Building community during COVID-19 - how local tech centres are supporting founders and freelancers

Building community during COVID-19 - how local tech centres are supporting founders and freelancers

October 1st, 2020 by Rachel Hickey

COVID-19 is revitalizing the concept of community for the 21st century. With so many people working from home, we can’t help asking the question - how do you build community and culture when your team works from home?

As an outsourced development shop working as virtually embedded teams for clients across North America, we used our office as a base of operations (and a source of coffee and snacks). We pride ourselves on being a great place to work, and this is because of our tight-knit workplace community. A healthy community allows employees to feel a sense of belonging, which gives meaning to their work, and their lives as a whole. 

Building a community requires a goal-oriented, people-first mindset. But how do you do it right, especially during a pandemic? We asked a few Kitchener-Waterloo community leaders to see how they’re adjusting. Here’s what they have to say:

Velocity Incubator: To foster community, think like a startup

Velocity is an incubator for early-stage, pre-seed tech startups. Their program combines startup expertise, tools, business advisory, and product development resources to support exceptional new startups. Velocity has helped over 300 companies like MappedIn, Vidyard, EnPowered and more get their start. 

For an incubator that is so well known for its space (over 37,000 sq.ft!) located in the heart of downtown Kitchener, we were interested to learn how they’ve pivoted to foster community remotely. Pivoting, as you may know, is a bit of a buzzword among startup founders. In a nutshell, pivoting means challenging your assumptions in order to find a better way of doing things. 

“Since the pandemic, we’ve been impressed to see how many companies are pivoting to respond to COVID-19 related problems,” said Briton Burgio, Velocity’s Community Manager.

To continue fostering community, Velocity pivoted too. Instead of their usual live pitch competition, Velocity transformed their incubator space into a studio, safely filming and streaming the competition virtually. Events to connect founders went virtual, chance meetings turned into virtual “random coffees” using a Slack extension, and internal communications took to a brand new intranet portal. 

“When a company is at such an early stage, they need community support not to just survive, but to thrive,” said Burgio. “We want to teach startups the importance of community so that when they go out into the world, they will be more likely to give back to the community that raised them.”

Accelerator Centre: Feedback and flexibility is key

Located in the David Johnston R+T Park on the University of Waterloo campus, the Accelerator Centre offers holistic, milestone-driven programs to help startups get off the ground to build a business that thrives. Companies like Ssimwave, AlertLabs and Magnet Forensics got their start there!

Their unique mentorship model and proven curriculum from over a decade of successfully supporting technology startups have shaped their success as well as how they’ve adjusted to the challenges of the pandemic. 

“Right now, startups are facing fatigue, time management challenges and are missing peer-to-peer interactions.” said Tabatha Laverty, Manager of Marketing and Communications at the Accelerator Centre. “Young companies have so much on their plate at once, they need programming and peer to peer mentorship from like-minded entrepreneurs to really thrive.” 

Through the challenges of the pandemic, the Accelerator Centre has found that regularly gathering feedback from clients is the key to continue building the community that helps clients thrive.  “We discovered that 80% of our clients wanted to get back working in the office and that they really valued support and flexibility at work,” said Laverty. “Then, we focused our efforts on how to best provide that flexibility to our clients.” 

Through making a point to listen, the Accelerator Centre found exactly what needs to focus on in terms of community efforts. Community building can be as simple as asking “How can I help?”

Conestoga College Gig Lab: Authenticity is the most powerful form of connection

The Conestoga College Gig Lab is Canada's first business incubator for freelancers, specifically tailored to address the business model needs of the growing number of freelance entrepreneurs.

Launched just a year ago, the program is designed to equip new and early-stage freelancers with the skills, mindsets and tools to flourish in the gig economy, now more popular than ever. Services can range from UI design to computer programming, graphic design, video editing, tutoring, digital marketing, and more.

The program runs across all Conestoga College’’s campuses, reaching across Kitchener, Brantford, Stratford and more – so the Gig Lab was set up very well to function virtually. 

Still, the pandemic has brought on new changes. “We found that COVID-19 has actually accelerated growth of the gig economy,” said Rose Mastnak, Director of the Conestoga College Entrepreneurship Collective. “Freelancing is no longer seen as a side hustle or a lifestyle choice- it’s a necessity.” 

The gig economy still primarily runs on word of mouth, so the process of networking and even marketing events at the Gig Lab had to change.

 “It was surprising to realize how much we relied on personal contact,” said Mastnak. “Instead of striking up a conversation with students while hanging posters around campus, we’ve now created a virtual ecosystem to encourage the cross-pollination of ideas through video calls, we use Trello to manage roadmaps, and ensure each member at the Lab has a consistent mentor alongside them so they never feel isolated.”

Mastnak’s lasting advice? Be authentic. “If you’re looking to build a strong community, your guiding principle should be authenticity,” said Mastnak. “It is the most powerful form of connection and differentiation. Be real about your struggles and your successes, and you will see a tight-knit community form.”

Community is adaptive

If one thing is clear, it’s that strong communities can adapt and evolve because they’re guided by authentic values rather than rules and have the flexibility to reflect the personalities and interests of their members.

So, as we continue to navigate, remember that just as easily as you can work from home, you can support local companies from home. Refer someone to your favourite local business, support through social media, donate blood, keep up with your community and continue to ask, “How can I help?”

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Photo by Brandon Marsh Photography.

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