I just returned from a week in Cincinnati to attend the 2016 Techstars America Summit.
The Techstars America Summit brings together Startup Digest Curators, Startup Next Organizers, Startup Week Organizers, Startup Weekend Organizers & Facilitators to build ideas, discuss future visions, share experiences, and strengthen the startup community builders network across the continent.
At the summit, I had the opportunity to share my story of how Startup Digest has changed the direction of my life and changed the direction of the Houston startup community with the other community leaders. I want to expand on what I shared at the summit with the hopes that it will inspire other tech entrepreneurs to get involved in leadership positions in your local communities.
First, You Might be Asking: What is the Startup Digest?
Those of you who subscribe to your local city’s Startup Digest events digest are familiar with what we do to some extent. The majority of people reading this probably haven’t heard of the Startup Digest — which now has over 700 curators volunteering their time around the world and almost 900,000 subscribers. The purpose of the Startup Digest is twofold: first, we have our local city events digests, which is a weekly, curated list of the best tech startup events in your city; second, our reading lists digests, which cover specific topics in technology startups including young entrepreneurship, product and customer development, women entrepreneurs, and many more.
The History of Startup Digest
2015 — Techstars acquired UP Global
How I Became Part of this Organization
Cory Levy launched the digest in Houston at the beginning of 2010, but shortly thereafter, he was accepted into a graduate program in another state. Digests have to be curated by local tech founders, and so Cory put out a search for a new Houston curator early that spring.
Around the same time, I had only been back to work after an 18 month break to become a mother for a few months when I also found myself going through a divorce. My business partner at the time, Erica O’Grady, told me about Cory’s search for a new curator and she suggested I have coffee with him and ask him if he’d show me how to curate the Houston Startup Digest. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but after a 30–45 minute meeting with Cory over coffee — I found myself saying yes. And so, I became the Houston Startup Digest curator.
Chris and Brendan worked closely with me and the other curators, training us to evaluate the difference between quality events that would help our tech founders and events that wouldn’t benefit startup founders. This was tough because many people in Houston wanted to include small business and non-tech entrepreneurial events. There are also many misconceptions about what a tech startup is and what tech founders need in terms of education and networking opportunities — and back then, Houston’s startup community was much smaller than it is today, with very few events and programs for tech entrepreneurs. There were many weeks that I didn’t send out a digest because there weren’t any events.
I found myself facing a lot of criticism and conflict that I hadn’t expected.
Fortunately, Chris and Brendan had my back. They made sure I felt confident in how I responded to the critics to educate people on why it was vital to the health of our startup community to maintain a strong focus on quality over quantity. As a result of their clear vision with a focus on consistency of quality, the Startup Digest has continued to provide a quality, locally-curated digest that focuses on the needs of tech founders in over 300 cities around the world.
Our target audience is and always has been the founders and co-founders at tech startups. I was trained to listen to what other local founders were telling me were the best events. Because I’m also a tech founder, I can relate and understand what my fellow entrepreneurs are struggling with, what they’re learning and seeking to learn, and what is helping us grow our startups. Originally, curators were required to be tech founders or co-founders for this very reason. Even now, a curator has to be an active participant in their local startup community to be accepted into the program.
It’s really true that the best way to make a leader is to give someone a leadership role — at least, that’s what happened for me.
As a volunteer of the Startup Digest, I have never had a budget to market and promote the digest. The only way to get the word out that this weekly event newsletter existed was by me going out and attending the events in town to find the Houston tech founders and tell them about it. This gave me a reason go to the local events and talk to people I didn’t know. This sense of purpose gave me the confidence to seek out new people and new experiences that I would have missed out on otherwise.
Kansas City, Kauffman Foundation and the Growth Phase
A few months after I took on this new role, I received an invitation from Chris and Brendan to fly to Kansas City, MO for the first ever organizers & curators summit, called the Startup Organizers Summit. At the summit, I connected with dozens of other curators and StartupWeekend organizers: all of whom were passionate entrepreneurs seeking to build their own startup or working at one. I felt very out of place early on and felt inspired listening to the stories of how tech founders were out there changing the world. I learned more that week than I had learned in my entire life about what it means to start up.
I also learned about Startup Weekend and was “peer pressured” by the other community leaders to bring this event to Houston. Again — I had no idea what I was saying yes to, but my instincts told me that I needed to listen to these people who were clearly miles ahead of our Houston startup community members, including myself. Joey Pomerenke, who was a Startup Weekend facilitator at the time, invited me to the Dallas Startup Weekend so he could train me on how to run an event. Startup Weekend had a requirement for organizers to have participated and/or volunteered to co-organize a prior event before they could lead and I would need this training before I could become a Houston organizer.
I remember taking a friend with me to help with the driving, and heading to Dallas a few weeks after the summit with no clue what to expect. During that weekend, I experienced what everyone seems to at their first Startup Weekend — a new level of understanding and a sense of awe at what was possible as a tech entrepreneur.
After the first summit, I returned to Houston fully committed to find people to help me bring a Startup Weekend to our community. It was far more difficult to launch this program in Houston than I expected, but I kept at it. It took me almost 7 months to finally get a venue and a group of volunteers to help make this happen, and our first Houston Startup Weekend launched in November, 2011 — one year after I had trained at the Dallas event. Looking back, I’m glad it was such a challenge to bring to Houston as it gave me a new perspective on what kind of energy and hustle it takes to introduce something new into the market. As a result, I developed a new set of skills around product management, marketing, and fundraising that I’d never had before.
