Brad Feld is one of the fixtures of the Boulder, CO startup community. He is a prolific investor, entrepreneur, writer, and runner. Startup Communities, subtitled “Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City” is both an account of how Boulder built a strong and vibrant startup community, and also a handbook for how your city (coughFortWaynecough) can do the same.
Your community can build a strong startup ecology. Entrepreneurs, not service providers or government entities, must lead the charge. The leaders must …
- give before they get
- work to impact the community, not control it
- be open to everyone and any idea
- be committed to the city for at least two decades
- stimulate many events and activities that build network
- laugh in the face of all the excuses (“we don’t have enough investment capital”, “we don’t have enough entrepreneurs”, “we don’t have …”)
- and just freaking keep on building and helping to build ventures.
The Boulder Thesis
Brad starts with what he calls his “Boulder Thesis”
- Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community.
- The leaders must have a long-term commitment.
- The startup community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it.
- The startup community must have continual activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.
Leaders, Feeders, and Patriarchs
He distinguishes between what he calls leaders and feeders. In startup community context, leaders are people who are actively engaged in the community, the entrepreneurs who are central to it – not the service providers who sell to or serve the entrepreneurs. Sometimes a service provider (in this case often a government entity or economic development entity) tries to become the leader and force a community to happen. When this happens, the entity often focuses on creating hierarchy and effecting top down control rather than building a network and creating bottom up impact.
Feeders also sometimes have their hands out. They want to get paid first, before they provide a service – to get before they give. I know that some of you are now thinking, “Hey, entrepreneurs charge – what’s wrong with that?”. Building a community is different than selling a product. When building a community you have to help new entrepreneurs get started. You have to give back some of your expertise. You have to have a mentorship mentality. You have to freely give your contacts. If everyone in the community waits for dollars to hit their palms before they give others some advice or contacts or time – then the whole community will freeze. As Brad says, this is not a zero sum game. Grow the community and we all benefit – it will come back to you.
Brad also distinguishes between leaders and patriarchs. You all know who he means by patriarchs. The old boys network, the proverbial “old white guys”, those who my generation called “the establishment” or “the man”. They are not necessarily entrepreneurial, they’ve already made their money, and they like to “approve” or control what others in the community do. Brad has two bits of advice. First, wait for them to die (OK, that’s a little creepy). Second, just ignore them. Do your venture anyway. Run with your idea anyway. You do not need their approval. This is important, so let me repeat. As much as patriarchs want you to believe you need their approval, you don’t!
Open and Inclusive
Your community will build organically if you let it. “Let it” is my (not Brad’s) code phrase for be open to ideas and people. Once you as a leader in your burgeoning startup community start filtering out certain ideas, certain entrepreneurs, other leaders than you, or certain feeders – you start limiting (or maybe even killing) your community. On the other hand, Brad suggests that you be welcoming to new and different ideas – “embrace weirdness”, as he says. Identify and cultivate new leaders (you don’t want to be a patriarch, do you?). When a new entrepreneur enters your world, take time to introduce them to 10 people they should know so they jump into the community quickly.
The Network Forms at Activities and Events
In Boulder the community has evolved a variety of …
- Meetups, like the New Tech Meetup, where entrepreneurs can meet and network.
- Coffee meetings, like Office Hours, where entrepreneurs can meet with mentors for advice.
- Conferences, where entrepreneurs meet and interact with people from their own community and from other communities.
- Startup Weekends, where entrepreneurs develop and try out venture ideas and get to know each other over a fast-paced weekend.
- Accelerators (namely TechStars), an activity where entrepreneurs can develop the next big venture over 90 days.
Fort Wayne’s Progress
Fort Wayne has been actively growing its startup community since about 2001. I start counting from the time that the Innovation Center started incubating clients in 2001. In 2008 it started its Student Venture Lab accelerator program and its BizWiz student entrepreneurs meetup. In 2012, some entrepreneurs – Graham Bredemeyer, Scott Bonami, Ray Angel, Ryan Imel (all prior participants in the Student Venture Lab), and I – started a new event (Vertical Leap) and a new activity (Founders).
Filtering this all through the advice from Brad’s book, I think we’ve made some very good decisions:
- Since 2001, the Innovation Center has started convening entrepreneurs, especially tech entrepreneurs.
- Since 2008, it conducted the BizWiz meetup for young entrepreneurs. That meetup was open to any young entrepreneur, regardless of their type or stage of venture, and it grew a body of entrepreneurs that are still active today. The Student Venture Lab gave students a TechStars-like accelerator experience.
- Graham, Scott, and Ray (joined later by me) started a new meetup, Vertical Leap. It works very well as a place where all entrepreneurs, would-be entrepreneurs, and service providers meet.
- When Ray, Ryan, and I co-founded Founders, a new co-working place was born, a place where entrepreneurs, creatives, and other independents could both work and meet. We felt strongly that Founders had to be open to all, to a diverse set of ideas, to a diverse set of especially new entrepreneurs. We also felt strongly that Founders needed to be free – which was one way of giving before getting.
At the same time, various clusters of entrepreneurs were starting here and there throughout Fort Wayne (SoCal, Wells Street, Broadway, Wayne and Calhoun, the arts community, non-profits, etc.). Sure, we have a long way to go, but we here in Fort Wayne are most definitely on our way to a cohesive, vibrant startup community!