Why community is key to entrepreneurship success

Hattan Ahmed, Head of the Entrepreneurship Centre

​By Hattan Ahmed, Head of KAUST Entrepreneurship Center

It's a common misconception that top entrepreneurs achieve their success by virtue of being one-person armies — productivity machines with game-changing ideas and an almost superhuman work ethic. But the reality is often very different.

While many of the world's most successful entrepreneurs are indeed visionary individuals with bright minds, big ideas and a pathological aversion to getting a good night's sleep, what's all too often overlooked is that none of them — literally none — reach their goals without the help of others.

Whether it's a trusted co-founder, a staff of motivated and capable individuals or simply a supportive and understanding spouse, success comes as much from having the right people around you as it does from being the right person yourself.

Finding a supportive community can be the difference between founding the next game-changer or giving up at the first setback. And this concept of community is important at every level — whether within a single team or across an entire region, as we see in Silicon Valley.

The Bay Area isn't home to many of the world's unicorn startups because a disproportionate number of brilliant entrepreneurs happen to live there. No, a disproportionate number of brilliant entrepreneurs choose to go there to be a part of an interconnected network of many players actively engaged in the entrepreneurial game.

Innovation at KAUST Entrepreneurship Center

Of course, this connected community evolved over eight decades of growth and development. Recent history has shown us that some communities developed these ecosystems in two decades, such as Barcelona's Districte de la innovació (22@Barcelona). So, how do we create a vibrant entrepreneurial community here in Saudi Arabia that can drive change?

The benefits of building an entrepreneurial community

Establishing a successful entrepreneurial community is no mean feat, but once in place, such an environment can begin to gather momentum extremely quickly.

The more successful startups a community produces, the more talent and investment is attracted, increasing the chances of success for new startups. It also encourages the next generation of entrepreneurs to choose that location as a base for their fledgling businesses.

As the concentration of startups in a given area increases, financial benefits are realized through the emergence of economies of scale for shared requirements like infrastructure, startup-centric facilities and office space, professional services, suppliers and labor.

A thriving entrepreneurial community will soon spawn a variety of industry and networking events that serve as a kind of mixing pot for the talent pool. This increases the likelihood of those all-important serendipitous encounters that might spark the creation of the next high-impact, high-value startups.

And finally, as the production of successful startups becomes routine, second-time entrepreneurs begin to pay their wins forward, bringing vital experience and knowledge, recycled capital, and mentoring opportunities to the local market. Recently, we have seen this starting to happen in Saudi Arabia, with a good number of investors and serial entrepreneurs actively engaged in the community.

Community building is the backbone of our activities at the KAUST Entrepreneurship Center. Our startup community has access to KAUST facilities as well as co-working spaces in Jeddah and Riyadh to integrate into local markets and network with other entrepreneurs. Regular meetups and community gatherings are not limited to the current TAQADAM cohorts but also our startup portfolio. These community-building activities include connecting entrepreneurs and investors as we build a network of conscious fellows and utilize informal gatherings to connect with the wider community locally and globally. Mixing these different groups has a transformative effect.

KAUST Entrepreneurship Center’s startup community

The role of community in risk-taking and overcoming the fear of failure

One of the most important aspects of being an entrepreneur is accepting — even embracing — failure. Very, very few entrepreneurs find success with their first project or idea. And plenty of individuals who have all the ingredients to become high-achieving entrepreneurs experience that first failure…and then give up. It's a great shame, and here again, having the right people around can make all the difference.

Thomas Edison is one of the most famous entrepreneurs to have ever lived, probably best known today for being the man who perfected a promising emerging technology — the incandescent light bulb. One of the main problems with early bulbs was the filament — it needed to be made from a material that would burn brightly, was highly durable and was inexpensive to mass-produce. It's said that Edison tested 10,000 different filament materials before he found the right one — carbonized bamboo from Kyoto, of all things.

Successful entrepreneurs share a common mindset with scientists: each time an experiment does not yield the expected outcome (fail), they know that they learned something important and eliminate one possibility. This means they are one step closer to discovering the unknown (success). It is said that the average entrepreneur fails 3.8 times before launching a successful venture.

We cultivate this mindset in our children when they learn new skills but often lose ourselves as we enter adulthood. It is critical to embed this viewpoint within our culture.

And here again, we come up against a common misconception. Entrepreneurs need not possess resilience beyond the norm; they need to understand that failure is an accepted, expected part of the process.

And that's where community comes in. As individuals, we're all vulnerable to self-doubt and spiraling internal recriminations when things go wrong. But with the right community and support network behind us, we can begin to see failure differently — not as an end state, but as a step on the journey towards success.

That may seem like a cheap trick of perspective, but it's incredibly powerful. This shift in mindset to see failure as acceptable releases the shackles, allowing us to take more risks, be more creative and push the boundaries further. Some of those risks will lead to dead ends and closed chapters — perhaps many of them will. But every once in a while, a risk will lead to the creation of something transformative. And we need those positive changes.