Strength in Coopetition

This past Wednesday morning FAME participated in a breakfast sponsored by the The Business Council of Fairfield County at the Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk. The purpose of the meeting was to bring together for the first time all of the various business incubators and coworking spaces in Fairfield County to share experiences, relate best practices, and look for ways to collaborate.

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All told, there were 12 enterprises represented, each with its own way of doing things. On the one hand there was the Danbury Hackerpace adjacent to the Danbury Public Library and Comradity in Stamford, community-based efforts that seek to foster creative collaboration in a stimulating communal environment. At the other extreme was ColoDesk in Stamford, which specializes in tech startups and takes a direct financial and operational stake in the small stable of companies it sponsors. In between were various community projects (Norwalk 2.0), coworking spaces (The Hub, the B:Hive, Conclave Labs, and SoNo Spaces), and incubators (The Bridgeport Innovation Center and The Stamford Innovation Center). There was even another university-affiliated effort, The University of Bridgeport CTech IncUBator, which appears to operate primarily like a traditional on campus incubator to supplement faculty R&D projects.

As is common at such meetings, each participant was given a few minutes to introduce themselves and expound on the background and operating philosophy of their enterprises. No one was shy about sharing what they knew, with an hour passing by before the last people had their say.

The diversity of interests and potential for collaboration was striking, often making it hard to sit quietly and not play matchmaker with people who had only just been introduced. While one group specialized in creative design and promotion, another was devoted to technical innovation and research, with a third having access to funding sources needed for implementation. If we all just shared the load, it seemed like we could really make a difference.

But of course it doesn’t always work out that way. It was certainly not lost on any of us that our client companies would ultimately be competing with one another for press coverage, access to funding, technical resources, talent, etc. Thus to some degree there is a classic zero-sum game (Startup Poker, anyone?) playing out in our little corner of the Fairfield County business community. We are all startups and not everyone will be successful.

Unless … we could bring more opportunity for everyone by working together. If we could bring more money to the startup ecosystem, then everyone could get funded. If we could promote every company, then the entire region could become a celebrated business corridor with a cachet of its own. If we could refer potential client companies to one another based on fit and opportunity, then everyone could benefit accordingly.

In essence, what we need is an open market for startup services, where service providers both compete to provide the best service for their clients and cooperate to expand the market for everyone. It’s called coopetition, a strategy found in any industry with a shared infrastructure (transportation, energy, telecommunications, commercial banking, etc.) but not commonly found in the venture capital markets where so many startups find themselves.

Coopetition works but you’ve got to be smart about it. Now that we have been introduced to our peers, we plan to work with the others when we can, starting with Stage 1 of our open application process. If we find that we are not a good fit for a given company we will try to refer them to another service provider that may be a better fit. If one of our Stage 2 or Stage 3 clients needs a service that we can’t provide then if possible we will refer them to companies housed at one of our peers.

That sounds a lot like what FAME was founded to do in the first place.