I remember when the startup community literally came to my home town of Des Moines. It was chock full of phony events, phony people, and phony startups. Only after speaking with Brad Feld of Foundry Group do I have a better idea of why my town’s early attempts at creating a startup community failed.
Back in those days, the theme of a Des Moines startup event was to invite all the corporate folks who ‘had an idea’ but had no real fire to go do something about it. How many times do you hear someone say they had that idea before that entrepreneur created that company? Those are the people that came to Des Moines startup events. Today the high-and-mighty ego-driven startup folks have vanished, and the ones left standing are the quiet successes that were barely visible at the next overhyped cocktail hour. Our city wanted a startup community, but our first attempt was bad. What were we missing?
Brad Feld has a good bead on what happened. Also, co-founder of Techstars and an early investor in Fitbit, he believes startup communities are a requirement for a thriving city, so the appeal makes sense, “Every city in the world over 100,000 people needs to have a vibrant startup community as a part of the infrastructure as a part of the city.” But many cities jumped too quickly and fell on their face.
“Around 2010 we were starting to come out of the global financial crisis” Feld explained, “and you had people all over the world talking about how entrepreneurship was the way out of the global financial crisis—the importance of innovation in our economy.” But instead of creating real communities, they created fake ones.
As Universities, Governments, and Corporations scramble to emulate Silicone Valley, Feld explained they are inadvertently crushing the very startup community they want to grow. A thriving startup community needs to be made up of three important entities.
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Three Important Entities
Feld detailed the three necessary groups to drive a healthy, vibrant startup community. If you don’t have a vibrant startup community, or yours is ineffective, it’s likely because you are missing one of these entities.
- Leaders: These are individuals who are entrepreneurs who have real experience and success growing a profitable startup.
- Feeders: these are entities like Universities, Government entities, service organizations, non-profits, or companies that believe in vibrant startup communities.
- Instigators: These are individuals that may or may not be entrepreneurs. They typically work for the feeders.
The problem startup communities run into is when one of these entities is out of balance or entirely absent. In the case of Des Moines, there were no leaders. Just a lot of feeders and instigators. The result was a lot of hype built around a phony movement. Feld explained to me vibrant startup communities require a critical mass of leaders, typically between 5-10. But feeders can also kill the communities they want to help grow. These hierarchal institutions often start to control and thereby choke the very community they helped start.
How To Actually Grow A Startup Community
What does control look like? Using Universities as an example, rather than having all stuff happen on campus or being done on campus, Feld explains, “Turn the whole thing on its side. As the University, go out and engage WITH the startups.”
He told me of a great example that played out in Boulder, Colorado. Professors Phil Wiser and Brad Burnshawl in the law school of CU Boulder engaged and created their own startup community in 2007. Feld says CU Boulder is known for having some great startups come out of it, but it hadn’t really engaged the community before Wiser and Burnshawl.
Instead of controlling activities on campus, the two Professors simply went out and engaged the startup leaders themselves. They brought activities to the companies, not trying to pull people back to their own campus. And then they did what Universities do well. They helped the startups convene people.
They began regular free meetings for a wide variety of entrepreneurial events, driven by the startups themselves, and they invited their own students to learn to absorb and experience the collision of ideas. Suddenly the idea of entrepreneurial activity on CU Boulder and the city itself spiked and hasn’t stopped since.
If your city doesn’t have a startup community or wants to do it right you should probably pick up a copy of Feld’s new book The Startup Community Way. As an Feeder or Instigator, know your place is to support, not control. As a leader, keep the vision and make sure you are including as many people as possible, and resist those whose purse strings might control the event.