I will never forget that first weekend. I’ve made lifelong friendships as a result of organizing Houston Startup Weekends while developing my leadership and communication skills. My roles with Startup Digest and Startup Weekend has also led to job offers, public speaking and media interviews, and several new opportunities to have an impact in my community.
This story is about the Startup Digest, but it’s also about the journey that many tech founders find themselves taking — one that’s non-linear and involves saying “yes” to things that feel like we just jumped off a cliff and forgot to wear a parachute.
Houston Community Impact
People care about impact and ROI — and it can be difficult to measure in hard, quantitative figures the direct impact of my time invested in curating weekly Houston digests, launching and organizing Startup Weekends and Startup Weekend EDU and Education Entrepreneur programs. I don’t need to measure it to recognize the change that’s happened inside me and across my community from having a leadership role in bringing these programs to Houston.
When I first started curating the digest — there were very few events in Houston that were relevant to my audience, but slowly — over the first couple of years, and in large part because I worked to integrate the digest and Startup Weekend into the ecosystem — I saw our community begin to really blossom. Several of the volunteers, judges and participants who helped organize the first event created new startup and founder-focused meetups. For example, Jerald Reichstein, who donated his company’s office as our venue for that first weekend, started GroundUp Houston for bootstrapping entrepreneurs — one of Houston’s best attended groups today. After the success of our 1st weekend, UH offered to host our 2nd Startup Weekend, which we also hosted during Global Startup Battle with Houston team Tapja taking 3rd place nationally and 16th globally. By the time the second weekend had concluded — Houston’s tech startup community looked entirely different.
All of this happened over a two to three year period — which is a very short time to experience the big boost in community activity we had. I am certain that without the work myself and my small group of volunteers did to organize these early programs, our community would look entirely different than it does today and still be much smaller.
Today, Houston’s startup community has grown from one co-working space to more than eight co-working/maker spaces, 2 universities here have become top-ranked entrepreneurship programs with on campus accelerators, (Red Labs and OwlSpark), and countless events and new meetup groups have formed to grow the number of local entrepreneurs that are connected to and engaged with our startup community.
These grassroots, locally-led programs at Techstars provide a framework that boosts local awareness, attracts media attention nationally and provides consistent opportunities for entrepreneurs to connect with local startup resources, startup talent and service providers — this framework builds and sustains startup communities.
I’m now the longest running digest curator in the program, having tenure even beyond our amazing Editor in Chief, Jessica Ford, who joined the program a few months after I began volunteering.
I can’t think of a single thing I’ve done in my career that has provided me with more education, more personal development, and more professional opportunities than the 1–2 hours each Sunday I devote to curating the Houston Startup Digest.
Since I began this volunteer role 7 years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to attend 4 other summits, with each summit growing bigger in terms of the number of global entrepreneurs attending.
I’ve learned invaluable lessons about what it takes to launch new products and brands, what it takes to build a team that can scale a company 10x in a few years, how to build an MVP and get early customers, and so many other skills that will help me grow my startup into a Unicorn. I’ve also developed a strong sense of self-discipline and seemingly endless capacity to find internal motivation to keep going when things get tough, or worse — boring.
I’ve developed stronger leadership skills as a community leader and startup advisor and most importantly — I’ve learned how to grow into the tech founder I’ve always wanted to become: someone who has a vision and the skills and network to execute on that vision to change the world. I launched my first tech startup as the CEO and Founder in 2015 after presenting at a business plan competition in November 2014. That same weekend as the business plan competition, I was also organizing a Startup Weekend EDU edition during Global Startup Battle, and changing the way Houston educators think about entrepreneurship.
My co-founder, Katie Sunstrom, was the first person to jump on board and help me with Startup Weekend back in 2011, introducing me to the people who probably contributed the most as co-organizers that first weekend: Jerald Reichstein and Brian Cohen. One of the judges of that first Startup Weekend has become an advisor for my startup, and as I have said before, I’ve developed personal and professional relationships with so many great people during these events. There are so many people who have contributed to our startup community’s early growth and listing them all needs to be another blog post.
I attribute the fearlessness, which so many people say is one of my best traits, to the support, encouragement, and experiences from the community leaders I’ve met at these summits over the years.
I am not alone, and that makes it easier to take risks that others are often too afraid to take in entrepreneurship.
In Conclusion — Give First
I brought these programs to Houston, but I don’t deserve all, or even most of, the credit for growing our startup community. Our community has grown because of the volunteers and businesses in Houston that give their time and sponsorship to make these programs successful.
If you don’t have a local Startup Digest — volunteer and curate one. If you’re running local tech startup events, make sure to reach out to your local curator and partner with them to promote your events and the Startup Digest within your community. Subscribe to your local Startup Digest, and send feedback on the events that were the best (and the worst — we curators promise not to tell anyone you said something negative because we need your honest feedback so we can continue to curate only the best local events).
I went from being a volunteer with the Startup Digest to a volunteer with UP Global, and now I’m a Community Leader (and volunteer) at Techstars — throughout these changes, the culture has always had a “Give First” motto. And even with all the giving first I’ve done in these roles, I have received so much more in return. The education and professional development I’ve received have given me access to unbelievable opportunities, and the relationships I’ve formed within this organization are irreplaceable, lifelong bonds.
As I said in my farewell to everyone at the end of this year’s summit:
“Houston is my community, but you dudes are my tribe!”