mark. Especially the connection back to creating founder communities.

    I too have found the 'small community' effect to have a huge impact on happiness of people involved. The size of the community seems to effect people's happiness irrelevant of their monetary standing.

    I spent the summer in Grenada where the average income is around $8000 a year. The whole country is around 100,000 people and nearly everyone in each town knows each other well. They were all really happy and very giving people. The other end of the spectrum is the disincentive to engage with and treat others well in huge cities like Los Angeles where the average person doesn't interact with the same person twice. From my experience living there, most people are significantly less happy unless they've created or become part of a much smaller community within that city. Even then, the daily interactions with people who are likely to take advantage of them colors and changes their daily experience.

    Thanks for the article.

    • avatar Mark Solon says:

      Cody, Couldn't agree more. It's counter-intuitive to the way we're taught to think but it seems that the smaller the community, the happier people really are, regardless of what they "have". Kudos to you for spending time out of the country and gaining an appreciation for these things and thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with me.

  5. avatar slcaruso says:

    Awesome – simply awesome Mark. I love the powerful understanding of community…it's the thread that connects us all, whether we're building entrepreneur ecosystems or a school house.

  6. avatar Mark Solon says:

    Or building the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the mountain west, which you contribute so much to! Thanks for all you do here in the region Scott, we're lucky to have you…

  7. avatar Jill Linsenberg says:

    Beautifully written and so moving. Proud to call you my brother.

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