The Nightingale Ratio

Submitted for your consideration: the Nightingale Ratio as the number of people helping others do something to the number of people actually doing that thing. In this case, the number of people helping entrepreneurs start something relative to the number of entrepreneurs actually starting something.

This ratio emerged one evening last summer when co-author and co-conspirator Paul Hudnut and I were reflecting over beers after (another) workshop. We’re both academics as well as founders, directors, and investors in various successful and not-so-successful ventures… Paul more than I in every way. And we’re both active in trying to support entrepreneurship locally.

Florence_Nightingale_CDV_by_H_LenthallThink of the Nightingale Ratio in terms of helpers vs doers, widwifes vs mothers, shovel salesmen vs gold miners. I suspect everyone recognizes this ratio whether its named or not. But give it a name and it becomes useful for tracking your gut sense of how the community is doing and, if it seems to be struggling, for starting important conversations.

Where is it in entrepreneurship? It’s in the number of national, state, and local conferences held on the subject of cleantech or social or educational entrepreneurship. It’s in the amount of entreprorn online, where everyone has advice for starting a new business. It’s in the number of programs (and even outside foundations) fighting for the opportunity to help startups on any given campus. And it’s in the number of government, university, and professional employees measured and rewarded on how many startups they produce. You get the picture — what other proxies am I missing?

As Faculty Director of the Child Family Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, I’m acutely aware we constantly walk a dangerous line between providing enough and too much help, and between supporting and self-serving.

Here are 5 suggestions for those tasked with helping build an entrepreneurial ecosystem in their university, town, or region:

  1. Pay attention to this ratio. Providing some help is good but be aware of when more of a good thing becomes a bad thing: Do multiple groups have the same mission? Are they competing with each for entrepreneurs? Are they trash-talking each other? Just recognizing when too many widwifes are fighting over too few babies can help you redefine how your own contribution — where can you pull back, where can you coordinate, where can you fill in?
  2. As Brad Feld points out in Startup Communities, make sure that local entrepreneurs are leading the initiatives. This ensures that the efforts and investments of the many different helpers stays focused on the needs (and networks) of doers, and not on the job descriptions, expectations, metrics, and rewards of bureaucracies more interested in solving their own problem than in providing the best solution.
  3. As John Wooden once said, “Don’t do for someone what they can and should do for themselves.” Remember that entrepreneurship is hard work and that if someone can’t plug in their own computer, write their own plan, and build their own initial network, then no amount of help getting started will be enough. As Wooden also said, “Adversity is the state in which man mostly easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.” A little bit of adversity may be the best first lesson for would-be entrepreneurs.
  4. Stick to what you do well — or at least what you do better than anyone else in the community. Academics are good at producing smart people and smart ideas and at convening interested parties; lawyers are good at providing legal advice (and services); administrators at helping entrepreneurs navigate bureaucracies. Phil Weiser, of UC Boulder’s Silicon Flatirons Cener for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship writes, their philosophy toward helping Boulder’s entrepreneurial comunity is to “feed the network.”
  5. Remember it’s ultimately about people connecting with people. Entrepreneurship is first and last about building a new network connecting founders, advisors, mentors, lawyers, developers, marketers, customers, investors, and researchers around a new venture. It’s not process you can formalize. When Stanford’s Dean of Engineering Frederick Terman introduced Bill Hewlett and David Packard, helped them get funding, and find space in Palo Alto, it wasn’t in his job description. Keep the focus on connecting people with people — view your role as the bridge to, rather than the source of value.