Where successful startups come from (hint: they don’t come out of nowhere)

An article in Fast Company de-bunks the great dot-com myth of two guys starting a business from nothing in their garage and going on to create YouTube, Apple Computer, or Dell.

The myth isn’t that they start in a garage, or that they go on to become successful. The myth is that successful startups start from nothing.

In reality, all of these successes come out of somewhere. These “go-it-alone” entrepreneurs started out in established businesses in the same sectors. Their success comes from the training, background, and connections they built in their jobs with established companies such as Atari, PayPal, or HP.

What does this have to do with organizing?

I’m always meeting freelance activists with a passion for justice who want to stake out their own claim and start a group to advocate for their issue. They are the nonprofit equivalent of a dot-com garage startup.

And they can learn from the successful startups. The successful startups don’t start from nothing and nowhere. They start with skills and connections.

Likewise the activist startups also need to build a basis of skills and connections, and the best way to build those skills and connections is to work with existing organizations.

Just like an aspiring chef begins as an apprentice.

Rather than starting out on your own, you can learn how to lobby, how to work with the media, how to organize events, how to supervise volunteers, how to pull together a coalition, how to go door-to-door by working with existing organizations. And just as important, you’ll start to build your network of potential partners, funders, decision-makers, and volunteers. It’s great preparation before you go out on your own.

And when I say “organizations,” I include businesses in there. Business marketing has a lot to teach nonprofit marketing. Sales has a lot to teach fundraising. Nonprofits can learn a lot from principled business management–and both sectors benefit from this cross-pollinization.

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