Why your startup ecosystem map, shouldn’t be a map

Assisting entrepreneurs navigate support available to them is a highly valuable initiative that solves a real problem. However, just because we are helping entrepreneurs “navigate” our startup ecosystem, doesn’t mean this information needs to be presented as a map.

Joe Allen

Joe Allen

November 4, 2021

The elements that make up a startup ecosystem are varied and diverse.

Once an ecosystem starts to build momentum, the number of stakeholders & initiatives can balloon quickly and keeping track of them becomes a challenge.

A fundamental element of a high functioning startup ecosystem is easy accessibility to information and resources that can support founders on their journey.

The majority of startup ecosystem mapping projects are designed to assist entrepreneurs navigate support available to them. There is no denying that this is a great idea and solves a real problem.

The issue is that just because we are “mapping” our startup ecosystem, doesn’t mean it needs to be presented as a map.

The two most common types of ecosystem maps I’ve seen are the traditional maps with markers or dots for points of interest and the subway style map.

I understand why we fall into this trap. After all, we're trying to help founders navigate the support and services available to them and we are mapping the ecosystem, so it should be presented as a map, right? Well, I don’t think so, here’s why.

Traditional map of startup ecosystem with dot points on key locations

Traditional maps
The main drawback of the traditional map is that it places too much emphasis on the physical location of ecosystem stakeholders.

While location data is useful for finding a coworking space within a short commute, it’s much less useful if a founder is looking for accelerator programs to join. Knowing which street corner the accelerator is located is unlikely to help a founder determine whether they apply.

These maps are difficult to navigate and don’t scale well. They often require the user to define a geographical area, select from a range of filters and then hover or click on individual points of interest to find out more. It’s ok when there are just a few dots to explore, but when there are hundreds or thousands - it gets overwhelming.

Subway style maps
This presentation format looks pretty funky and creates a nice bird’s-eye-view of the key ecosystem stakeholders. However it sacrifices functionality for the sake of aesthetics.

Because of the often limited space, each stakeholder is often represented as a dot (subway stop) and their organisation name. For those already “in the know”, this is ok as we can quickly recognise the names and understand what support they offer.

For someone new to entrepreneurship or your city, these names likely mean nothing.  

For the most part, these maps are static (PDF style documents) which requires a user to then do their own research on each and every organisation.

Occasionally they are digital / dynamic which is an improvement as it helps users to explore more information on the organisations with a few clicks.

Both of these map formats can be a good way of showing the vibrancy ecosystem. However if the intended purpose is to help founders navigate the ecosystem, you should look into other options.

While turning your ecosystem into a “map” might look visually interesting, it creates a poor user experience for people trying to discover support services and resources available to help them.

For those of you who have just released v1 or v3 of your ecosystem map, don’t despair.

There are many benefits to mapping your startup ecosystem, but it’s important to know the intended purpose and to think about the end user experience.

For me, when it comes to helping founders discover support and resources in an ecosystem, the mapping should stop at the information collection and categorisation phase, it shouldn’t dictate the presentation format.


Joe Allen

Written by

Joe Allen

Cofounder of Ramen Life & startup ecosystem builder. Working with leading organisations to create world-class startup ecosystems.

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