Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Two Worlds that Need Each Other


For the past decade, I’ve been running around two circles of great people.  One circle, obviously, is that of entrepreneurs creating fun businesses and trying to change the world by turning their ideas into tangibile companies.  The other circle has been the association executives. These are the folks that run the associations that bring industries together through communities, conferences, foundations, and even political action. They exist to support their industry.

One disconnect that has jumped out at me lately is that I don’t see these two worlds interacting as much as I think they could or should.

On one hand, when I ask entrepreneurs about the associations where they are active, I usually only get about 1 in 10 that are truly active in an association. The rest usually say they like to drop in on the annual trade shows, or may even pay for a booth.  So I ask them about speaking in conferences or webinars? What about volunteering on the board? What about offering them your innovative product or services in a bartering agreement for a larger booth?  It so often has not even occurred to the entrepreneurs, especially those in startup mode how valuable an association can be to them.  They think they are reaching the entire industry through the LinkedIn groups or online communities, when there are entire segments of people who they will be exposed to by becoming more involved with the association in their industry.

On the other side, you have the associations. With a few exceptions, I haven’t found many associations that appreciate the importance of a vibrant startup ecosystem for their industry.  Sponsorships and booths are often times cost prohibitive for startups; speaking opportunities are not publicized enough to reach the startups with new ideas; educational topics and goals are set without leaving room for the innovators of the industry to share what they are doing that is truly on the cutting edge; and networking opportunities for startup-stage companies to meet each other are non-existent.

Here are some of the things that I’ve been observing and why I think these two worlds can help each other:

  • Associations need new members. According to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, in 2011, 543,000 new businesses were created each month! Hello!?
  • Associations need healthy industries fueled by job growth. Startups are creating jobs like crazy.  Many startups biggest problem is finding the right people for their team.
  • Associations need new ideas. Conferences and educational events must grow beyond the regurgitation of the same content by the same volunteer speakers on a rotation. New life is key to long term success, and startup mentality is all around innovation.
  • Association members need startup vendors. Startups in any industry create more competition, cost savings, innovative ideas, new tools, and more. Members of any association benefit from more providers.
  • Associations need entrepreneurial energy. Until you’ve had a generous entrepreneur on your board, you haven’t experienced how valuable these people can be when they start volunteering.
  • Associations need younger members. While, many organizations are seeing the average age of their member increase, more and more college students are leveraging the Lean Startup movement and starting businesses right out of school, or even still in school.
  • Associations need to remain relevant. With all the discussion about associations struggling to retain members, find new members, they should be looking at ways to become critical part of their industry. If they can become a proving ground, a support system, an educational vehicle for startups, they will be ensured permanent relevance and growth as long as this attitude is sustained.

And of course you have all the things that startups need that associations  provide:

  • Exposure to the market buyers
  • Exposure to strategic partners
  • Exposure to investors and funding opportunities
  • Education about the industry
  • Talented team members
  • Marketing channels and places to spend those dollars when they do get funded
  • Understanding of different industries: Many startups offer services and products to multiple industries. The one that embraces them the most will get the most attention.
  • Exposure to industry veterans to join their boards, advise them, guide them
  • Connections with other startups serving their industry to help solve their problems collaboratively.

I could go on… and I probably will.  I feel like Startups and Associations are kind of in a Sleepless in Seattle situation. You will probably hear more about this from me in future posts.

What are your thoughts? Do you know any associations that truly embrace startups? or any that intentionally don’t, and why?



Category: Association

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