Friday, March 24, 2006

Bootstrap: The Next Generation's Chamber?

I started my first venture in Austin back in 1993. At that time, the only resource for a new startup entrepreneur was the Austin Chamber of Commerce. For a young kid with little to no experience and limited knowledge, it was a proverbial treasure trove of information and resources. It was literally the only place for critical answers, connections and community. And trust me...that was so needed in my early days!

This was back before the technology boom had officially happened and the chamber officials still put equal focus on small to medium sized businesses. Their events were evenly balanced and they had some pretty progressive programs that I credit with some of my early success. One program in particular was Executive Dialogue.

Executive Dialogue was a 12 month program in which you as the business owner participated with 11 other business owners and formed what became an informal board of directors for one another. Each month a different business owner from the group was the focus of the meeting. It was encouraged to open your kimono and display all of your laundry, good and bad. It was a place to get the input of others who had faced or were facing similar issues, obstacles and hurdles. It was a think tank. A safe place to ask for help and to get answers and truly be amongest your peers. There was no judgment....only support and assistance and the occasional challenge to pull your head out your you know what.

Though we focused much of our meetings on the company of the month, we had "open time" that any of us could air whatever was going on with our companies at the time. It became a confessional for some and a beat the chest session for others. It was pure and it was brilliant.

The chamber had 5-6 Executive Dialogue groups going at once with each group embracing the opportunity, building community and truly loving the experience. For me it cemented my future success and created several life long relationships with several of my colleagues that continue to this day. Of course since you could say the program was successful, the chamber did what the chamber usually does and they screwed with the format, they milked the results and ultimately made it unaffordable for the little guys like myself. Eventually it went by the wayside as so many of their great programs did and looking back was the first sign that their priorities had shifted. Technology was the call of the coming day and their focus as an organization shifted and we as startup entrepreneurs were once again left out in the cold.

Why do I bring this up? Because to me, Bootstrap has become the new generation of what the chamber and other similar organizations are supposed to be. It has become the primary resource for gaining important knowledge, finding collaborative partners, perpetuating innovative thoughts and stimulating creativity. In my humble but often outspoken opinion, it has by and large surpassed the chamber in so many ways. The collaboration and the pureness of our community's willingness to help easily surpasses any of the programs I have participated in the past and the best doesn't cost half a grand a year to belong!

It is hard to measure the power of our little movement because most new generation entrepreneurs likely don't know the frustration of having an issue and not getting an instant and sometimes overwhelming response to a question. Need an attorney, simply post it to the yahoo group and within oh say...two minutes you likely have 30 responses of people who are more than willing to help with a referral. And not just any referral. Experienced referrals that each of these entrepreneurs would gladly stake their reputation on. That is power my friends. Even at its height, the referral power of business organizations like the chamber couldn't possibly compare to the speed and passion that our members offer with each nugget and gem that is freely offered.

Bootstrap has grown a considerable amount since I attended the second meeting ever of this unique community. I think there were literally eight of us sipping beer and talking about the dynamics of what was happening out there in our emerging companies. Now as we approach 550 members just here in Austin and countless members in other cities and countries, we see the power of the collaborative tissue and community that we all have created. This surpasses any one individual's effort and by and large is an truly special and organic movement that the chamber could never come close to being.

Every time I see a question that is posted or someone that remarks how amazing and giving the people are within this group, I always have to smile. For some of us old timers that thought what the chamber had way back yonder was the bomb....there simply is no comparison.

Steve Harper

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