Vanessa McCrann

Q&A: How to Build an Online Community

By Margaret Hedderman & Vanessa McCrann

When Startup Colorado launched its online network for rural entrepreneurs in 2020, there was no roadmap for building a community that served business owners across industries as well as mentors, funders, and business support agents. Two years later, the Startup Colorado Network is growing at a rapid rate, providing resources and meaningful connections for rural entrepreneurs across the state. We sat down with our Community Engagement Manager Vanessa McCrann to learn about her experience building a meaningful online community. 

If you haven’t yet, click here to join the Startup Colorado Network for rural entrepreneurs and small business owners. 

Margaret Hedderman: The Startup Colorado Entrepreneur Network has members across a variety of industries and regions. How do you start conversations and create connections within such a diverse audience?

Vanessa McCrann: What’s special about our Network is the community vibe to give back. So many startups— regardless of their industry—face similar challenges: business planning, marketing, housing, how to scale, etc. When a Network member is brave enough to ask for help they get it. It’s rare that I can predict who will answer that call for help, but it’s more rare that someone doesn’t respond. I encourage our members, as often as I can, to be brave and ask for the help they need.

MH: How do you utilize virtual and in-person events to foster connections and build community in the Startup Colorado Entrepreneur Network?

VM: Before 2020, I was a Zoom virgin. Now I can see just how lucky we are to have made the move into a virtual space for gathering. We started doing our virtual networking event Lean Coffee in August of last year as an experiment. Would people show up? Would it be helpful? The answer so far is Yes & Yes. It’s exciting to see an entrepreneur in NE Colorado connecting with someone in SW Colorado who is working in a similar industry and learning from their experiences. They didn’t have to drive 9 hours to do it! It’s proving to be a quick & easy way to share resources, feel more connected, and have a different conversation every time.

That being said, virtual events cannot fully replace the in-person connection. Now that people are gathering more in person, I’m all about that. You’ll frequently find me hosting a Lean Coffee in person or attending another rural entrepreneurship event. We have a lot to offer on the Network that is on-demand, trying to save you time searching for useful information online, but nothing will ever replace the face-to-face support we can give when we gather in person. It’s exciting to see entrepreneurs meet in person when their first meeting was virtual. The mix of virtual & in-person events gives entrepreneurs exponentially more connections to make, while also allowing for deeper connections due to higher frequency.

MH: You’ve been managing the SUCO network for more than a year. What’s one thing that has surprised you about community building?

VM: I’d call it the abundance of the ripple effect. A Lean Coffee might gather 20 members; a mix of entrepreneurs, creatives, and business support agents. I encourage the group to continue the conversation after the event ends; emails are exchanged, LinkedIn profiles are shared, but I still have no idea the number of connections that are made. It has started to become more visible to me, as people refer to meeting at a Lean Coffee or finding each other in a Network search. 

I try to follow my instincts; one week I had met two entrepreneurs both living in Eagle, both pursuing truck-based businesses but in completely different industries. I sent one DM in the Network to connect them, it took mere minutes, and the connection that resulted is benefitting them and Eagle as their businesses launch and grow. Not all my DMs are that successful and it’s impossible to predict which ones will be.

MH: Building a network doesn’t automatically foster community. How do you create value and purpose for gathering in this virtual space?

VM: It takes a lot of grit to be an entrepreneur and to support entrepreneurs. But it also takes vulnerability; being able to admit where you need help or ask questions that reveal your weak points. Everyone here tries to take a more active role in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, but we all have different comfort zones. That’s why I think it’s important to have numerous ways for members to seek help: Solo, 1:1, and 1:Many.

Solo: Cruise the Resource Center; find on-demand business resources; articles, templates, podcasts, and educational courses. We are adding new resources on a regular basis. You can also explore the Network Blog for inspiration and how-to guides.

1:1: Utilize the People Search to find individuals to connect with; send them a DM or look at their profile to send them an email. Did you read a blog you loved on the Network? Reach out to the author directly to start a conversation.

1:Many: Participate in a Lean Coffee, or one of the many other events from our Community Partners that you can find in the Network Calendar. Post in a Network Group or the Live Feed to get your question in front of a wider audience.

MH: The Startup Colorado Entrepreneur Network will be two-years-old in November and recently surpassed the 1,000 member mark. What are you excited about as we approach Year 3?

VM: I’m excited for our community to get comfortable in this virtual space so we can continue to hone its value and purpose. Now that it’s been around a couple of years, I hope people are seeing the ways the Rural Entrepreneur Network is different from other social platforms. It’s not the hustle and bustle of Facebook where there’s too much noise and the algorithm controls what you see. It’s not the professional posturing of LinkedIn where it can be more difficult to be vulnerable. This is a safe place; and it’s unique because it’s built for rural communities. We are the stewards of this space, but it belongs to the community we serve. It will change and adapt alongside the community, which is hands down the best community I’ve ever been a part of. So I should also add, I’m excited to see if I can keep up with it!


To learn more about Startup Colorado’s work in support of rural entrepreneurs, check out our 2021 Annual Report.