Finding My Place in the Startup Community

by Melanie, on 28 Jan 2020

Warning: Lots of personal admissions of weakness here!

As a fairly classic ambivert, I have oscillated between highly extroverted phases of life and highly introverted ones - and everything in between.

Luckily, I was in a very extroverted phase when I first got involved with startups. I got to meet lots of awesome people, which meant that I had a strong network when I later wanted to start my own company. Some of the coolest work I've done in the last several years is hands-down attributable to that network.

However, there was a dark side to that phase - the unending list of events to attend, coffee meetings where someone wanted to "pick my brain," and more and more relationships that needed nurturing.

After a few years where I prioritized building and maintaining my network, I found myself working later and later and more on weekends. I was burned out.

When I began saying no to certain events and volunteer opportunities, some jerks came back with "but it's for the community, and you must support the community."

I had lost the freedom to decide which organizations I wanted to support. I had lost the freedom to have a life outside of work and the startup community.

When I suggested hosting a meetup at a restaurant rather than at a community hub, some people interpreted it as an insult to the hub organization, even though the two groups were unrelated.

At a loss for how to handle this, I withdrew from the community almost entirely. I was tired of the guilt trips. I was tired of people asking for free work. I was tired of having to support 100% of everything, unable to say "hey, I'm not a big fan of that group. They can do their thing, and that's fine, it's just not for me."

I loved catching up with people I knew, and meeting some new folks. But there were too many events that simply clogged up my calendar without adding value - for me or anyone else I asked.

I withdraw when things get awkward or I'm not sure how to handle the situation - a leadership skill I know I need to work on! I'm also not a big fan of crowds, so startup events and conferences tend to be challenging for me.

But, personal issues aside, I've been heavily involved with startups for nearly ten years now, and I've watched entrepreneurs waste incalculable time on these networking events and community functions.

At Strategic Piece, we emphasize our belief that entrepreneurs shouldn't have to become overworked zombies with overloaded calendars to be successful. I think sometimes people are so afraid of failure that they fill their calendars as proof that they tried their hardest, even if they do ultimately fail.

I think there's a different way to approach this. And, I think this rings true for all sorts of communities – not just startups.

We must all be clear about what we want to support and what we don't. What roles we wish to play in relation to other organizations and the community as a whole.

I LOVE being involved with initiatives that focus on students - whether at high school, undergraduate or post-grad. I'm also happy to get involved with educational initiatives that have a professional bent to them.

On the other hand, I do not like networking happy hours. I find them loud and awkward and draining. So I only attend those on an extremely rare basis. I'd rather go to events during the traditional workday than in the evening or on a weekend because my marriage and my family are my tip-top priorities.

Here are some questions I asked myself to achieve clarity on how I should involve myself in various communities (NB: don't fall into the common trap of calling everything "the community" as if there is only one!)

  • Would this activity take me closer to any goals or priorities I have set for myself?
  • Is this activity a great way for me to get involved?
  • Do I truly have the time to show up with the energy I need to be an active contributor and feel good about participating?
  • What will I have to give up to do this activity? Am I okay with that trade-off?
  • Do I believe wholeheartedly in the people/group organizing and involved with this activity?

Most importantly: when I think about adding something to my calendar, do I feel good and energized? Or, am I secretly dreading it? No one will benefit from me being there if I'm bringing negative energy to the event.

I recently read about someone using this as their litmus test: if the event was today, right now, would I want to go? Or would I say no? I love this approach because we have a tendency to assume that we'll feel differently on the day, when in fact we seldom do.

Contrary to what the people who've guilt tripped me over the years have said, the community does not benefit from me being present but exhausted. The community does not benefit from me having to "fake it" at its events.

The community I want to be a part of does not demand 100% commitment from its members . The community I want to be a part of recognizes that different people benefit from different types of event, and that no one benefits from all of it - and that's totally fine.

The community I want to be a part of attracts people who genuinely love and benefit from participating at whatever level makes sense for them.

We have to be discerning. We can have independent thoughts and opinions that differ. And there is a place for everyone.

If setting priorities is something you'd like to read more about, you may also be interested in the CEO Life section in our Guide to Getting Started.