When I was in high school, we carried out an incredibly dull experiment. The experiment consisted of counting how many tiny bubbles came off of water plants sitting in beakers of water. I don’t remember what we were supposed to learn from this (which tells you a lot about the quality of science education at my school), but it came to my mind today as I thought about the connection between culture and building successful startup ecosystems.
For anyone new to the Global Innovation Project: I have spent eight months travelling through 17 countries, across 3 continents, interviewing over 200 participants of their local startup ecosystems. This included founders, funders, educators, and facilitators of all kinds. I am looking to understand how we can build ecosystems that not only account for cultural challenges, but actually take advantage of them, to create systems that are unique and varied (and not simply another Silicon Valley copy).
Moving from Eastern Europe, to South-East Asia, to South America, I saw huge variations in cultural norms. At one point I flew from a course in Madrid, where it took me half an hour to say goodbye to my 20 classmates with the requisite number of kisses (the majority of them being from Spain or South America); to SLUSH conference in Helsinki, where the pathways of the crowded festival were often blocked by Finnish men standing 6 feet apart to have a conversation. On the cold streets of Russia, I tried not to let the lack of smiling get me down; while in Malaysia I had to check my temper at the shopkeeper grinning inanely while he told me he couldn’t fix my broken bag despite advertising bag repairs on his window. (The ‘Russian smile’ is reserved for friends and family, while in much of South-East Asia, they smile while giving bad news because they hate to upset anyone).
However, despite all these cultural differences, it soon became very clear to me that the entrepreneurs and innovators I met had more in common with each other than with their local cultures. They are all misfits, going against the grain and trying to reinvent the world around them. They are innovators precisely because they don’t fit in, but interestingly they do tend to fit in with each other: a dispersed innovation culture that delights in connecting to others of their own clan. A Misfit Nation.
But what does this mean for regional ecosystems exploiting their unique cultures? This is where the bubbles come in. I began to think of entrepreneurs and their startups like those little bubbles, popping out of the plant and fighting their way up to the surface. What we need our ecosystems to do is allow those errant bubbles to be created and to reach their goal.
Imagine a pool where the water is too dark for sunlight to reach the plants, or where the carbon dioxide levels are too low for them to respire: hardly any bubbles will form. The same is true if we starve young people of education and support; we’ll have fewer of those little entrepreneurial misfits fighting towards the light. Similarly, imagine a pool where the way to the surface is obstructed: piles of rocks causing little air pockets, bubbles getting stuck in a tangle of discarded plastic bags. Ecosystems need to do what they can to clear the path, lest red tape, bureaucracy and negative sentiment trap them and keep them from the air.
But of course our misfits are not only aligned to their contrary culture, they are also inherently connected to the culture of their physical nation. While they share common behaviours and ambitions with the bubbles from other ponds, they are products of their own local ecosystem. They may not fit the mould, but they intimately understand the mould and know better than anyone how to work both within it and around it. This is incredibly powerful because they combine an internal and an external view in one head, and that is where they spot the innovations.
Ecosystems must do their best to encourage these inside-outsiders, let them bubble up and out into the wider Misfit Nation, bringing oxygen to the local flora and fauna on their way.
I’d like to dedicate this post to a wonderful member of Misfit Nation who was sadly lost on July 22nd. Sam Moon was an incredibly hard working and passionate advocate for innovation, and an amazing connector of people. He had reached out to invite me to bring my research to China, offered to plan me an amazing whirlwind tour of all the key players, and introduced me to connections across Asia. I was hoping to take him up on the tour offer later in the year and it is my great regret that I did not plan the trip sooner and get the chance to meet him in person. Goodbye Sam, you made the world better.