The Collaborative Toolbox
This article is a part of the book “A Pattern Language for Successful Startup Ecosystems”
Tools have a massive impact on our lives. John M. Culkin, notable media scolar wrote, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us” (pg. 1, Hurme). Refrigerators, ovens, microwaves, shape the types of food we eat and our relationship to this food. Cars, trains, and airplanes shape where we live, where we work, and where we play. Cell phones, computers, and the various apps on them shape the way we work, how we entertain ourselves, and the friendships we make.
The tools entrepreneurs have at their disposal deeply shape how founders approach entrepreneurship and how they progress though the stages of company building(pg. 7, Steininger). Tools that speed up individual progress have the potential to alter the trajectory of a business from a neighborhood corner store to a global conglomerate. Community Managers play an important role in shaping founders’ trajectories by helping them build out a mental toolbox of potential tools at their disposal.
Tools Shape Approach, Scale, and Execution
Prototyping tools like Sketch and Figma can help founders present polished ideas to investors or customers, helping one or two non-technical individuals showcase the level of sophistication in a few days that five years ago would have demanded weeks of a fully trained design firm’s time. Wix and Squarespace can help founders set up basic web pages to advertise and get an initial understanding of whether there is interest in their product. Five years ago, this would have taken likely two computer engineers weeks to build and launch. Low-code tools like Flutterflow and Zoho Creator still have initial learning curves of several months to become fully proficient, but once these tools are mastered it can allow a single person to do similar work in weeks what it would have taken a traditional developer months.
Tools do not simply shape the product but also the business processes within the company. Hubspot helps founders organize various leads within the sales pipeline, Zendesk automates customer service, while Mailchimp helps streamline marketing campaigns.
Audio equipment like microphones, soundproof studios, and production quality cameras help student founders create high quality videos that help them develop trust with potential customers. The thinking goes, if a company seriously thought and executed a polished promo video, they are more likely to take other facets of the business seriously. High quality media also increases search engine optimization (SEO), which can help founders who do not have the money to pay directly for Google ads still get their products ranked high on Google’s listings.
Tools can also be understood as mental approaches and design heuristics that help founders better understand how to build companies that fit market needs and delight customers. Things like the idea of the lean startup, a methodology that founders can use to scientifically test whether they have product market fit before investing fully into the build out of a product. This methodology can save founders months of time by testing their solution early instead of fully building out a product that does not meet a market need. Meanwhile the idea of human-centered design can help founders to design products with a deep understanding of accessibility and usability. These mental tools can help founders identify sustainable markets and capture more market share by offering intuitive and delightful products and experiences.
The Advent of AI
In the last few months AI has massively expanded this idea that the tools in one’s possession can be trajectory-altering by increasing the work capability of any single individual across every major start-up vertical. AI helps founders better understand the competitive landscape from the get-go to see where their companies can find underserved customers. This was the case with AI company Quid that helped Netbase President Bob Goodson analyze gaps in the wearable devices market. In minutes Quid helped Netbase see clusters of start-ups being launched in the wearable tech industry, what sub-market these start-ups are tackling, “how competitive and developed each sub-sector has become, and whether it’s being heavily invested in” (Greenwald). This analysis would have traditionally taken a consulting team weeks to gather and analyze this data, which by that time might be crucially out of date.
AI can also enhance the data analysis capability of founders to better understand the response to products that are already launched. AI helps company UBREW in London where it iterates the formula of the beer based on customer purchasing data far faster than traditional customer discovery (Greenwald). What is more, the AI system developed to understand customer feedback over time learns which questions are the most effective to ask, making both the ultimate product and the product development process more refined with each iteration.
There are also several ways AI can help with company customer service efforts. Chatbots are estimated to solve 80% of typical user inquiries, enabling small start-up teams to save time not having to answer repetitive queries (Trivedi). On the back-end, the data from each of these interactions can be structured and analyzed so that founders can discover recurring themes in customer interactions to understand where there are problems with their product or services (MonkeyLearn). What is more, with each of these interactions the AI learns about each customer. With each interaction the AI can better personalize product offerings and loyalty programs for each customer segment.
AI art generators like DALL-E, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion can create novel illustrations in hundreds of different art styles with only simple text prompts. These platforms allow for costs ranging from free to a handful of cents, to enable individuals to generate dozens of images where a traditional designer would have cost $40–180 dollars (Roose). With human artists it also takes time needed to find an artist with the founders’ desired style, create and sign a contract, and go back and forth on several rounds of revisions to get to a finished product. These processes demand time and mental energy to search for and organize these artists over the course of weeks that can now be done by a solo founder in minutes.
But to utilize any of these tools, founders first need to know about them. Many first time entrepreneurs are unaware of most of these tools or how to integrate them into their processes. The goal of the Collaborative Toolbox is to provide a library of tactical tools for building start-ups displayed in a way that founders can easily learn what tools they have at their disposal. An important facet of the toolbox is that community members can add assets to it, which enables founders to gain access to tools that the Community Manager themselves are not aware are available. The ability for others to add knowledge to the toolbox widens the potential achievable action maps of founders and Community Managers alike.
