If you visited Northwestern University pre-Covid, you’d be surprised by the burgeoning entrepreneurial energy on campus. Anchored by its 11,000 square foot space called The Garage, over 60 student hatched startups are working through the trials and tribulations of growing a business.
This was not always the scene at Northwestern.
In 2015, Melissa Kaufman, a former Googler and startup founder, came to Northwestern to start The Garage and spark a culture of entrepreneurship. In short order, The Garage became a notable institution on campus, where students finally had an environment to tap into their business ingenuity.
Melissa will tell you though that the goal of The Garage is not to incubate the next tech unicorn. Instead, it’s to create an environment of self-discovery where students can learn experientially what it takes to be an entrepreneur. It’s about learning how to persevere, understand customer desires, and finding ways to adapt and iterate, among many other skills you won’t find in a textbook. Melissa will be quick to tell you that they are building billion dollar people, not companies.
How then, do you take such a special environment, and recreate it online?
1. Acknowledge remote will be a game of trial and error
Much of the magic of The Garage stems from its community. If you step into the building during any part of the day or night, you’ll find teams working towards their startups goals.
Being in the close presence of other entrepreneurs creates a shared energy that everyone is in their respective journeys together. Here, entrepreneurship is normalized.
Add networking events, guest speakers, and family dinners among its members, and you have the ingredients for a special place.
The Garage then is a uniquely physical experience, and Melissa understood this from the get go. Going remote as a result of Covid would mean a totally new Garage experience. Moreover, like any business, it would take trial and error to get it right.
2. Create new online social guidelines
At The Garage, similar to strong office environments, the lean-over-the-shoulder knowledge sharing is strong. With everyone working towards common goals, it’s easy to ask a nearby team what marketing channels have been the most successful for them and why, or what lawyer they recommend to help manage contracts. It’s open-source startup knowledge. Everyone wants to help each other.
But how do you recreate this knowledge environment online? Per Melissa, there is no perfect solution. Instead, you have to adapt to the reality of being online and distributed.
In the case of many organizations, including The Garage, Slack has become the new digital 24/7 office. All workplace communication and interaction are anchored around Slack.
Unlike talking to a colleague next to you though where a response is quick, Melissa found though that many Slack messages might go unaddressed, or would have delayed response. This led to students avoiding sending messages due to fear of being ignored.
Now The Garage has set guidelines, that were in fact put together by a student, to message others on Slack when you see the green availability dot, and encourage students to respond in group chats if no one has responded yet.
While this may seem obvious to many, it’s not. When moving online, you can’t take anything for granted, and you need to set recommendations for all those tools you use, whether it be Slack or Zoom, to create the best possible online office space.
3. Scrap what doesn’t translate online
In person events are a key benefit of joining The Garage. From bringing in guest speakers like Katrina Lake to arranging meetings with Elon Musk’s mom, Mark Cuban, and Brian Cheskey, The Garage gives students special opportunities to learn from those with unique perspectives.
To replace these events, Melissa tried virtual Founder Talks. She soon found that they felt robotic. They reflected more of a classroom lecture as opposed to the vibrant, casual atmosphere typical of Garage events.
Not everything in person could be replicated online and these larger, virtual talks were scrapped.
4. Actively Puppeteer
Many students at The Garage will tell you how serendipitous conversations or events there have created defining moments in their business journey. At a Garage family dinner, for example, you might sit next to someone who will help you build your initial product concept.
Unsurprisingly, there is no natural way to recreate these moments online. Inspired by Google, where their micro kitchen concept was intentionally designed to create collisions to spark teamwork and ideation, Melissa decided to instrument these collisions herself online.
Now, she works with Garage members to understand where others in their community can help, and will actively facilitate those conversations and introductions. She actively nudges team leaders to talk to one another to help ensure mutual accountability. It’s more work, but these connections are invaluable.
5. Host online-first events
Prior to Covid, The Garage had planned to host an in-person business competition where $ 300,000 would be given away to the top teams. For young companies, it’s a big sum that can be game changing.
With the competition being pushed online, Melissa and her team decided to rethink the entire event to be online only. They set up individual tracks based on business segments via Zoom where winners would advance. While this was held virtually, it was not publicized. Everything culminated into a final professionally produced one hour livecast which was well attended, fun, and highly engaging.
Melissa and her team understood that keeping one’s attention online is very different than doing so in person. A three hour non-stop online event could be challenging. They focused the competition on what they believed their audience cared about the most, the finals and prize announcements, and made sure they knocked it out of the park. Moreover, it was accessible to anyone.
Recreating a special and unique in-person environment like The Garage is nearly impossible, no matter how hard you try.
However, there are silver linings. From instrumenting micro collisions, to setting communication guidelines, to making events that could be broadcast globally, these learnings will carry back to the physical world. When The Garage reopens, it will be better than ever.