How to create a sustainable entrepreneurial community
I’ve lived in Boulder for 15 years after living in Boston for a dozen. While I’ve spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley – both as an angel and venture capital investor – I’ve never lived there. While the firm I’m a partner in – Foundry Group – invests all over the United States, I regularly hear statements like, “The only place to start a tech company is in Silicon Valley.”
When David Cohen (CEO of TechStars) and I co-founded TechStars in Boulder, in 2006, we had two goals in mind. The first was to energize the early stage software/Internet entrepreneurial community in Boulder. The second was to get new first-time entrepreneurs involved more deeply in the Boulder entrepreneurial community. Four years later, we feel like we really understand how entrepreneurial communities grow and evolve.
First is the recognition that Silicon Valley is a special place. It’s futile to try to be the next Silicon Valley. Instead, recognize that Silicon Valley has strengths and weaknesses. Learn from the strengths and incorporate the ones that fit with your community while trying to avoid the weaknesses. Leverage the natural resources of your community and be the best, unique entrepreneurial community that you can be. Basically, play to your strengths.
Next, get ready for a 20-year journey. Most entrepreneurial communities ramp up over a three- to five-year period and then stall or collapse, with the early leaders getting bored, moving away, getting rich and changing their priorities, or just disengaging. It takes a core group of leaders – at least half a dozen – to commit to provide leadership over at least 20 years.
But these two things – playing to the strengths of your community and going on a 20-year journey – are table stakes. Without them, you won’t get anywhere, but you need more. In Boulder, we’ve figured out two critical things for creating a sustainable entrepreneurial community.
First, do things that engage the entire entrepreneurial community. Over the years I’ve been to many annual entrepreneurial award events and I’ve gone to endless cocktail parties for entrepreneurs. These are nice, but they get boring quickly. More importantly, these types of events don’t actually engage anyone in anything functional – you end up seeing the same old people and saying the same things to each other.
You need to take the next step and create real events that have entrepreneurs work together on a regular basis. Meetups and Open Coffee Club type events that occur on a regular basis are a great start. Hackathons, Startup Weekend, and Open Angel Forum events are the next level. Events at the local university, such as CU Boulder’s Silicon Flatirons programs, including Entrepreneurs Unplugged and Entrepreneurial Roundtables, involve the entrepreneurial community with students who are the future entrepreneurs in the community. And programs like TechStars – which engage the entire entrepreneurial community for 90 days a year – are the icing on the cake.
Next, you have to continually get fresh blood into the entrepreneurial ecosystem. It has to be easy for a new entrepreneur to emerge in your community and get connected with the experienced entrepreneurs and investors. If someone moves to your community, it has to be easy for him or her to engage. Experienced entrepreneurs and investors should want to work with new entrepreneurs and new entrepreneurs should have their minds blown when they move from their otherwise dull and disengaged community to your exciting, welcoming and engaging community.
We are in the midst of an entrepreneurial revival across the United States (and the world) right now. Hopefully we’ll learn from the past cycles and do things to keep things going this time around so that in 2025 there are numerous strong entrepreneurial communities throughout the United States. My partners and I at Foundry Group look forward to helping nurture many of these communities with investments and our engagement over the next 15 years.