Theory Behind the Collaborative Toolbox
A toolbox of founder specific resources does not simply help founders start their businesses, it slowly reshapes their mental maps of what businesses they feel are attainable to create. It does this by lowering the searching and categorization energy founders need to exert to find and use tools available to them, which in turn allows founders more mental energy to expand the boundaries of their potential action maps.
The Collaborative Toolbox first lowers the searching energy founders must exert to find new tools available to them. To start developing a profit and loss statement founders can jump into using Excel, with the downside that Excel has limited computing and analysis power. But to search out better alternatives it takes hours to comb through Google and try out various different software packages to understand there are accounting platforms that make this process easier. Searching energy is so hard to understand and track because often people are often not looking at all or unaware of what they are looking for so their pathway towards finding a new tool happens in fits and starts.
Closely linked to searching energy is categorization energy founders must exert to decide whether it is worth the time, money, and effort to use a specific tool. It takes a large amount of mental energy to weigh various factors and decide on an outcome (Trujillo). A founder that switches from Excel to an online accounting programs needs to consider a potential new variable cost if the company runs on subscription fees. They have to consider whether they will need to import their current data and the time to do that, as well as any learning curve necessary to learn the software. A Collaborative Toolbox that not simply gathers together resources but organizes them in a way that can speed up founder decision making, can lower mental energy expenditures and help founders make faster decisions. The time it takes for founders to make decisions is not well tracked or documented which makes it hard to understand just how much centralization and categorization of information saves an individual. The stories founders have shared with me leads me to believe that it is a lot.
But the true power of a Collaborative Toolbox is not in helping founders find any one tool. Its power is seen as over time it helps widen the mental map of what founders believe they can achieve, and in turn the scale of problems they tackle. A student initially goes to the Toolbox to understand how they can build a website to showcase how to help high school students with basic accounting and finance. They learn about tools like Wix and Squarespace, but happen to see that their university has audio and video equipment that can help them develop high quality promo videos.
That knowledge might sit in their head for months. But when this founder has now built their website, they can now imagine a next step where they develop professional quality videos. These higher quality videos can in turn open up potential new revenue streams. Instead of requesting donations for the content they created on their website, their content is high quality enough they can partner with schools or accounting platforms. By presenting a centralized hub of categorized tools Community Managers lower the energy output founders must exert to find and switch to a new tool.
This leaves founders with more mental energy reserves that they can use on various other aspects of their company. If website creation takes less time, founders can wonder about how to develop higher quality content. If accounting for their current customers suddenly takes minutes instead of hours, founders can spend time focusing on how to attract new customers. A solo founder that with inefficient tools struggles to sell to a small circle of friends and family with the right tools can set their sights on selling to thousands. The lower mental energy expenditure each action takes enables an expansion of founders’ potential action map.
How to Set up a Collaborative Toolbox
This section looks at the practical aspects of how a Community Manager can set up a Collaborative Toolbox on their campus. The first step is to designate a location at the university for the Collaborative Toolbox. This space simply needs to have a five foot wide blank white wall. A design lab, library, or entrepreneurship center would be ideal locations.
Create a grid on a cork board with places for people to put flashcards, a cloth tapestry with pockets, or any other hanging device that can be structured in a grid and people can add assets. Well designed toolboxes would enable Community Managers to easily add various categories over time.
The board should be created with four main sub-headings on the Y axis: Marketing, Sales, Product, and Customer Service. Other potential groups to add to the list:
- Video Production (audio and visual equipment that can help founders create high quality promo videos and other media)
- Website Creation (should include both computer languages as well as no-code platforms such as Wix and Squarespace)
- Finance (tools to track revenue and growth, how to set up a bank account, and how to understand a profit and loss statement)
- Human Resources (How to onboard an initial employee, pay them, and understand the necessary tax steps)
- Fundraising (How to develop a pitch deck, how to find and evaluate potential Angel, Seed, and Series A investors, and how to communicate progress to these investors)
- Software (licenses to design tools or programming suites that students get discounts on)
- Hardware (audio equipment, video equipment)
- Education (classes people can take, internship opportunities, accelerators the university is affiliated with)
- Mental Models (human-centered design, lean startup model).
On the X axis create labels: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced.
Next, design flashcard-sized cards that students can either pin to or place on a board. Each card should come with:
- The name of the tool
- A one or two sentence description of the tool
- How much the tool costs
- Approximately how much time it takes to get up and running with the tool
- A link to where the students can access the tool. It is vital for founders to be able to have a way to access this tool.
There should be a stack of flashcards with this design located near the Collaborative Toolbox Board. Anyone from the university and the wider community should be encouraged to add tools to the board.
Every few days the Community Manager should check for what cards have been added to the board. The new cards should be checked for accuracy, and then uploaded to a digital version of the Collaborative Toolbox.
The simplest way to host a Collaborative Toolbox online is via a Google Sheets accessed through the entrepreneurship website with read-only or comment-only access. However, universities are encouraged to create more visual, interactive, and searchable websites for founders to easily explore the tools they have at their disposal. Advanced Toolboxes might also have the ability to search by product stage, scaling costs, or industry sector. Interactivity that leads to a general understanding of the breadth of tools available should be prioritized over descriptions that go into depth about the tools.