Over the weekend, I spent about fifteen minutes answering questions for an article about the startup scene in the Southeast. There’s a part of me that still feels like I shouldn’t be doing this, speaking for an entire region about a phenomenon that I probably see a little differently than everyone else. But in my mind, anything I can do to bring more eyes to what is still a fledgling startup hub can only do good things.

So I typed a few hundred words, knowing that they’ll probably use 10-15 of them, went back and took out all the f-bombs, and hit send before I had a chance to think about it again.

This time in particular, something stuck with me after I sent the missive, which was along the lines of: “We’re doing great. Things are awesome. Been a fun three-year ride. Lots of pivots. We better not mess it up.” I felt like I had forgotten something. I went back and read what I had written, and realized I had hit send without dropping any startup names.

And I think it’s the first time I had ever done that.

Then I got sort of an epiphany. A startup scene, whether new or old or hypey or dormant or expanding or contracting, can never exist on its own or in a vacuum. It’s always, always, about the startups.

Shortly after that epiphany, which I kind of shrugged off and mentally filed away for a later date and a lesson learned, I got a LinkedIn request with a coffee invite. I like these because the person, although I don’t know them, took the time to fill in the little form. Plus I like free coffee. Anyway the coffee was to discuss how said potential LinkedIn buddy could support the Triangle startup scene.

So let me save a bunch of people the cost of a cup of coffee (although, don’t pat me on the back too hard, I like a medium regular, maybe $1.50 at the fanciest of coffee hangouts).

Having founded or worked for 10 startups in the Triangle, and having run ExitEvent for over two years now, I get this question a lot. I get it from investors, marketers and others who want to build relationships with startups, and potential employees who want to work for startups.

I tell them all pretty much the same thing. Go to an ExitEvent Social (we’ve got one coming up soon) and start talking to entrepreneurs if you want to be one, or join the network and use the features if you want to work with one (pro-tip, you should probably advertise).

But then that’s always followed by this advice:

Support the companies.

Put yourself in front of whichever startup you want to help and offer whatever talent it is that you have to said startup in order for them to grow, get customers, hire, and succeed.

You want money? Fine. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, the more we wean our startup culture off of expecting support for free, the better. But make sure you understand that these startups are likely broke — and that any money that goes to you is money that was earmarked for something else.

That includes any renumeration for employment or services.

So yeah, charge them, but give back 2x.

But keep this in mind. If you want to support the startup scene, support the companies.

ExitEvent exists to bring entrepreneurs together to support one another, face-to-face once a month and on the Internets in the inbetween. We don’t talk about how awesome the Triangle is, or how we can make it awesomer, nor do we commiserate on what the area or the ecosystem is lacking.

We talk about our companies, how we can make them better, faster, stronger, and more viable. Then we go away and work on that — usually alone and with a single-mindedness of purpose.

This is how you build a stronger startup scene. It’s one startup at a time and it’s generally boring and a lot of hard work. I always tell new potential employees at Automated Insights – “We come in and work really hard every day to make sure we can come back and work really hard tomorrow.”

That’s how you do it. So pick a startup (or two or three) and get in and get your hands dirty.