How to make an entrepreneurship ecosystem a reality

No business grows in a vacuum. We all need partners to survive.

Entrepreneurship ecosystems create a collaborative framework in which partners can meet – to help entrepreneurs. In 2017, the team at Z.A.ZEN assisted Johannesburg in kicking off its ecosystem with the 2017 City of Johannesburg Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Regional Summits and Symposium.

Where do we start to create an entrepreneurship ecosystem?

There are five steps:

Step 1: Understanding an entrepreneurship ecosystem.
There’s a lot of information out there about entrepreneurship ecosystems. Some of the best models we have seen come from Professor Daniel Isenberg, which we used in developing the Johannesburg entrepreneurship ecosystem for our study, the 2016 Entrepreneurship Research Study: Voices of Entrepreneurs in Johannesburg.. Our model incorporates Isenberg’s work below:

In order to implement an entrepreneurship ecosystem, we needed to learn about them. For more information, please contact us for more references.

Step 2: Clarifying what an organisation’s objectives are in creating its ecosystem.
A critical starting point with the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) was clarification of the kind of entrepreneur to be targeted at their upcoming ecosystem events. What level of entrepreneur are you looking to engage with? It’s not possible to be everything to everyone. Finland, France and the Netherlands have been successful at targeting high-level entrepreneurs who can expedite economic growth. Estonia is focused on leveraging its tech entrepreneurs to drive foreign direct investment.

Johannesburg’s starting point was the model from our study highlighting entrepreneurship levels starting at Subsistence, Start-up, Growth, Thriving and Excellence. At a meeting where the seven regions were represented, the City decided to focus on Start-up and Growth level entrepreneurs. Given CoJ’s dedication to being a pro-poor municipality, picking the higher levels would have left out many smaller entrepreneurs. This meant the language, thought process, strategy, and final actions, needed to be focused on working with and assisting Start-up and Growth entrepreneurs.

Joburg’s ecosystem focus was to 1) engage with and hear the voices of entrepreneurs in order to help them thrive and create employment; 2) to develop a tailor-made City of Johannnesburg entrepreneurship ecosystem that would create actionable plans to assist in growing entrepreneurship; and 3) for the City to receive bottom-up feedback from the events and sector-specific Working Groups to assist in the development of the City’s SMME policy.

Step 3: Identify the partners – especially entrepreneurs – to be in the ecosystem.
Bringing in the right entrepreneurs is crucial to the success of entrepreneurship ecosystem activation. Once the target level of entrepreneur is established, as per the above graphic, the type of entrepreneur to be targeted is narrowed down. Ecosystem partners often bring in their own registrars of entrepreneurs to assist, so those with access to relevant databases should be engaged. CoJ had many databases of entrepreneurs and ecosystem partners from its past economic, regional and planning activities. All these elements had to be combined.

Communicating with the entrepreneurs and partners involved a combination of social media, bulk SMS, email and direct phone calls. The City’s Regional Offices contributed substantially to this process, and the end result was attendance of 80 – 500 entrepreneurs and other ecosystem members at each of the seven regional summits. The symposium was compiled from the both the regional summits and additional lists, resulting in a list of 2 000+ participants at all events. To attract the right participants, a strong communication plan is essential – from invitations to reminders, at the event and after the event.

Step 4: Create a framework of engagement. This can mean networking sessions, meetings, workshops and, for larger groups, summits or a symposium.
Entrepreneurship requires flexibility and creativity, and successful engagement with entrepreneurs means moving away from fixed agendas and too much structured dialogue. At the request of the regional representatives, each of the CoJ Regional Summits had 1 ½ hours to hear what entrepreneurs had to say. And they had a lot to say! Also, building in longer networking sessions, coffee time and greater room for interaction between entrepreneurs is part of creating the ecosystem.

Entrepreneurs don’t often have a chance to meet and engage, and often the best learnings come from these opportunities – from each other. In the CoJ Symposium, sector-specific working groups were formed that allowed participants to engage with those in their sectors. Issues were taken from the follow-up reports of the summits and shared at the symposium, where participants decided which issues were the most important. In turn, they debated and presented back their own solutions to problems in their industries. This is every government body and institution’s dream – to get entrepreneurs excited about and coming up with their own solutions.

Step 5: Develop and institutionalise the action plan going forward. What did steps 1 to 4 teach us, how can we use this information going forward?
It’s critical that entrepreneurship ecosystem activation doesn’t end with events. What happens next? How are the learnings captured? What information can be used to help an organisation move forward? In the CoJ Entrepreneurship Ecosystem events, reports were developed to capture the entrepreneurs’ feedback from each Regional Summit and the final Symposium. Registration and evaluation forms were captured into the City’s database and learnings leveraged to identify how the City could help these Start-up and Growth businesses. The end result was specific action plans and insights that have been incorporated into the Department of Economic Development’s plans going forward, as well as insights for its long-term SMME strategy.

It’s the combination of a number of thought processes and plans that makes things happen. What made the 2017 City of Johannesburg Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Regional Summits and Symposium a success was the entrepreneurs themselves. They were events by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs – and those who participated came in with thoughts, complaints, actions, ideas and passion.

For more information about the final report for the 2017 City of Johannesburg events and the final presentation, please contact us.

See the 2016 ERS study and previous newsletters on entrepreneurship and ecosystems in

Written by:
Tamiko Sher
Managing Director | Z.A.ZEN Consulting

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