The Surprising Reason Why Startup Founders Need to Share Their Knowledge

When you share your time, resources, and knowledge, it often does as much for you as it does for the person you’re sharing with.

Written by Joe Procopio
Published on Jan. 26, 2022
The Surprising Reason Why Startup Founders Need to Share Their Knowledge
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You already know that sharing is caring. It’s kind. It’s generous. We’re taught early on that it’s a good way to live your life. But when we learn about sharing, we’re taught the right thing for the wrong reasons. 

When you share your time, resources and knowledge, it often does as much for you as it does for the person you’re sharing with. This is even true in the often-cutthroat world of business, especially in the startup universe. 

But here’s the problem. No one ever tells you how to tap your sharing gains. Maybe that’s because — and this sounds callous — sharing is more than caring. It can actually be cunning. 

The benefits are indirect, so they’re almost impossible to quantify. But after 20 years of being an entrepreneur and building a second career out of sharing the knowledge I’ve gained from experience, I can tell you that over time all those indirect benefits definitely add up.

You just have to know how to maximize them.

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Most Entrepreneurs Are on an Island

Last week, my company hosted a group of entrepreneurship students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Three of us spoke, and after every speaker finished answering student questions, the group’s advisor would add at least one more: “Why did you locate in Durham?”

Because I went last, I had time to prepare the shortest possible answer. I’ll shorten it further here. 

Durham, N.C. and its often hyphenated neighbor, Raleigh, is not a startup mecca like Silicon Valley. Or New York. Or even — and I say this begrudgingly — Austin. Although it’s known as the heart of the Research Triangle along with Chapel Hill, when I started my first sole-founder startup 23 years ago, it was a startup desert. A void. A non-entity. 

Like a lot of people, I came to Raleigh-Durham to go to school here (go Wolfpack!). I joined my first startup here, and it was successful. So I was determined to stay here to do the next one, the first one on my own. After a few years on the roller coaster of success and struggle, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t have to do as much of the struggle part again. 

While I was at it, I wanted to make sure I could help as many entrepreneurs as possible avoid being on an entrepreneurial island.

The lack of structure, education, a decent network and entrepreneurial support are all huge, ugly, expensive problems. Just look at wasted VC dollars alone. It was a problem worth solving, so I started solving it with a startup called ExitEvent (which I exited in 2013) while I was also solving other problems like teaching computers how to write stories from data (Automated Insights, which we exited in 2015). 

Both of those journeys were much easier for me, by the way — not only because the area was becoming more tuned to serving a startup ecosystem thanks to big exits like Red Hat, iContact and Bronto — but also because ExitEvent taught me to crack the sharing code. 

It’s a code I’m doubling down on with Teaching Startup, another startup to help startups, well, start up.

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There Are Always Two Types of Founders

Of course, there are a million types of founders, and that’s one of the tenets of sharing that I’ve built into Teaching Startup. No two founders are alike, and it’s very rare that two of them are even trying to do the same thing — let alone in the same market. 

So what harm is there in sharing knowledge? At the end of the day, if you can execute better on my “trade secrets” than I can, you deserve to win. 

Well, not every entrepreneur thinks this way. 

Sure, one type of entrepreneur is happy to see the rising tide lifting all boats. In fact, I told the UNC students that what the Durham area lacked in resources, it more than made up for in effort. “How can I help?” has become our startup ecosystem’s motto. 

But again, this isn’t everyone. There’s another type: the lone wolf (go Wolfpack!). 

There are a few reasons why an entrepreneur isn’t into sharing, but almost all of them are grounded in a lack of something.​​​​​​

3 Reasons Founders Don't Share Their Knowledge

  1. A lack of time. (I get it.)
  2. A lack of trust. (It can happen.)
  3. A lack of giving a shit. (Rare, but I understand.) 

What I can’t condone is the one I see most often: A lack of confidence. 

As I did my rising-tide writing and speaking and ExitEvent and Teaching Startup, the most common reason I heard for entrepreneurs not sharing what they knew was because they didn’t think they knew anything that mattered. 

This is too common in our industry. The startup ecosystem tends to focus on the Stanford or Harvard grad (or dropout, as long as they got accepted), the billion-dollar CEO and the multi-billion-dollar VC. They groom their pedigrees at Google, Amazon, Tesla and Apple. 

Seriously, I can point to a dozen people right now and tell you that their “genius” move was already made for them because they had the right connections. But innovation, execution and invention don’t care about what school you went to. That’s the beauty of entrepreneurship: Anyone can do it. Everyone is invited. And if you’re taking it seriously, you probably have knowledge to give — which will get you knowledge in return.

So the next time someone tells you about their success or struggle with their entrepreneurial venture, ask them, “How can I help?” Having someone validate the worth of your ideas alone is enough payback to want to keep paying it forward.

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