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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.
This week I’ll be kicking off the second day of Big Boulder with a talk about how the Boulder startup community has come to be what it is today. Big Boulder is a conference on social data held by our portfolio company Gnip.
Last year Chris Moody wrote a blog post about how companies should pursue thought leadership. To me, Big Boulder is the embodiment of this. Gnip believes that social data will change the world. To that end, they’ve brought together some of the biggest players from social media publishers including Facebook, Twitter, Klout, LinkedIn, StockTwits, Disqus, Tumblr and WordPress. They’ve put together a killer agenda talking about the many uses of social data and how publishers are thinking about it and what is enabling people to do.
Part of Boulder’s ability to grow as a startup community is our ability to bring high-level events to Boulder. To that end, Foundry Group has worked hard to bring and keep Defrag and Glue in Boulder. We’re excited to have Big Boulder as another high-profile event attracting people to our city. This affords more people to see everything Boulder has to offer a startup community and for our community to interact with attendees. I know that some Big Boulder speakers like Daniel Ha of Disqus are also sticking around to speak to the TechStars teams.
If you’ll be at the conference, please come and say hi.
I was in LA for the past three days hanging out at Oblong, meeting with a bunch of entrepreneurs I know, then spending time at MuckerLabs, giving a talk at SCVStartup, and finishing up my trip with a half day at LaunchPad LA followed by a dinner that LaunchPad LA and Mark Suster put on. Even though I still felt fried from my 50 mile run, I had a great time and I’m sure I fed off of the energy of all the people I spent time with.
At the dinner I gave a short talk on Startup Communities and then answered some questions. The first question was “what do I think of the phrase ‘Silicon Beach’ for the LA startup community.” I responded that I thought it was stupid. I hate Silicon Whatever. LA should be LA. When I was in downtown LA at Oblong I didn’t notice a beach. Before I could go on a rant about why you should not call things “Silicon Blah” I got a round of applause.
In the late 90′s a wave of “Silicon Blah” appeared. Silicon Alley, Silicon Mountain, Silicon Prairie, Silicon Slopes, Silicon Gulch, Silicon Bayou, and on, and on, and on. The rallying cry was “we are going to be the next Silicon Valley.” Whatever. At the time, my opinion as someone who disliked generic marketing was that this was the worst branding ever. I feel even more strongly about this today.
If you are going to create a startup community, build your own identity. People now talk about “New York” and “Boulder” as amazing startup communities. They don’t talk about Silicon Alley and Silicon Flatirons. Well – I suppose some do, but I don’t hear it anymore (or at least my brain doesn’t process it) – I just hear New York and Boulder. And when someone says “Do you like living in Denver?”, I say “I live and work in Boulder.” Sure – Denver has a startup community also, but it’s distinct from Boulder.
Even within a city like LA there are startup neighborhoods. I made this point when I spent a month in Cambridge, MA in January. Sure, you’ve got Cambridge, Boston, Waltham, and Hopkinton. But you’ve also got Kendall Square, Central Square, the Leather District, and the Innovation District. In New York you’ve got Union Square, and Brooklyn’s DUMBO. These are the “neighborhoods” – high density areas of entrepreneurs and their startups. And, in a small town like Boulder, you’ve got – well – Boulder.
LA is huge. The startup community in LA isn’t “Silicon Beach.” It’s downtown, Santa Monica, and I’m sure a few other neighborhoods that I don’t know the name of. Brand the neighborhoods locally so the entrepreneurs know where to go, since you want them clustered together. Then brand your city (LA) which should be an easy one. And dump the Silicon Blah.