Where Will Techstars Fit Into The Narrative of the Boulder Entrepreneurship History?

I was having a conversion on Friday with Brad Bernthal, an Associate Professor at Colorado Law School who directs the Silicon Flatirons Center’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. Brad and I – in addition to sharing a first name – are close friends. We were talking about the recent amazing Techstars Demo Day that we had just had in Boulder, and Brad – in a professorial tone – started hypothesizing about the importance of Techstars in the Boulder startup community. We went back and forth a little and I encouraged him to put it in writing so I could use it as fodder for a blog post. He did me one better, and wrote a guest post. It follows.

It is time to consider the following question:   When we look back, where will Techstars fit into the narrative of Boulder entrepreneurship history? 

This question will not keep many of the entrepreneurs in Boulder up late at night. Looking forward – not back – is the Boulder startup community’s natural disposition.  But sometimes we need to understand where things fit in and what they mean in the bigger scheme.  During Techstars 2013 Boulder Demo Day, led by Managing Director Luke Beatty – who skillfully took the baton from Nicole Glaros –  it occurred to me that reflection is now warranted.

Full disclosure:  I am a Techstars mentor as well as a CU Associate Professor of Law, which makes me a weirdly situated participant/observer, and I’m admittedly rooting for Boulder.  I am also not a historian and, from time to time, my prognostication skills  are suspect.  (Indeed I five years ago predicted the return of short shorts – 1980s style – in the NBA.  No players appear to have received that memo.)  With that, here some thoughts on how Techstars will be viewed in Boulder startup history.

Is it time to think about Techstars as historically significant in Colorado?  Yes, it is.  Techstars was one of the pioneers of the mentor-driven, time limited, entrepreneurial supercollider known as the Accelerator.  Techstars now belongs in the company of other Front Range pioneers who helped craft an industry, a list which includes natural foods leaders folks – who built companies such as Celestial Seasonings, Wild Oats, and Alfalfa’s – and early movers in the disk storage industry, most notably StorageTek and its progeny.   The first Techstars class matriculated in 2007.  Six years later,  TechStars is a global operation and, more fundamentally, the accelerator model is among the decade’s most important entrepreneurial innovations.  Irrespective of what happens to Techstars ahead, development of the accelerator as a global industry ensures that Techstars will remain historically relevant.

How important is Techstars’ economic impact? TBD, but traditional metrics won’t capture its benefits.  It is premature to say where Techstars will rank, in terms of regional economic impact, on a historic scale in Colorado’s Front Range.  Techstars is a magnet for creative class talent.  But it is not itself a huge employer relative to other area homegrown companies like Level 3 or StorageTek, or even rising companies like Zayo, Rally, LogRhythm, and SendGrid.  Techstars’ geographically dispersed structure shares the wealth across multiple startup communities spanning Seattle to London.  As a result, as Techstars scales up, its direct local economic benefits– unlike a Microsoft in Seattle, Google in Mountain View, or Dell in Austin – are realized in several locations, not primarily one.

My bet is that the geographically networked aspect of Techstars will emerge as its long term gift to Boulder.   Traditional metrics of employees and annual revenues won’t capture Techstars’ most important impacts.  In reputational benefits to Colorado, the near term impact is already outsized.  Long term, as Anno Saxenian explains, the value of  cross-regional connections – whereby one location is closely tied by personal relationships to other geographic startup locations – is a crucial advantage for 21st Century innovation hubs.  Boulder is comparatively not well situated to have large scale immigration ties a la Silicon Valley or New York.  But Techstars generates tremendous cross-regional connectivity for Boulder to other startups communities.  My prediction is that cultivation of cross-regional networks will be Techstars’ biggest economic impact.

What will TechStars mean?   Intergenerational connections in entrepreneurship.  Techstars as a movie script pitch:  company attract wicked smart next generation talent and pairs them with their elders.  Mr. Miyage / Daniel with mouse clicks.  Sparks ensue. Like many successes, this formula seems obvious in the rear view mirror.  But building trusted networks is hard work that takes a deft touch.  And the intergenerational network at the heart of Techstars sets a community norm that those who have success should pay it forward to the next generation.  This resonates as Techstars’ long term significance.

  • galestaf

    That was an enjoyable read. Gives me a greater appreciation for TechStars. I have no close ties to it but I watch and learn from a distance — from Illinois right now. I had the opportunity to meet up with Joe Scharf and also Jim Franklin last year, at SendGrid. Joe told me how he got involved with TechStars in the very early years of the program. Seems like Joe and others who have been involved with it feel grateful. I.e., in retrospect, they recognize it was and is a gift.

  • lunarmobiscuit

    Brad and Brad. The historic gift very well may be the global view of entrepreneurship vs. the more common single-community view. Few pieces of entrepreneurial infrastructure extend beyond a single city or region. TechStars does, both as a branded network of accelerators as well as one level deeper with a global pool of applicants.

    Some of us following in the TechStarts footprint hope to emulate that level of success, should we make it to our sixth anniversary.

  • http://www.samedaydr.com/ Rich Weisberger

    Great example of how two people with an idea and and the skill and courage to execute can impact so many people.

  • private_equity

    Another example of a brilliant idea brilliantly executed.

  • Sheila Lamont

    Great post! Connecting people with talent is always a good thing and you really hit the nail on the head regarding the contribution/success of Techstars in that area. (I am glad that the NBA didn’t get your fashion memo though!)

  • http://www.pointsandfigures.com/ pointsnfigures

    Agree. Interesting point on metrics. Too often, people try to apply traditional metrics to entrepreneurship. They don’t allocate points for trying, or how the culture changes. Of course, that’s messy and very hard to quantify.

    The landscape was pretty bare in Chicago when we co-founded HPA in April of 2007. Now there are things happening. It’s not enough to turn around the albatross of a city, but I am seeing entrepreneurship infect local universities (Chicago, NU, DePaul and U Illinois). Walk through River North and it is different.

    We have companies raising next rounds of capital and its possible to get a job here; even when a company folds up shop. That’s a good metric.

    And I should add, having TechStars replace Excelerate was a great thing for our local psyche. You guys have done a great job.

  • stevewfindlay

    Having recently joined Techstars as a mentor in London, I was really impressed by the quality of teams in the cohort (note: I work with other accelerators and spent 12 years in VC/PE). A sign that there is real momentum and strong brand recognition in the movement. Which is tracked back to Boulder…

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Super – thx for your help and engagement in London!